Phil Twyford’s first speech as Minister of Housing was radical. He is seeking to restore the concept of state housing to the agenda. Under the reign of neo-liberalism it has become a disreputable idea – for housing has become solely defined as a capital investment by the individual. Often that individual is attached to a family, but that only means the family is the investor. The individual or family as investor can own more than one house. And of course, investors can be companies or foreign nationals.
At the heart of this ideology and therefore at the heart of our supplying of housing, is selfishness. It is considered that if everyone behaves as selfishly as possible then social good results. There will be some who either don’t behave sufficiently selfishly or simply don’t behave and they require a safety net which has led to the oxymoron, ‘social housing’. It’s an oxymoron because all housing is social. Houses are places for people to live their lives in: sleep, eat, make love, have children, bring up their children, play, entertain etc. = all social activities. But Maggie Thatcher’s statement that there is no such thing as society, continues to haunt, for, in this scenario, society exists only for the failures and therefore ‘social housing’ is required as a charitable intervention.
Twyford talked of the state housing programme of the first, 1935 Labour Government and the role it played in the housing crisis of that time, a crisis compounded by the depression. Much inner city housing was slum-like and working class families were pleased to move to a modern home with a section, in a modern suburb with planned facilities. The place I lived in for a period in Wellington, Holloway Road, where the houses were small and damp, supplied many of the first state housing occupants in the Hutt Valley.
Yet this socialist intervention went against the grain of the home ’ownership’ impulse, buried deep in the Pakeha psyche and which tracks back to the settlers’ desire to own some land, to be for evermore independent of lords and bosses. There’s a 1935 United/Reform coalition (soon to be the National Party) election poster showing a communist monster about to clutch at the family home. Rumour had it that the communists would also take your wife (that other private possession) into some state-run brothel of free love.
But with the state housing intervention there then existed two models:
(a) the home can be provided by the state as representative of the collective of citizens and the individual occupier pays rent to the collective; or
(b) the home is a significant investment (via a mortgage) for the individual and a means to acquire private capital (it is important for the investor that the value of the home increases).
The problem with the former can be the bureaucracy of state control and a lack of individual incentive for improvement of the property; the problem with the latter is the expansionary nature of capitalism, the inequality and instability it produces and the marginalising of increasing numbers of the population.
When I was a kid in Palmerston North in the 1950s, the two models co- existed in a state of acceptable tension. The norm was for couples to get engaged and put a deposit on a section. When they got married they rented for a while and began building their house, often doing some of the labouring work themselves. They eventually moved in and the wife got pregnant and usually stopped work. There was a cheap state loan up to a certain limit (State Advances I think it was called) and people had to get a second mortgage from a bank. The second mortgage often caused some stress, for the interest was higher and it had to be paid back earlier (the second mortgage almost caused us to default when the due date for payment arrived, but a grandparent’s will saved the day). There were state houses dotted through the town and some were sold to the occupier, who could on sell them – we ended up in an ex state house. There were people with bigger houses than ours but they didn’t flaunt them and a pretence of equality existed. My brother’s wife’s family were Maori and they rented, which was unusual. There was the odd drifter who might be considered homeless and there were a couple of boarding houses in town, but no one lived in their car and the whole seemed to work pretty well. Investing in the ‘housing market’ was not a tangible idea.
Now, after a period of thirty years, Twyford is trying to bring back this mix. Of course there are other steps along the spectrum of state versus private. There is council housing which still exists in many places, mainly in the form of pensioner flats. Housing co-operatives can be a viable option (there are many in the US and Canada), with all sorts of permutations possible: collective ownership of the land with private ownership of structures; or collective ownership of both land and house but with the ability to realise individual equity when someone leaves the co-op. I would encourage Twyford to explore these options as well.
Housing Co-op, Toronto
Ultimately, this is about relationships, relationship of the citizen to the state, relationships to land and buildings, and relationships between citizens. The difficulty will be that relationships of collectivism have taken such a battering over the last thirty years, that Twyford’s task will be very demanding indeed.