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Housing crisis documentary pulls no punches on eve of election

Veteran journalist Bryan Bruce investigates the housing crisis in the documentary 'Who Owns New Zealand Now?'

OPINION: Who owns New Zealand now? The NZ On Air-funded documentary that screened on Three on Tuesday, September 12 confronts the housing crisis head on and it's an eye-opener.

This doco doesn't just ask why house prices have soared while our home ownership rate is falling – it also wants to know why we have people sleeping in cars and "rental refugees" in Whangarei.

And this doco wants to know why, when NZ signed up to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights 70 years ago, are we not keeping one of the fundamental rights we agreed to – adequate housing.

Former Prime Minister Sir John Key has just sold his house for an estimated $20 million. The buyer is believed to live in China.

Experienced investigative journalist Bryan Bruce is the perfect narrator. His own family story sounds like just like every Kiwi family buying their first home in the '60s.

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"My dad was a postman and my mum was a factory worker, and yet they were able to build a brand-new house in Christchurch with next-to-no money. All a family like mine had to do back then was to get a five per cent deposit together and then the Government lent them the rest of the money (a State Advances Loan) at three per cent for 40 years."

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Back then, housing was seen as essential infrastructure, with home ownership being "the key to a healthy society and a stable democracy". 

So what happened? Watch this documentary and you have to think we should have seen this coming. All the signs were there, starting way back in the 1980s and '90s, when we switched from a regulated economy to a market-driven one.

Today, we have a low-wage economy. Since the 1960s wages have increased 59 per cent, but housing has gone up a massive 280 per cent. As Bruce says: "Our market-driven economic system has created huge income inequalities that didn't exist 30 years ago."

Members of Housing Action protested the public opening of The Lighthouse art installation by Michael Parekowhai on Auckland's Queens Wharf in February. The installation, which cost $1.5 million, replicates the exterior of a 1950s state house.

DEREGULATION

That's one key factor. Bruce points out that successive governments have also embraced competition and the deregulation of the banking system, which has had a "dramatic effect on who gets to own their own home today, and who doesn't".

The Government-owned Post Office lost its virtual monopoly on banking and the first-mortgage market. Cue wonderful shots of suburban post offices – remember those? And here's a telling line: "This post office here is now a shopping arcade, a place to spend your money, when once it was a place where you saved it."

Bruce says we could learn from the Irish model, where 'ghost houses' have never been lived in following the economic crash - because no-one can afford them.

Bruce even unarchives that National Bank cartoon advertisement where the customer marries the "sweet little teller he met at the National". Welcome to the new economy, where investing in property and flipping houses is seen as the way to generate personal wealth.

IMMIGRATION

But there's another factor that has contributed to the housing crisis, and, you guessed it, it's immigration.

But just how much of an impact does this have? The figures are all over the place, so Bruce seeks advice from independent Treasury, Reserve Bank and IMF advisor Michael Reddell, who "advises" Bruce to listen to the people who are making policy in Treasury, IMF and the Reserve Bank. What? You are the advisor Mr Reddell. If you can't tell us, who can?

And that seems to be the point. There is no data, just a heck of a lot of anecdotal evidence.

One advertisement encouraging vendors to promote their properties to people in China says in 2013 Chinese buyers spent $US37 billion on residential property and guess what? New Zealand is the fourth most popular country they search for. (New Zealand is also the fourth most unaffordable city in the world, after Hong Kong, Sydney and Vancouver, and that's not a coincidence.)

And this is where it gets really interesting. There is no register of foreign buyers. Information from land transfers is collected for tax purposes, but foreign shareholders in companies and trusts buying property in New Zealand go unnoticed.

"The Government is not collecting information on who is buying how much of New Zealand, where, what kind of value or even where these people are coming from."

New Zealand is not the only country to have welcomed foreign investment in residential property, and had to deal with the consequences, so Bruce travels to Canada to compare statistics. 

The British Columbian government is also slow to provide any data with actual figures, with one professor suggesting it's a diplomatic issue. "There are constantly trade missions to China... if data has inconvenient truths, then that data is not available."

Bruce also points out that fast-track investor visas to wealthy immigrants have not resulted in expected economic growth and job creation. Same thing happened in Australia and the UK, but those countries have toughened up on their fast-track programmes as a result. And in Canada, the scheme has been described as a "sham", with immigrants coming through the investor programme declaring a lower income in Canada than any other group, including refugees.

But both Hong Kong and British Columbia have introduced foreign buyer taxes to help cool the market. But not in New Zealand, where the house price ripple effect means our towns in the provinces are also reeling.

And what is the solution? It turns out building more houses may not be the answer (just when we thought this was all that was needed). Supply can exceed demand when no-one can afford to buy a house at any price, as shown in the Ireland experience.

And, as one Canadian real estate agent points out, those of us who do own a home like the idea of affordable housing, but we don't want to sell OUR house for a song. Home ownership is entrenched in New Zealand and this is reflected in our laws.

EMBRACING ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS

But there are alternatives to traditional home ownership, and New Zealand needs to embrace these. Bruce presents a co-operative housing scheme in Germany. The upside? No landlord can evict you. The downside? Your money is locked in there for a minimum 18 months and you can't sell your shares in the building for more than you paid for them.

Affordable long-term leasing is another option. Post-war construction in Berlin saw many such buildings made available to tenants, who can live there for life, decorating their home however they wish. Both the State and private companies have invested in the scheme.

Such a scheme seems like a solution for New Zealand. But it's not about "mum and dad" landlords and damp, poorly insulated rentals – it's about institutional investment from sources, such as KiwiSaver and the NZ Super Fund and ACC.

But first, says Bruce, we need that data. Then we can create the "essential" infrastructure. And it will undoubtedly include high-rise living options for families, which in turn, will demand more innovative thinking from our regulatory bodies – and fast tracking.

Bruce is right. When it comes to the question, who really owns New Zealand now?, we deserve a better answer than "I don't know".

This documentary, screening so close to a general election, will surely ramp up the conversation about the housing crisis. Just watch those promises come trotting out, but at least we now know what they should be saying.

Homed

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