What’s in a house? The core of a good life

What’s in a house? A lot more than “housing”.

The political noise around “housing” has got very loud. The government looks and sounds less assured as the noise level rises.

John Key has thrown three ministers at it.

Bill English, MP for 26 years, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, is Minister Responsible for the Housing New Zealand Corporation (HNZ) which rents “social housing” to the needy.

He has long been scathing about HNZ, despite recent improvement. He has been trying to pass some of HNZ’s houses on to not-for-profits because he believes not-for-profits are closer to the people and can be more innovative than a central government agency. But one by one the not-for-profits have cried off.

An alternative is private firms. If English sells HNZ houses to foreign firms, Labour and New Zealand First will play on xenophobia about taxes going to pay dividends to foreigners — as in pre-primary education, retirement villages, hospital meals and prisons.

Paula Bennett is the cabinet’s rising-star No 5, associate minister to English in finance and Key in tourism, reframing the rhetoric as Minister for Climate Change Issues — and Minister for Social Housing, a residue of her 2008-14 role as minister-of-the-poor (Minister for Social Development).

Her job is the “homeless”, those on the streets, in cars or garages or crammed in with relatives or friends. Not-for-profits say the numbers have been rising since 2008 to levels too high to be dismissed as “poor life choices”.

Bennett has been sprinkling money and soundbites, including $5000 to leave Auckland and kind words for the Te Puea Memorial Marae at Mangere which has become a shelter. She upset the Salvation Army with some wrong advice to Key about its interviews with some homeless.

Meanwhile, the innovative not-for-profit Wise Group says it has put Hamilton on a path to zero homeless by end-2016.

The third “housing” minister is Nick Smith, a mate of English, like him 26 years an MP and with similar time in cabinet — even transitorily deputy leader to Don Brash.

Smith is Minister for Building and Housing. He is responsible for rental house standards — increasingly important as owner-occupier numbers slide. His bigger job is to get more houses built for people to own, including, in theory, some at prices within range of those on the average wage. The Auckland average price is nine times average income.

This ties in with his responsibility, as Minister for the Environment, for the Resource Management Act which he has repeatedly amended to relax rules, force councils to get more density within their boundaries and otherwise prod developers for more new houses.

And more are being built. But not fast enough to match record net immigration or demand from investors (of various sorts) cashing in on the ultra-low interest rates required by tight loyalty to 1980s monetary orthodoxy.

Average prices nationwide rose 12.4% in the 12 months to May. Of Auckland house sales in May 46% went to investors, not owner-occupiers. Nationally 40% did.

Reserve Bank governor Graeme Wheeler last Thursday did his usual cartwheels of logic, reaffirming record low interest rates to get inflation back up to his mandated 2% and worrying about the financial risk posed by the wild house market those rates have helped pump.

Put all this together. Despite myriad measures and modest successes, “housing” is a rising political risk for National.

Tales of spreading homelessness and of young people shut out of ownership disturb moderate conservatives. There is a voting risk that the excluded (and some worried conservative parents) will outnumber those wallowing in heaven-sent capital gain and ultra-low mortgages.

So the “housing” political field is opening in middle New Zealand for Labour and the Greens. They say only the state is big enough to finance effectively a big build of lower-cost houses for owner-occupiers and quality houses for the poor to rent.

Labour’s Phil Twyford last month produced an innovative policy for more houses inside and outside Auckland city limits. He has support from big developers (still anathema to many Labour ideologues) and big construction firms, both normally in National’s camp.

Twyford and the Greens understand something else: that the house is the core of a good life.

A good house and secure residence in that house is a base for a well-formed, well-functioning household. The house and household are critical to childhood development, health and education and the capacity to belong and contribute to society and the economy. Get them wrong and there are social support, education recovery, health and crime costs.

So the house — the real thing; “housing” is an abstract term — is core to all social policy and in turn core to material welfare (“economic”) policy.

And that implies the house is not just a private matter but a collective issue. National’s need for three ministers makes that point in spades.

What’s in a house? Much of politics.