set of six panels in black and red depictng: a damp house, a person with a nebuliser mask, housing in a poor state of repair, a car packed with personal belongings, , a hand with medication

How can we fix housing?

Introduction

The content of our Housing Programme was informed by attendees of two public hui in Auckland and Wellington in October 2018, as well as the work of those organising for renters rights and public housing. This is the first of six sections analysing the state of class warfare in Aotearoa, and laying out a plan for how we can build a movement for liberation and socialism.

Please see our sections on Work and Welfare and Justice.


Our Principles:

  • All homes in Aotearoa are built on unceded Māori land.

    Maori communities have been devastated by struggles around housing, and must have collective self-determination over all housing solutions.
  • Housing should be for our needs, not their profits.

    The cause of all housing problems is class – as landlords and banks have fundamentally different interests to tenants and most mortgagees.
  • Everyone deserves safe, livable, long-term housing.

    We all have the right to a home, regardless of our income, migration status, or past.
  • Housing should be integrated into sustainable, democratic communities.

    All new housing must be understood as part of a larger natural world, and built in ways that are sustainable for both the communities who will live there, and the land on which it is built.
  • All housing should be accessible.

    People with disabilities struggle to find housing in a private market that ignores their needs for improved accessibility. All new housing should be built to be accessible, while existing housing should be modified to be as accessible as possible.
  • We must stand against gentrification and austerity in housing.

    Gentrification – the process by which poorer communities are priced out of areas by developers eager to cater to the tastes of the rich – is one of the leading causes of housing crises. It goes hand in hand with austerity: the state-sanctioned selling-off of state housing and public land.
  • We must move away from being the owners of homes, and instead be their caretakers.

    Centuries of commodification, land theft and forced relocation has given us a warped cultural understanding of homeownership. A cultural shift is required in order to mend our relationship to our homes, neighborhoods, and cities.

Programme

The state of housing in Aotearoa.

There is a housing crisis in Aotearoa. Rising rents take up massive portions of ordinary people’s incomes, and living conditions are deteriorating. People are getting sick and dying from poor quality, expensive housing. Between 2000 and 2015, housing-related illnesses killed 1180 children1, and our homes have been growing colder every year since 20082. Instead of providing people with homes, the housing market provides uncertainty, stress, illness, and exploitation. We cannot continue to provide housing this way.

At the moment, no political party has a plan to get us out of this mess. We need solutions that get to the heart of the problem: the fundamentally different interests of landlords, banks, mortgagees, and tenants.The housing crisis is not just one of investments and rising costs in recent years – it has its roots in the last twenty years of workers being priced out of homeownership, and the accompanying rise in living costs. In some places, the number of people stuck in rental properties has increased by as much as 182%3, while hugely increased rents have long since outstripped wage-growth and inflation4. According to the IMF, we have one of the world’s highest disparities between income and rent5. We have known this was a problem for decades, but it was only called a housing crisis once the richest New Zealanders started to feel the pinch.

So with all the talk of a recent crisis, it is easy to forget the ongoing crisis that has gone on every day since capitalism reached our shores. Our homes have always been controlled by a class of people who make money out of barely meeting our basic needs; a class of people who didn’t build our homes; a class of people who are rapidly running out of reasons to justify their existence. We have a few demands to make of them.

We need an immediate cap on rents, and rent controls linked to income. 

The most immediate concern for most tenants is rising rents forcing us out of homes we could previously afford. Rental costs will increase so long as housing costs do, and we need simple controls to be put in place to curb the most immediate consequences of the housing crisis. Tying these controls to income is the most efficient way to immediately provide renters in the most danger of losing their homes with a greater degree of security. While rental controls have been attempted with some success overseas, notably in Germany6, state regulation can reduce the short-term incentive for landlords to change tenants when rental increases beyond inflation are controlled.

That being said, rent controls alone cannot change the fundamentally exploitative nature of landlording. Not only do landlords often respond to rent controls through reduced investment in construction; historically rent controls have been undermined and destroyed by capitalist governments wherever workers have fought for them to be introduced, as was the case with the United Kingdom’s rent control scheme from 1915 to 19807. Ultimately, when landlords remain in power – in spite of restrictions we may place upon them – they will find a way to bend rules and find loopholes through which to exploit workers. Rent controls can only ever be one part of a broader effort to put power back in the hands of people, who until now have been lorded over (literally) by a class of people who contribute nothing, save for whatever meagre maintenance the state forces them to perform.

