Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Go back to sleep, Granny Banks

I'm not one of those people who complains about media bias. I like to think that I'm more sophisticated than that. Instead, I complain about media opportunism. Opportunism explains why both the right and the left can sincerely believe that newspapers, radio and television are biased against them. The media is against them, when it works. But it also supports their causes when it sells papers.

The big problem with this kind of opportunism is that it tends to be pretty poorly researched. Sometimes it's even bigoted, myopic, sensationalist and self-contradictory. Take, for example, yesterday's editorial in the New Zealand Herald: Housing idea a recipe for ghettos . The Granny's editorial takes aim at Housing New Zealand's recently released discussion document Building The Future: Towards A New Zealand Housing Strategy and begins by outlining the well-documented pressures facing Auckland's housing market. The region hosts 31 per cent of New Zealand's population in just 2 per cent of its land area. By some estimates, this so-called "disparity" has led to a 20% increase in housing prices in the Auckland area in just a few short years.

Although the paper admits that there is a problem, the cure envisaged by the New Zealand Housing Corporation may be too much for some to bear:

[The strategy] would be the catalyst for the establishment of ghettos, complete with the array of social problems they bring. Auckland City's mayor has labelled the plan "social apartheid". He is right. This is an idea that would remedy one minor ill by creating something far worse. There is, in fact, little to suggest the illness has reached a stage where it requires drastic medicine. Or, indeed, ever will.

Really? We already know that housing affordability in Auckland is a serious problem. Rental rates in the city are ridiculous, especially when you consider this city's crappy housing stock of low density, poorly constructed and mouldy uninsulated villas. Could this have anything to do with why New Zealand has over three times the rate of asthma than any other country in the world?

As far as ghettos are concerned, Maori and pacific peoples are being pushed to the margins of Auckland, to the point where most pakeha in the city are afraid to even visit Otara market. According to the recent quality of life survey carried in New Zealand's eight largest cities, there is a close relationship between levels of household income, tenure and geographical location. Maori and Pacific people are more likely to live in cramped and unhealthy housing conditions than pakeha. There is a problem, and it does rquire medecine.

The Herald writes that Auckland's housing difficulties will be solved by 'natural' market forces, and goes on to suggest that the poor should be housed on unattractive lands, in valleys and alongside railway tracks. Let's look at some of these market-based approaches to housing. According to the NZHC discussion document:

The economic and social changes of the 1980s and 1990s introduced significant changes to housing policy. They signalled the end of the Family Benefit Capitalisation Scheme and subsidised interest rates, which had contributed to the rapid growth of home ownership throughout the previous three decades. They also led to the freeing up of financial markets, making capital more accessible; the removal of subsidies to local government for pensioner housing; the introduction of market rents for state housing tenants, alongside a widespread sales programme; and the introduction of the Accommodation Supplement as the primary form of government housing assistance.

In other words, this country's recent history of Rogernomics has reversed a long-standing trend toward greater equality of housing tenure. The marketisation of housing and planning on Auckland has led to a situation where New Zealand's largest city is a sprawling, congested and expensive mess. It's an awful city with traffic and social problems and divisions well in excess of what a city its size should be experiencing. And although the report indicates that housing inequality is a significant contributor to social and economic inequality, the document shows that New Zealand is well behind other countries when it comes to providing housing for those with low incomes:

New Zealand has a comparatively low level of social housing provision (6%) compared to many European countries where social housing makes up 25-40% of the market.

The policy instruments that the Herald accuses of leading to ghettos are in fact designed to achieve the very opposite: by reserving a portion of new developments for low income housing, the aim is to mix low income housing with higher income housing, thereby preventing the trend toward ghettoization that Auckland is already experiencing. These policies have been recognised around the world as helping to create safer and more integrated neighborhoods and cities. But maybe Banks and the Herald's editorialist just don't want to see poor people.

In actual fact, the NZHC discussion document is an excellent and timely document that envisages a range of solutions to a very real problem. It's just another example of how painful it is to drag this country back into the mainstream of social policy from the neo-liberal morass of Rogernomics.