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Everyone deserves a decent, secure life. It’s time New Zealand talked about rent controls | Chlöe Swarbrick

5 min read


One-third of New Zealanders rent. In my electorate and home, Auckland Central, the centre of the largest city in the country, it’s even more: 54%.

For a really long time, the conversation around housing was one of avocados and flat whites. Renters, we were told, were in a temporary moment of their life. They were, the story went, on a path to homeownership, if only they could reign in their spending on fancy cafe food.

They should put up with mouldy kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms, because soon enough they’d be scraping it off their own house. They should deal with a revolving door of flatmates, because if they worked hard, they’d soon have the privacy of their own quarter acre dream. They should sacrifice anything that made life fun or exciting or worth living for a few years, because they’d save to build the security that let them put down roots.

Renters would get on the ladder soon enough, if they just pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. There wasn’t any real consideration of whether one could afford to invest in bootstraps to begin with.

For many, soon enough never came. Statistics New Zealand’s 2020 housing report tells us renters spend more of their incomes than homeowners on housing costs. In the last ten years, wages rose by 20% while rents rose by 50%.

It reminds me of the salient point made by a young woman a few years ago, who spoke to me about the drivers of mental ill health: “When being broke just keeps going and going, that’s not ‘broke’ any more. That’s poverty.”

When the top 10% of New Zealanders own 59% of all the wealth and the bottom half own just 2%, we’re slowly waking up to the lowest rates of home ownership in generations, with 30% of our housing stock held by private owners with between four and more than 20 houses in their portfolios. Renting is not a temporary step towards home ownership. More and more families rent. We’re talking 1.4 million New Zealanders living in rentals. Over half of all tamariki Māori and about three-quarters of Pasifika children live in rented homes.

On Wednesday, the Reserve Bank rolled out its financial stability report. As predicted in their own advice to government, the Covid-19 money-printing response turbo-charged inequality, primarily in housing distribution, as only the already-flush could really leverage it to their advantage. In the midst of a global pandemic, median house prices rose by 23% across Aotearoa. The bank wants intervention.

Affordable house prices are widely considered to be a ratio of three times the median annual wage. The last time homes were that affordable in Aotearoa was 2003. I was nine years old and Evanescence’s Bring Me To Life was top of the charts.

House prices in Auckland were 11.5 times the median annual wage in mid-2020. If house prices continue to increase with the “sustained moderation” that the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has outlined as her aim, and incomes continue to increase at an ideal 4% per annum, we’re looking at half a century till house prices slip back to the ratio of affordability we had in the early 2000s.

Finally responding to this rampant – and unproductive – speculation, the government announced tax changes to deal with disproportionate incentives to play the housing slot machine with guaranteed, self-fulfilling returns. It was a good step in the right direction.

We heard an overwhelming outcry from landlords and speculators. They would have to put up rents, they said. It’s just the way the market works, they said.

Funny how the average landlord doesn’t have any agency over whether they increase or decrease rents, but renters are supposedly entirely independently responsible for whether they “get a foot on the ladder” at the moment most economically hostile to first-homebuyers in living history.

And, of course, there was nothing to be said of the inordinate capital gains over the last twelve months, nor the halving of interest rates, and how that coincided with rent increases.

Think of the mum and dad landlords, they said.

What about the mum and dad renters, I said.

Most rent increases aren’t actually related to anything an individual landlord does. The value of houses rises because of rising land values, suburbs becoming more desirable, improved local amenities, overall shortages of housing relative to demand, and things like that.

The Greens started talking about rent controls. About everyone being able to live decent, secure lives, whether they own or rent.

It scared a right-aligned thinktank, the New Zealand Initiative, into writing a boogey-man paper about how bad rent controls are. They cited San Francisco, where people have stability of tenure, as a bad thing. They argued the 1995 removal of rent controls in Cambridge, Massachusetts which led to a massive spike in rents as a reason that the rent controls suppressing those rental increases were somehow a bad thing. They argued that evidence from Sweden, where rents for half a million dwellings are negotiated between representatives of landlords and tenants, are bad because tenants tend to be higher income people instead of seeing that as the need to extend a successful scheme. They ignored countries like Canada, Ireland, and Scotland where various rent controls exist with good outcomes, and they ignored the British Labour party’s proposals for rent controls in England.

We need to build more houses. Everyone agrees on that. But in the meantime, somebody’s still got to pay the rent.

In a market like ours, renters are price-takers. There’s no bargaining power, and a sense of impermanence that itself creates constant upward wrenching of rents as landlords welcome new tenants at an increased price.

When you can’t put down roots, there’s no sense of belonging nor ownership and no incentive to invest in what could be your community. Kids move schools with each new neighbourhood. You can’t plan for a future you’re not afforded.

Our communities aren’t a game of Monopoly – which, by the way, was invented to showcase the ludicrousness of capital accumulation at the expense of productive investment. We can change the rules when they don’t work for the majority of us.

And they don’t. So we should.



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