Book Review: Home Truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis, by Philippa Howden-Chapman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_home_truthsHousing – particularly its availability, quality, and cost – is a common feature of news broadcasts and publications in New Zealand. There can be little doubt that the state of housing in NZ is a critical factor in many of the major issues affecting this country: the economy, employment, immigration, health, sustainability are all affected in one way or another by the housing situation.

Phillipa Howden-Chapman is a frequent commentator on housing issues. She is a Professor of Public Health, and is currently the Director of the University of Otago’s Housing and Health Research programme. She brings to this succinct survey an extraordinary mass of facts, figures, and opinions. She believes that comparatively recently we have lost a lot, and moved towards third-world conditions in many areas. She firmly believes too that access to dry, warm and safe housing should not be determined by a household’s income.

She begins with a survey where we have come from in housing policy. There’s more in this 25-page chapter (they are small pages too!) than might be expected. New Zealand has neglected its heritage of enlightened policies, and a case is made that we now have some of the worst housing in the developed world, especially for the approximately 50% of families in rental accommodation.

The second chapter deals with the interaction between the housing market, and the welfare state, and the third with the importance of housing in the national economy. Here she challenges some of the assumptions commonly made in economic discussions, and demonstrates the role of housing in the recent rapid increase in inequality in our society. And why this matters to both rich and poor.

The fourth chapter ‘Why Does the Quality of Housing Matter’ is, for me, the guts of the book. It is astonishing that in a ‘light-handed’ regulatory environment, legal costs are so high. As might be expected for a health researcher, the author canvasses the health issues caused by poor living conditions. She is scathingly critical of the lack of properly collected data available, and the thin layer of evidence that supports the development of policy. She does not accept current policies around rental houses, and regards current government measures as lukewarm at best. Her proposal is a strong, standardised Warrant of Fitness for all rental accommodation.

The final chapter sets out some directions that the author believes housing policy must move in. She considers policies to make more housing available; to make housing affordable, healthy and sustainable. She describes some successful models from Europe – especially Scandinavia. Changes are needed, she says, at both national and local government levels in the ways that planning and monitoring are done. She advocates mixed-tenure communities, and has several examples. She also calls for greatly increased regulation of the private rental market, in the interests of both tenants and landlords.

Don’t be mistaken: this is not a dispassionate book! The author has done the research (over some decades) and she has a firm conviction that the country can do better. She also knows what she means by ‘better’, and takes no prisoners in allocating blame. In brief, she has an axe to grind, and the facts to grind it on.

On one level, this is an easy book to read. It isn’t long (BWB bills the series as ‘Short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers’) and the writing is fluent. At another level, it can serve as the gateway to much more: there are extensive notes and references, and it would be easy to follow up the statistics and graphs here in more detail. If you have any interest in society’s well-being, I recommend you read this book.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Home Truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis
by Philippa Howden-Chapman
Published by BWB, part of the BWB Texts series
ISBN 9780947492335

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