Housing in Auckland: Profiting from Suffering

I started studying at Waikato in 2010 and stayed in the halls in my first year, paying $225 per week which included a room, power and food. I moved into my first flat in 2011, rent was $100 per week and we lived right across the road from university. The cheapest flat I had there was $75/week rent. In Auckland, $100 per week rent is a pipe dream, even living an hour commute out of town. The rents are close to double of those in Hamilton, and the living conditions are far worse.

Living in Auckland is a compromise between health and affordability. We pay a huge amount of our weekly income just making sure we have a roof over our heads. And even when we do find a house, it’s likely to be an unhealthy place to live. Black mould is commonplace, rental properties are barely maintained. In Auckland, it’s not unusual for a house to cost anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000 a year in rent, which is a lot to pay for minimal maintenance.

Auckland’s rental market is largely different to other rental markets around Aotearoa. Our rents are hugely disproportionate to what we get in return. This is because the market has failed to produce the number of homes we require. As such, there are far more renters than available houses in Auckland. The shortage of housing means we operate in a sellers’ market, where landlords have more strength in bargaining. The only limits to how much they can charge us for rent are how much money we have.

Landlords have no motivation to make sure we’re living in safe houses. Their rental properties are no more than investments to them, they purchase these properties to profit from the capital gains accrued each year. Our landlords are motivated only to bleed us dry. We are disempowered as renters; we can’t complain when our landlords breach tenancy law with unexpected visits, when they ask us for 6 weeks rent as bond, or when they illegally hike up the rent. If we do, we’re likely to end up with a bad reference or evicted from the house. The power dynamic is far skewed to the benefit of landlords. A clear example is that they can terminate a fixed term tenancy with 90 days notice, however the tenant has to effectively go bankrupt and prove they are unable to pay rent in order to terminate the same tenancy.

To top all of this off, those rental properties earn our landlords more than the average family in capital gains each year. For those who can afford it, investment property is a real cash cow. Capital gains in Auckland are so huge that there is a significant sector of the property investment market which purchases houses and leaves them empty. So called “land banking” contributes to the housing shortfall in Auckland, which further drives up rent prices.

For years tenants have pushed for comprehensive capital gains taxes and warrants of fitness for housing, but are shot down by the property owning lobby every time. Our death rates increase drastically in Winter, at least partly because of our sub-standard housing. Landlords have a vested interest in convincing us that taxing them and forcing them to make sure their rentals are warm and healthy are bad ideas. Both of these things reduce the profit they make. Investment properties have that name because their purpose is to generate profit.

Landlords make us sick by not insulating houses. They take more out of our food budget every time they hike up the rent. They charge us exorbitant prices for the human right of shelter. We are over-charged and under-housed, and we are shot down every time we try to solve this problem. The reason for this is that the problem is not due to today’s landlords, but rather because it is systemic. It’s in the best interest of landlords to ignore the social problems caused by their practices.

We neglect heating every Winter, with rent taking priority over power bills. We suffer a much higher rate of sickness in Autumn and Winter due to cold, damp and mouldy houses. We eat cheap, unhealthy food so we can afford exorbitant rents. Even as rent increases year after year, even as living conditions deteriorate and we’re forced to crowd as many people in a house as we can to afford rent we keep paying.

We pay our rent with our health.

This doesn’t have to be the case. We can change the system.

Student Housing Action Group (SHAG) is a group of students who are fed up with the current housing situation in Auckland. SHAG realises the housing situation is failing to provide healthy, secure, and affordable housing, and they fight for systemic change.

Originally published under the title Health: Our New Currency in Debate | Issue 12

The Beneficiary Experience

For the past six months or so, I’ve been volunteering as a beneficiary advocate with Auckland Action Against Poverty. As a white man from a fairly well-off family, the most I’ve had to deal with the Ministry of Social Development in my life has been with StudyLink who are a nightmare at the best of times. Beneficiary advocacy has really opened my eyes to the ways in which beneficiaries are treated by our social welfare system.

