A hard-hitting United Nations report due out this week will highlight the devastating human rights impact of society’s tendency to view houses as financial commodities rather than homes for people.
Leilani Farha, a UN special rapporteur for housing and human rights, details the shift in recent years that has seen massive amounts of global capital invested in housing as a commodity, particularly as security for financial instruments that are traded on global markets and as a means of accumulating wealth. As a result, she says, homes are often left empty – even in areas where housing is scarce.
Income inequality manifests vividly in housing inequality, she says. “I see a society that doesn’t care about the most vulnerable. It’s mind-boggling to me that people could spend so much money [on investor appartment blocks] and know that at the same time none of that money is assisting the poorest people in terms of housing. It’s a pretty bleak picture.”
Her report sets out how unregulated global capital has in recent years not only distorted housing markets all over the world – turbo-boosting prices and rents to a level that excludes and expels poor and middle-income families from so-called prime locations – but has also created housing precariousness on an unprecedented scale.
Neither Auckland nor Waiheke is immune from the phenomena – or the myopia. We, and the island’s care agencies, have been disturbed over a long period. But when four young Waiheke families, almost in the same breath, find they have to leave Waiheke or face handing a landlord virtually the whole of their income for the foreseeable future, it feels tragic – for the dislocated families, for the community’s vibrance and for society.
Children in the midst of the fierce joy of unbreakable first friendships will grow up separate. People who’ve been dear and made our lives better in the innumerable ways of small communities will be missing. Gone are their cake-stall willingness, their mateship at work, the photographs they have taken to record the island’s best essence, the strong arm in a crisis, their love and easy friendship.
The unattractive pattern of summary expulsion is pretty set: Rental accommodation, sudden and unmitigated rent increases, change of plans by owner and notice to leave. Somewhere in the stew of deregulated banking here, a generation now significantly wealthy can make a lot of passive income and accumulate capital from housing.
We also see the scrabble to do so writ large.Do they have the money in the bank? No, but the Aussie bank is sanctioned by our government – at least in New Zealand – to bring the necessary money into existence and have it laundered into bricks and mortar while tenants pay the mortgage (and more) on artificially high house prices at firesale interest rates.
Since it’s all wildly out of control, the taxpayer also has to dip in to top up with housing supplements and emergency housing, where once was social capital and egalitarian values.
A third of island houses are empty most of the year. Our beachfronts are dark at night. “Where else would you go?” off-island friends often ask chattily, as if we on the island have to move on automatically to make way for . . . what?
In countryside Italy, grown wise over centuries, the inhabitants of Spoleto take you to the ancient well to drink. It will apparently ensure your return. A moment later, they are telling you, with a gleam, not to think of buying a place in its picturebook streets. You won’t be allowed to.
In a situation not unlike our own, Cornwall’s holiday destinations are in revolt against second-home owners who have hollowed out the rows of fishermen’s cottages at Falmouth, Fowey and St Ives, leaving local tradespeople to bus in from less fashionable or congenial areas and the local shops selling tourist tat. It’s galling, they say, to see bankers collect their bonuses and arrive in town to buy two properties.
I returned to Falmouth a few years ago to spend a few days with a fellow yachtie and circumnavigator who probably has the lightest carbon footprint of anyone I know. The invasion of out-of-towners was already well advanced. Down on the spectacular harbour, historic fishing vessels gleamed with superyacht treatments and traditional accesses and familiar hostelries were disappearing. This while Cornwall remains one of the most deprived areas in Western Europe.
Globalisation in the neo-liberal form – like any ideology writ large and left to grow rank – had opportunities and took the worst version.
As Leilani Farha is now telling the world, “Housing should be seen as a human right. Not a commodity.” She says governments should redefine their relationship with private investors and international financial institutions, and reform the governance of financial markets, in order to reclaim housing as a social good, “and thus ensure the human right to a place to live in security and dignity”.
• Liz Waters