Why Can't the Government be my Landlord?

Especially in the wake of the latest report confirming what we already know about the state of the housing crisis, it is time for the Labour Party to remember that it is a democratic socialist party and that the greed of the rentier class is merciless and insatiable. We saw proof of that when owners of student flats raised rents by $50/week, the exact amount the new government had raised the student allowance.

Labour must stop crowing about that and other payments, such as the winter fuel subsidy, that the rightwing can justifiably criticise as handouts. These payments may potentially alleviate some financial distress in the short term but they do nothing to redress ongoing inequality.

Labour has many promising policy initiatives around housing, but the policies around private tenancies are worrisome because they seem to depend on the goodwill of Mum and Pop landlords. For example, it is one thing to say that all rental properties must be insulated and have a heat source; how will this actually be enforced? (And with the pathetic state of much of our housing stock, will these measures even alleviate the problem of damp draughty houses?) The tenant will always be the weaker party, all the more so in the current climate where demand so outstrips supply.

Having been a tenant my whole life and having rented units in apartment complexes and high rises (from corporates in the US) and flats and detached houses from Mums and Pops in both the US and New Zealand, I believe I'm well-qualified to state that the Mum and Pop landlord is particularly problematic. Even the well-intentioned ones can die, divorce, or suddenly need housing for children returning from OE. Given the choice, especially now that our children are older, I would much rather be renting a unit in a corporate owned complex or high-rise where I would likely have:
security of tenure
on-site professional management
routine maintenance, including periodic repainting and replacement of carpeting
central heating and cooling
access to shared amenities, for example laundry facilities, a swimming pool, an exercise room, a rent-able party room

New Zealand evidently lacks such corporate-owned rental buildings and complexes. Despite Kiwis' love of investing in real estate, it seems to have always been done on a unit-by-unit basis instead of as a share in a going concern. So perhaps this is a prime opportunity for the government to get into this business and give Mum and Pop some much-needed competition. Where is it written that government can only provide housing for beneficiaries?

In fact, the line will already begin to blur; Housing Minister Twyford has stated he wants to take the stress off state housing tenants who worry that they will face eviction should their incomes barely rise above the threshold to qualify for this assistance.

Kiwis are well-versed (some might say thoroughly indoctrinated) in the advantages of home ownership but there are disadvantages and increasing challenges as well. Notably, employment has changed and there are fewer and fewer workers who can expect to be steadily employed on a stable salary that enables them to confidently commit to a mortgage. The flexibility to move, to downsize, and to upsize is one advantage to renting that cannot be overlooked.

While I don't quibble with Labour's prioritisation of the need for housing stability for children, it often seems Labour has overlooked that two-thirds of Kiwi households don't contain children. Three examples are flatting Millennials trying to pay off their student loans, middle-aged divorcees who may have fallen off the property ladder during that process, and elderly people whose lifetime assets don't allow them to buy into the overly flash retirement communities sprouting up (three bedroom luxury units with happy hour four times a week!!!) The promise of eventual home ownership is perhaps a message that falls flat in light of these groups' housing, employment, and life challenges in the present. Wouldn't it be marvellous for the government to also provide decent housing for those who can manage to pay market rate, giving them the advantages listed above, and allowing some revenue to flow toward government coffers for once, instead of always enriching the people who need it least?

Finally, it would be a step toward communitarianism if we could evolve past our fixation on private property, past looking down on those who either haven't achieved this or who don't see it as their raison d'être. As Lewis H. Morgan, American anthropologist and contemporary of Marx and Engels, eloquently suggested:

A mere property career is not the final destiny of mankind, if progress is to be the law of the future as it has been of the past. The time which has passed away since civilization began is but a fragment of the past duration of man’s existence; and but a fragment of the ages yet to come. The dissolution of society bids fair to become the termination of a career of which property is the end and aim; because such a career contains the elements of self-destruction.

Labour and other parties on the left need to start speaking the 21st century version of this sort of language
(here is an example with analysis) if we are ever to break free of our sickening orbit around Planet Capitalism characterised by National deprivations followed by Labour's obliging course corrections. A better world beckons.

Photo: Screen Shot from Google Maps. Inside the ellipse is the apartment complex where I spent my first eleven years. I was free to roam all the green space within those streets. It was the 1970s!


An American expat living in Auckland since 2000, Julia Schiller is a graduate of Washington University in St Louis, a former ESOL teacher, a Labour Party volunteer, and a self-employed entrepreneur.