At AAAP, I deal with people who have been screwed over by Work and Income on a daily basis. They are told “no” and, almost without exception, it isn’t properly explained why. Case workers and managers alike routinely act unlawfully, they’ll happily sanction benefits without explaining the reason why in writing, then turn around and require you to produce endless bank statements for a measly food grant. This is despite the Social Security Act requiring written explanation of sanctions 5 days before they’re applied (s113(2) for the wonks), and the obvious response to a request of a bank statement “what if they’ve just taken their money out?”

Receptionists at Work and Income are trained to turn people away, I’ve seen a heavily pregnant woman declined a food grant at reception on the last weekday before a 4 day weekend, and the worst thing was it wasn’t even surprising. Receptionists are trained with a million different lines to drive people away; “we don’t do walk-ins between 12 and 2”, “we can’t book an appointment to sort out your eviction notice, it’s not immediate”, “I can book you in if you want, but it’ll be a long wait and you probably won’t get that food grant.”

And if you thought you were over the hill when you finally made it past the receptionist, through the 3 hour wait and into an appointment with a case manager for the food grant you so desperately need, you’re sorely mistaken. Case managers are not what you expect, they aren’t social workers constrained bureaucracy orchestrated by a nasty government, but gatekeepers standing between you and the social welfare system that is supposed to be helping you. They’ll tell you “no, you’ve run out of food grant entitlement”, despite knowing full well that all that means is you have to check with a manager for the next food grant. They’ll try and tell you that you can feed your family of 6 for a week on $120. They’ll tell you they can only give you a $60 food grant, because that’s how much the Otago Food Cost Survey says you can live on, but they won’t reduce your debt offsets, even though they leave you with $40 a week for food and are the reason you’re coming in for a food grant anyway.

I used to wonder why Work and Income offices were open plan, rather than having private rooms for what are often private conversations. It’s a stark contrast to other public services like doctors’ clinics. I understand why now, Work and Income are not there to help you, they are only there to make it look like they’re helping.30

Our Fourth Estate on the TPPA

It’s the new year, and parliamentary politics has yet to heat up again. There’s only one big event on the horizon, the signing of the TPPA here in Aotearoa. Despite the lack of activity, and the abundance of information produced on the TPPA, our media is failing to produce any sort of cognisant reporting on the issue. Case and point is John Roughan’s Saturday article in the Herald. He shows a complete lack of understanding of the criticisms leveled against the agreement, and succeeds only in throwing random facts around with empty rhetoric.

Roughan’s piece seems to be mainly suggesting dissenters are incorrect to continue their dissent, as the released text of the TPPA isn’t as bad as we feared it could be

[The signing of the TPPA] is bound to attract the mother of all protests, which will finally discredit those who have been marching in the streets, for the text has been out for two months and it has become clear it is not the sell-out to the US they were led to expect.

While it is a relief that we are trading less than all of our sovereignty for an expected 0.9% increase in GDP over the next 15 years, or around 0.06% per annum, it’s no reason to stop criticising the agreement. We are still signing an agreement which expands global corporate hegemony, potentially costing us billions of dollars.

Roughan goes on to suggest the text is completely benign, because he hasn’t seen Professor Jane Kelsey point out a smoking gun

[Law] professor Jane Kelsey has been studying trade position papers for years and I’ve been waiting for her to find something explosive in the fine print

This is the level of journalism we can expect from the New Zealand Herald these days, gotchas and smoking gun politics. He follows this up with a misunderstanding of claims that New Zealand’s signing of the TPPA is undemocratic

I don’t know what kind of government protesters have in mind when they call the TPP’s dispute provisions a threat to “democracy”

Despite the fact we have never had a chance to vote on the TPPA, and the government is planning to sign it without a referendum or any sort of public consultation, even though polls show only 34% support the agreement. There’s a word for governments who change their countries without consulting the people, and it’s not “democratic”.

Roughan finishes off with a classic piece of personality politics rubbish, suggesting John Key is doing a good job because of how well he schmoozes with other world leaders.