We must massively expand public housing.

The only way to permanently end the housing crisis is to reverse decades of austerity measures in state housing, and invest meaningfully in construction on a mass scale. The corporatised model of Housing NZ has proven itself incapable of coming close to meeting the needs of a rapidly expanding homeless population. Since September 2016, the number of people waiting to be housed has more than doubled, from 4,602 families registered to roughly ten thousand as we enter 20198. In response to this rapidly accelerating need, Housing NZ has only made concrete plans to acquire 1,301 new homes9, of which only a few are new builds that could ease overall housing demand rather than simply shift the burden from state to private renters.

But why such an inadequate response from the state’s primary means of ending the crisis? Part of it is a genuine inability for the state to provide for us after decades of austerity, and part of it is because landlords and banks actively oppose the creation of cheap, public housing, as it reduces housing costs by easing demand. This means the flow-on effects of the housing crisis (increased rents and larger mortgages) would no longer benefit landlords and banks to the same degree. To meaningfully fight homelessness and high rents, we have to oppose the people who would rather see us homeless than see affordable housing on the market.

We must democratise housing and empower tenants. 

So long as landlords and banks have significant leverage over us, there is no reform, regulation, or protection we can win that cannot be undermined, overruled, or pushed aside before it can have a meaningful impact. The only way to permanently enforce a better system of housing people is to organise with one another to create democratic structures and counter the coercive power of exploiters. This can be pursued in both public and private housing through the creation of local boards to control state housing, and similar structures such as co-ops within private housing. We are also able to introduce a degree of democracy to private renters through the creation of tenants’ unions.

State housing is a good place to start when looking for systems to transform through socialist democracy. Rather than a corporatised institution thoroughly disconnected from the real needs of Aotearoa’s people, we must place state housing under the control of democratically elected local boards, including hapῡ boards for tangata whenua. Local boards that represent the interests of tenants would be able to offer resistance to attempts to sell off state housing, and could more efficiently meet housing needs by using local knowledge and resources. While state housing must be more effectively funded overall, that funding also needs to be used to empower local communities, who are able to more accurately assess local needs.

Unlike state housing, democratising private housing means struggling against many diffuse and competing interests rather than simply pressuring the state. One way to democratise private housing is to create housing co-ops, as have been started in many countries around the world. Cooperatives have taken many forms, some more democratic than private leasing, but more often than not, they are dominated by majority shareholders, are still subject to mortgages, or their share-prices float at market rates. A cooperative model in Aotearoa would have to take great care not to replicate the issues that led to the housing crisis, as ultimately, cooperatives still exist within a network of private housing, and can still have negative effects on renters, assist gentrification, or raise overall housing costs.

We must assist the formation of tenants’ unions.

Finally, rather than only trying to create separate democratic structures away from landlords, we must also create democratic structures to limit their influence over our lives. A tenant’s union would be able to actively oppose landlords’ interests by building links between renters. Not only could such a union help people know their rights and provide legal assistance; other tactics become a possibility once many of us are committed to standing in solidarity with one another; such as mass rent strikes and devictions (community resistance to eviction attempts).

Rent strikes were last attempted in the 1990s among 60 state housing tenants10, and historically private rental strikes have been successful despite their illegality11. With the collective power of a tenants’ union, illegal strikes should not be discounted as a possibility, since only so many of us can be threatened with eviction before our collective power is made clear.

We must oppose landlords on every level.

The measures taken by the state to counteract the worst aspects of the housing crisis have been weakened by the influence landlords hold over government on both the national and local level. They are overrepresented in local government, and have used this power to veto state housing development in high-end suburbs. They enjoy easy access to credit and tax breaks as it keeps property investment at a high rate, but why are these incentives still in place when they lead to higher housing prices? The key lies in understanding how the housing crisis is not a mistake, but a logical response by the market to the problems caused by stagnant wages. In other words, housing investment must increase since workers are not being paid enough to keep the economy going with their spending, and so we are punished further with a vast transfer of wealth towards the very people responsible for reducing wages.

