27 May 2016

Govt needs to 'stare down speculators'

10:04 am on 27 May 2016

OPINION: New Zealand housing is in all sorts of trouble.

In the past few weeks, there has been story after story in the national media about families in desperate circumstances, living in cars and garages and unable to find decent homes to rent. Even some people who have full-time employment can't find a place to live.

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Families are living in cars and garages. Photo: 123rf.com

Other troubles come from rapidly accelerating house prices, soaring out of the reach of people on moderate incomes. In some areas, even people who earn high incomes can't find homes they can afford. The problem is becoming acute in Auckland, and in Queenstown, where many of the people who are needed to staff the tourism service jobs in town can't find a place to live.

There are growing fears that the Auckland housing market is bubbling out of control, especially when demand is far exceeding supply.

It would be reasonable to expect that the government would make a concerted effort to address these concerns in the Budget.

Budget 2016: Catch up with RNZ's full coverage here.

There are some measures around social housing. There's $200 million for social housing, but it turns out that $41m of that is an adjustment for cost pressures on the subsidy for income related rents, and $38m is for redevelopment in Tamaki. That leaves $120m for new social housing in Auckland, which will provide about 750 places. That's not very much.

Deborah Russell, senior lecturer in taxation at Massey University

Deborah Russell Photo: SUPPLIED / Twitter

Another $41m will be going towards providing emergency housing beds, and a Special Needs Grant. But most of those beds already exist, and the money will mostly ensure that existing emergency housing providers will be able to keep on operating.

Just in the last few days, the Minister for Social Housing announced that $750,000 would be available to assist families to move out of Auckland. That measure is not mentioned in the Budget and the accompanying briefing papers at all. That suggests a last minute move, developed on the fly.

Quite simply, the government isn't paying enough attention to social housing. And it shows in the low level approach to social housing in this budget.

At the other end, little or no work is being done to manage house prices in Auckland and Queenstown.

Both places desperately need houses that people on ordinary incomes can afford to buy. Part of the problem is that not enough houses are being supplied, but another part is the tax breaks given to property investors.

The government made a small move towards reducing speculation in housing in the 2015 Budget, but there are no further measures in the 2016 Budget.

Sold sign outside a new house being built in East Auckland

Property speculators are contributing to the unprecedented rise in prices. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

There are a number of tax based measures that could be taken: it's a shame that the government doesn't have the courage to stare down property speculators, and ensure they are taxed properly.

Later this year, the government will issue a National Policy Statement on Urban Development, but without any further information, it's difficult to know exactly how this will help, other than by central government exerting more power over local government.

Budget 2016 hasn't really grappled with housing problems at all. There's a bit here and a bit there, a nudge and a wink, but there's no evidence of any comprehensive plan to ensure that all New Zealanders are adequately and affordably housed. It's an opportunity missed, and it will only create bigger problems in the long term.

*Deborah Russell is a senior lecturer in taxation at Massey University, and a social and political commentator. She was the Labour candidate for Rangitikei in the 2014 election.

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