3 July 2015
Sometimes politics can be a frustrating business.
The debate about social housing and the possible interest of a Queensland social service provider in purchasing around 400 Housing New Zealand properties is one such example. All sorts of outlandish claims are being made, most with little relation to reality.
I start from the perspective that the state has a basic obligation to ensure its people have the opportunity of being adequately housed. In New Zealand we accept that as a national responsibility, whereas in other countries it is more likely to be a local government function. Be all that as it may, the concept of State Housing dates from the time of the first Labour Government, although Seddon toyed with the idea almost 40 years earlier, and successive governments have maintained that legacy. Only a brave – or foolhardy – government would tamper with that fabric.
Now here is where the argument becomes a little different. The current government is looking at how it can uphold its housing obligations, in a way that is appropriate to the circumstances of our times. Much of the State Housing stock is old and run down, over many years, and arguably, given the way our cities have developed, not necessarily located in the best places. To upgrade and modify it would cost a small fortune, money the government simple does not have, and at the end of the day would leave us with about the same level of public housing stock as we have now, with no great impact on reducing the demand for social housing.
So, it has decided to sell a significant proportion of its old stock to non-government providers to upgrade and manage for clients, while using the proceeds to develop additional modern stock to meet needs. That strikes me as a pragmatic approach, smacking of the type of innovation New Zealanders generally like to be proud of.
Now, of course, it is early days, and a little too soon to become focused on particular potential buyers, but the prospect of sales to overseas operators should be neither surprising, nor concerning. After all, the properties cannot be shifted from New Zealand, and the government will be able to impose whatever conditions of sale it chooses to ensure that its objectives are met. So a case can be made for at least considering the idea further.
My frustration arises when I hear blanket opposition expressed to the very idea on the most spurious of grounds – like privatising the stock, yet successive Labour and National governments have been selling off “surplus” state houses for years. What I have not heard are too many credible suggestions of how our public housing shortfall might otherwise be met. During a recent television debate, a particularly ignorant and boorish Labour MP claimed the answer was for the government to just build 100,000 more houses. When I challenged her as to how they would pay for them, her response was to call out to one of her colleagues in the audience, “how are we going to pay for them?” which shows the shallowness of her position.
I doubt the government's proposals are flawless, and a lot of work needs to be done yet, but the legislation implementing the policy will go to a select committee where it will no doubt be thoroughly examined and tidied up.
However, I have no doubt that the challenge to provide affordable housing requires bold and innovative solutions and that the approach is one worth considering further. A roof over one’s head is after all, a roof over one’s head, no matter how it is provided.