While the only logical conclusion to the crisis will be a massive crash in investments, leading to many of the smaller landlords and new homebuyers selling off their properties, we have to remember who causes these cycles of crisis. Crisis is all too often presented as an unfortunate mistake, but in truth it suits the interests of landlords to prolong it.

While the only long-term solution to solving this endless cycle of gouging is the creation of democratic structures to oppose and depose landlords, we must also demand limits on the powers and privileges of their class. Taxes on unused houses to discourage speculation, capital gains and wealth taxes to reduce inequality, and limits on the number of properties that can be owned are all ways that landlords can be restrained, provided that the proceeds are used to build workers’ power. We must also put a stop to the shameless cooperation between regional councils and housing developers with the intent of evicting public housing tenants, as we saw in the case of the Tamaki Regeneration Company and the Auckland Council12.

Open opposition to the interests of landlords also raises some potential pitfalls for us, we must be careful not to allow our anger to be redirected towards “slumlords,” as this term has been weaponised by the landlords to justify gentrification by stoking fears of low-quality housing. Similarly there are dangers inherent in targeting specific landlords, as the ruling classes excel at offering up sacrificial lambs to distract from structural problems.

We must create sustainable communities.

We already know many techniques for making environmentally friendly houses; integrating solar panels and insulation into the building process, making use of new construction techniques like structural insulated panels, and using more energy efficient heating systems like Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR). The real barriers to making carbon neutral or negative housing is the inability for the current system to provide this on a mass scale, and the fact that most technocratic solutions aren’t actually that sustainable, once we get beyond the sales pitch.

NZ has a huge number of companies offering sustainable building solutions, but in an overall housing situation where nowhere near enough homes are being built, having stratified building solutions (solutions only available to the wealthy) can only deepen the crisis. Furthermore, even well-intentioned environmentalists have taken on much of the same language as these companies, promoting the efficiencies offered to consumers and businesses, and the miraculous world-saving qualities of sustainable materials.

However technocratic solutions, such as improved materials and efficiencies, can also compound issues. Far too often, “sustainable” solutions fail to understand, or deliberately ignore, global supply chains and economies of scale. To think of energy consumption and production, or heat and energy retention, only on the scale of individual homes would be to invite major inefficiencies, and in some cases, even perpetuate global and economic injustices.

One example of this is solar panels, or photovoltaic cells, which are an integral part of most green-technocratic solutions. This is despite the fact that solar panels are actually notoriously inefficient, in that conventional panels require highly refined crystalline silicon, and the rare earth boron13, which combined with the high cost of installation, panel support, wiring, DC to AC converters, and the fact that cells have a limited lifespan14, means that producing solar energy on the limited scale of individual houses (with their own inefficiencies such as whether they face the sun), with individuals footing the costs, is possibly the worst way to produce energy. It simply appears efficient to the end-user, as once installed, they might have to pay less to power companies. This is not a good metric for overall efficiency on a global scale.

There is also an internationalist component to these issues. With regards to low-tech solar cells, Aotearoa produces no high-grade crystalline silicon, and it is quite likely that a socialist Aotearoa would no longer receive shipments of naturally-occuring boron (which is monopolised by deeply reactionary states). High-tech solutions to inefficiencies, such as thin-film solar cells, organic polymer cells, or a dispersed grid of household lithium-ion batteries, all require their own set of materials, namely rare-earths like cadmium, oil products and indium, and lithium respectively, which have thus far only been available in commercially-viable quantities due to the processes of extractive, imperialist capitalism and the destabilisation and oppression of the countries which produce these minerals15.

There are other solutions to these issues of sustainability, but many have never been effectively commodified in a package that is cost-effective to individual consumers, and are therefore severely undeveloped. Technology takes on the character of the economic system which created it, and therefore, many of the solutions that might extend beyond individual homes and individual nations are not well understood. One example of this is kinetic batteries, as opposed to lithium-ion batteries, which require no exotic minerals nor high-tech manufacturing, but are simply so huge that no individual consumer would find them cost-effective. However as a public means of energy retention, which can be installed through collective effort for the sake of collective benefits, such solutions become much more viable16.