Key, elected in the same week as Obama, established an important personal rapport. At times when the talks failed to reach predicted agreement and Key was asked whether he still thought the TPP would succeed, he’d say, “I think so. Obama wants to do it.”

Our media is failing in their duty of providing accurate information to the citizenry, and checks on government. Instead, we have a paper which reads like a fan club newsletter, obsessed with the people in charge and offering only the shallowest of analysis. The sooner the trite that is the New Zealand Herald moves into obscurity, the better.

Back Of The Envelope TPPA Calculation

MFAT’s generous prediction for the GDP increase we could see as a result of being partner to the TPPA is $2.7 billion (real 2007 NZ dollars) 0.9% over the course of 15 years. Here’s what that means in more tangible terms

Some maths to work out the annual increase in GDP we can expect, if the increase is spread evenly:

100% + 0.9% = (100%+x)^15
100.9% = (100%+x)^15
100.06% = 100%+x
x = 0.06%

That $2.7 NZD really doesn’t stack up to much when you put it in these terms, it won’t be noticeable at all when you consider our GDP growth currently.

Climate Change

I’m a pessimist when it comes to climate action by our governments. We know anthropogenic climate change is a massive issue, in the coming decades there will be deaths as a direct result of it, even if we take aggressive action. But the government has a terrible track record when it comes to making required change.

Look at the effects of colonisation here in New Zealand. Even after 175 years of Māori protest, Māori are still massively overrepresented in negative social statistics. People have been calling for a remedy to this ever since New Zealand was founded, but we still don’t have a solution.

The issues arising from the continued oppression of Māori shouldn’t be understated either. As a demographic, they have worse healthshorter lifespans and higher incarceration rates. There are literally people dying because of the government’s failure to act.

Our government has historically been very slow to act on even things which are just common sense. Women not being able to vote is unimaginable in Aotearoa today, but it took 60 years between women being explicitly banned from voting (in Britain 1832) until women were given the vote (1893). Admittedly, we didn’t have a central government until the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, giving the governor of the time, William Hobson, power to act in place of the Queen and we didn’t have voting rights until they were codified in 1852.

Even today, we have yet to relinquish adequate power to women, only 31% of our MPs are female. It’s amazing that, even after 180 years, we still don’t treat women as equal on the political stage.

It’s worth keeping our history in mind as we look to the future, the past is a good indicator of what’s to come. Our system of representative democracy has failed in sticking to its agreementland was still being confiscated as recently as 2004. It’s also failed at providing democracy, with women not being able to vote for our first 40 years of elections, and still being horribly under-represented in positions of power.

Compare this with our current government. The National Party dismisses any Green Party proposal as economic suicide without even considering that to fail to implement such policies is regular suicide. Like previous governments, who took vast swathes of land from Māori or elected not to let women vote, the National Party decides to ignore the consequences of climate change.

Even assuming next election we bring in a Labour/Green government who actually takes action, it’s only a matter of time until the wind blows in National’s direction again, and any progress gets undone. And even if Labour does happen to get in, they are likely to continue the inaction of our last Labour government.

Realistically, to cause the required change to happen, we need to destroy the existing parliamentary system and replace it with something functional.

Violent Protests in Paris

The Guardian’s Sunday piece on the COP21 protests in Paris highlights the inefficacy of “legitimate” protest.

A day of celebration and hope in Paris disintegrated into rioting and clashes with police on Sunday, after anti-capitalists and anarchists hijacked a peaceful event organised by climate activists earlier in the day.

About 200 protesters, some wearing masks, fought with police on a street leading to la place de la République, which has become a gathering place for Parisians since the terror attacks on 13 November that killed 130 people. Witnesses said floral and other tributes were trampled in the melee.

The implication here is that those protesters who engaged in violent struggle were somehow illegitimate. If the only legitimate protesters are the toothless who have very catchy chants, but no desire to disrupt how the system works, how can we expect any change to occur?

The stick activists wave is civil unrest, and they must be prepared to use it or else face business as usual and the ensuing slide into environmental catastrophe.