Only a well-organised drive to create affordable, environmentally sound housing, as well as seriously committing to renovating existing heat-inefficient housing can solve this issue, and take environmental housing solutions out of the realm of personal consumer choices, and into the realm of mass action.

We must end homelessness.

In Aotearoa, as in most developed nations, homelessness is seen as a consequence of drug abuse, debt or other individual issues. In truth, homelessness is the cause of most of the issues we ascribe to personal failings, and the overseas experience of the Housing First programme demonstrates this. When given homes as the first part of an integrated rehabilitation programme, participants in the program showed a much lower chance of returning to the street. As a result, countries which have adopted housing first are the only nations with a decreasing rate of homelessness in their region17.

While an identical program isn’t realistic in Aotearoa in the short-term, since housing shortages must first be resolved, we must see how damaging moralistic attitudes around homelessness and drug abuse are. In recent years, Housing NZ tenants have found themselves back on the street after their homes tested positive for methamphetamine. Between July 2013 and May 2018, 5000 state housing tenants were tested for meth, with 800 ultimately being evicted and 275 condemned to a year of homelessness, only for it to later be revealed that these tests were faulty18. That our state housing corporation was able to weaponise homelessness to punish tenants for the sake of a moral panic is shameful, even more so when we consider that the overall health and repair costs of meth amount to about 10% of those of mouldy homes19 20.

There are thousands of people sleeping rough in a country that calls itself developed, and we must call this what it is: a disaster. Not only should all socialists be committing to aiding homeless populations in the here and now through public assistance programmes, on a government level we should demand to see a stronger commitment to ending homelessness. Experience abroad has shown that drastically reducing homelessness is possible even under a capitalist system, even if its abolition will only be possible with an end to the commodification of housing.

We must erase all rental debts.

If we can’t afford our rent – especially in a country with one of the highest rent-to-income ratios in the world – it demonstrates the failing of our economic system more so than any personal failing of those on low incomes. Still, many of us find that living only becomes more expensive the less money you make. Just as the owners of capital find that its mere existence garners them more capital, workers in debt find themselves in ever more debt for the sake of simple living costs.

Part of fundamentally challenging the landlord class is to call into question their ability to permanently ruin the lives of their tenants through ruined credit ratings and blacklisting. The bizarre practice of Housing NZ tenants having to go to Work & Income to get money from the state to pay off debt to the state must end, as must predatory home loans.

We must democratise urban planning.

Most of us have no say in shaping our communities. Private industry and landowners can reshape the urban landscape in any way they like, and our cities often take the shape of whatever the richest homeowners in the area want to see. Arbitrary and elitist tendencies dominate urban planning in residential areas, and the highest concern of urban planners in the current era is the supposed needs of motorists, rather than commuters and communities as a whole.

Urban planning must be restructured to incorporate democratic community consultation founded in people’s needs in their local area. Access to basic services and amenities shouldn’t just be possible in areas where it can assist gentrification; all of our communities deserve well-designed and functional public spaces. Residential areas can be revitalised, not just as sprawling expanses of isolated homes, but denser areas centred around accessible and inviting public spaces. Housing is not just about packing houses into a designated square of Aotearoa, but also about the parks, gardens, and marketplaces between those houses. Public transport must also be integrated into housing planning, as priorities become recentered on the convenience of workers, rather than their bosses.

Aspects of this philosophy were present among urban planners in Aotearoa prior to the 1950s, which for all their faults, led the world in innovative solutions for creating public space and conservation zones, integrated within many major towns and cities in Aotearoa. This can be seen in the city belts of public parkland, satellite cities, the many public sports areas, and garden spaces, all of which are largely the products of this era and are generally well-regarded by the people who live amongst them21. However the origins of this more enlightened style of urban planning in Aotearoa certainly didn’t arise out of a sense of common humanity: at the first town planning conference in the country, then-Minister of Internal Affairs George Russell laid out a clear racialised and fascistic justification for Aotearoa’s garden cities: Russell said that low-density, garden-oriented suburbs created conditions for the “healthy rearing” of the white race, and that revolution would be averted by giving working class people individual homes with “delightful gardens.”22 That being said, Russell was right in a way: the urban planning of Aotearoa was considered a noble and well-regarded process among Pākehā up until the time that “garden suburbs” were torn up to make way for motorways by the 1960s.

To revolutionise the layout of Aotearoa’s cities is therefore not something that can be achieved overnight, as urban planning is by its very nature a process that takes centuries, in which the stated goals of the planners are often forgotten, or are undermined by future developments. To understand how our cities became this unliveable in the first place, especially those which are thoroughly hostile to pedestrians and non-motorists, such as Auckland, is to understand how the history of urban planning began as an extension of political and ethical thought, later to devolve into a series of equations about what constitutes the best vehicular interchange. Because of the interests of capital, particularly automotive manufacturers, a total shift in the paradigm of urban planning began in the early 20th century, which led to the widespread scrapping of tramlines and other space-efficient public transport, the widening of roads, and the total reorientation of society around the most energy and space-inefficient mode of transport: the car.

This general atomisation of the commute, first by splitting commuters into isolated vehicles, and then into isolated communities (urban sprawl), is a process that has always had an intensely political dimension. For many decades prior to George Russell’s remarks about Aotearoa’s garden suburb initiative, capitalists understood that densely-populated areas with communal living areas are those which are ripe for revolution, as people are forced to assess the conditions of themselves and their neighbors in a public space. This was recognised as far back as the 1870s, when urban planners began massively widening roads to a new standard (the boulevarde) in direct response to the attempted revolution of the Paris Commune (1871). While this was a conscious process, other shifts in urban planning happened for less transparently political reasons: the shift to cars happened mainly because they were a much more marketable commodity, precisely because they couldn’t fit many individual commuters, effectively creating their own demand once public transport networks were decimated.

Finally, inefficient urban planning became the norm because of a particular quirk of human psychology and statistical analysis. This is the phenomenon of induced demand: the tendency for systems which seem to us to be able to facilitate more flow, to facilitate far less in practice: It seems logical to most of us that to increase the width of roads would decrease traffic, but actually the opposite is true, as this simply increases the demand for cars. Since humans tend to overestimate the efficiency of systems with supposedly increased capacity, we respond by pushing more cars into these areas than their capacity will allow23.

The logical solution then, is why not narrow the roads? This has actually been done with great success in many cities where urban planners were confronted with a many-laned road which seemed to block-up more often than fewer-laned roads24. However in order for this solution to become more than just a technocratic one – which might reduce traffic but not actually increase the ease with which commuters can get to work – massively increased public transportation would be required. Automotive manufacturers are aware that public knowledge of induced demand runs counter to their interests, and the most frequent critics of this well-documented phenomenon tend to be libertarian or rightist publications25, or sometimes Automotive capitalists themselves26. Governments whose advisors undoubtedly know better, such as the current Labour Government which recently invested several billion dollars into road infrastructure27, continue to expand roads, as it tends to win votes from commuters, and sometimes results in favourable investment from manufacturers.

To reverse some of the worst mistakes of the past century of urban planning in Aotearoa would require some occasionally counterintuitive solutions, as well as breaking the stranglehold of motor-vehicles over urban planning as a discipline. Therefore, we propose four main changes to urban planning of the future:

  • A total reorientation towards improved public transport centered on combining inviting public spaces with new transport hubs, to make up for shortfalls in net commuter traffic resulting from other focuses.
  • Transitioning from low-density sprawl to high or mixed density housing, which improves access to services by improving coverage, creates opportunities for shared public spaces, and shortens commutes.
  • The narrowing of motorways, and the general discouragement of personal cars and car-centred planning, wherever public transport has been improved.
  • The creation of a democratic component to urban planning: as it currently stands, communities must be consulted but their input can be ignored. Had democratic measures been in place during the proposal of motorways in the 1950s, when public opposition to motorways was high, we might not have experienced the worst aspects of late 20th century urban planning28.

We must develop solidarity with other housing organisers.

It’s one thing to say we’re going to transform housing, it’s another to put it into action. Between each of these goals there is constant organising, and constant efforts to promote the self-organisation of tenants, the homeless community, and anyone in insecure housing. Between large scale efforts to unionise tenants and other mass projects, there must be a proportionate increase in the amount of grassroots activism on the issue, such as devictions (forcibly opposing the eviction of neighbors), small scale rent strikes (such as among tenants of the same property management firms), and collaboration on every level between revolutionary and reformist attempts to end the constant cycle of crisis.

This means recognising that much of the best work around housing rights has been done by people with little other experience of political organisation, and no matter how many larger goals we attempt to work towards, there is always space to be building awareness around the issue on a smaller scale. Starting conversations with flatmates, forcing the media to report on terrible housing and participating in reform strategies all help to build a movement for a radical housing overhaul. That being said, efforts at reform will only be successful if we have radical long-term goals in mind to widen the window of what we consider achievable.

We must end landlording.

At the heart of any housing market crisis, death from mould inhalation, or forcible eviction, is the material relations of housing: the relationship between us and the owners of land. Our goal must always be to abolish those relations and institute new ways for us to think about property, housing, and custodianship.

We cannot let the fickle societal perceptions of what is achievable stop us from realising that exploitative housing will only end once people can no longer make money from owning property. Most of us already know that landlords contribute nothing to society, and once we are given the tools to express this knowledge, we are unstoppable.

Landlords occupy an inherently shaky position atop the ladder of society. The landlord can be beaten simply by enough people withholding rent, provided we have the will, democratic structures, and support to follow through with these types of actions.

We must decolonise housing.

As a colonial nation we must recognise the ways that housing has been used to oppress and relocate tangata whenua over the course of our recent history. Housing the working class is rarely a priority for any government, but exceptions are sometimes made where Pākehā can be housed at the expense of Māori communities.

New Zealand has a long and shameful history of using housing development to force hapū off their lands. The Housing Act of 1955 allowed for the confiscation of Māori land provided the Māori Affairs minister determined it would be used for state housing29. This coincided with the increasing relocation of Māori to the cities and towns in the postwar period, especially those whose traditional waterways had suffered ecological collapse due to contamination by capitalist industry. Housing was again used as a justification for forcible evictions in 1978 at Bastion Point, where Ngāti Whātua lands were confiscated for private housing. This colonial practice is not just historical: whenua linked to Ngati Mahuta, Te Ahiwaru, Waikato-Tainui, Te Akitai and Te Waiohua in the Ihumātao isthmus has been repeatedly threatened with confiscation as part of the Special Housing Areas Act30.

In enacting a socialist housing policy we must never mirror the dynamics of colonial land appropriation. Tangata whenua must be free to make collective decisions about land use and level of engagement with state housing schemes. We deserve the freedom to combat all forms of capitalist alienation and this includes the right of Māori to resist the systematic breakup and atomisation of hapū through relocation and eviction.

We must introduce collective ownership.

In addition to knowing what we need to abolish, we also need to know what we would put in place for ourselves. Collective ownership is our way forward. Only through democratic and distributive models of housing can we finally put an end to cycles of crisis, health problems, and growing homelessness. Initially this could involve democratic boards of neighborhoods, towns or flats, as well as working closely with mana whenua to establish self-determination for Māori communities that have been devastated by past struggles around housing.

These material changes would allow for broader cultural changes. No more will houses be islands, separated from neighborhoods and cities by lines of ownership. No more will houses be commodities to be bought and sold on a whim, when each house could be a lifelong home. No more will people think of their houses as places of depression and disturbed sleep between shifts.

Houses can be homes, and we can be more than tenants and owners. We can be custodians of homes for our whole lives, should we choose to. We can be parts of broader communities, in suburbs purpose-built to foster social ties. We can have houses that we want to come back to, that we take pride in, and that do not cause us endless stress. While a radical transformation of housing in Aotearoa can only take place in a much broader revolutionary context, it is not simply a matter of waiting for such a time before we can institute these changes. Struggles around housing are a core part of any revolutionary approach in Aotearoa, due to the centrality of housing in the minds of most people, and the disproportionate importance of real-estate in New Zealand capitalism. This struggle must be understood as a vital part of our project to destroy capitalism and implement socialism.


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