Mortgages and memories

19:09, Jan 28 2013

It was about the time that British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told British voters in a speech in Bedford: "You've never had it so good."

It was 1957 and he was summing up Britain's recovery from the cash-strapped years of war.

In the language of our time, that sentence "went viral" - from the Conservatives of those days who believed it implicitly, through to a sceptical working class in thrall to the trades unions.

In the end that slogan defined Macmillan's era - that, and a very prophetic line about "the winds of change sweeping Africa", which he used in a speech to the South African Parliament in February 1960.

Ah, 1957 - I remember the process then that took thousands of New Zealanders like us through the wonderful system which delivered our first house in our mid to late 20s.

That's how we felt too.


We had never had it so good.

Remembering the experience, my heart bleeds for young people in this generation now that that opportunity is beyond them - they must often feel that those opportunities have gone forever.

Apparently our ratio of house prices to income is among the highest in the world.

Certainly thousands of young New Zealanders can't see their way to save enough for a deposit, much less covering the high interest and mortgage repayments in the years that follow. (As well as paying off student loans.)

Those who followed my generation into first homes didn't have it anywhere as good as my generation. The real facts of home-owning struck home to them when those simple mortgages around 3 per cent soared to a crippling 16 per cent.

This was the stage when a young family member called on his bank manager asking for his advice when his mortgage shot up to an interest rate even higher than that. Feeling hopeless, he asked the man behind the desk: "What would you do if you were in my situation?"

The manager's cold reply: "I would never have allowed myself to get into that position."

The young man sold up and took his young family to Australia.

Apart from being forced into substandard houses at high rentals, young families are being deprived of a pattern of life I believed was not only possible for all but also something which was somehow an unwritten entitlement.

The first family home I remember buying was in Matipo Rd, Te Atatu, one of a group of three spec houses with a long empty space between us and the largely pre-war homes of an earlier partial development.

Unlike young people of today, we had never been forced to slum it.

The flats we had lived in had been clean and tidy, though admittedly somewhat tired.

But this house was something again, with its smell of fresh paint, the smooth surfaces of the walls and no chipped doors, no dripping taps or grub in the bathroom, all the windows opening easily to let the country-like scene in.

And it was ours! Of course there were some unforeseen hazards. I came home from the Auckland Star one afternoon and there were diggers and tractors going about their business on the open land behind us - which the agent had told us was "to be a park for the children".

But when I inquired from one of the drivers when the first swings and slides would be arriving, he gave me an indulgent smile, an old-fashioned look, and waved: "Not here, mate. That's right up there. There's 300 Neil houses going in here."

And they did. Not to worry. This place was ours. We were free to repaint it as we liked. I can still remember the night I did, the jade wall I produced in the sitting room, and the Tretchikoff print of a Zulu woman I hung on it. (You've got to get your eye in sometime!) More than 50 years later, I shudder a little at the remembered result.

But after all, the place was ours. Then they bulldozed the old shed in the distance and dozens of rats made a run for it. But not far. As far as our new garage where they gorged themselves on the first bag of seed potatoes I had ever bought and then tunnelled themselves into a new home in the dirt floor. Which I had to dig up to get rid of their stinking bodies after they dined in on my poison.

Then there was our version of cricket with neighbour Bill White - bowling and batting in the twilight on the new footpaths around the empty loop down to the stream. The first morning I woke in the house, I looked out the window and there was a smallish boy walking along with his fishing rod over his shoulder and a big fish in his hands.

Very Huckleberry Finn. All this was ours! How?

Brace yourself.

In those days, the Government paid parents a family benefit of 10 shillings a week per child. You could apply for and get hundreds of those pounds in advance for a home deposit. It was called capitalisation, and you could only do it once.

Loans were available from State Advances at around 3 per cent.

More than that, companies like the Auckland Star with a welfare ethic came to the party with more cash if needed for a second mortgage for staff at around 4 per cent.

There is something of the same social thinking in the Greens' plan which would have up to $300,000 basic houses to be rented or rented to buy.

Odds on new Minister of Housing Dr Nick Smith - back from the political cold - won't endorse it. But he should. He needs to do something and fast to meet a serious and debilitating social crisis.

As it is, he may feel he's been given a poisoned chalice with the housing portfolio.

Well Nick, prove them wrong. Thousands of the homeless as well as the country at large want you to get it right. Build the houses and change the lives of children and their parents who will then have memories to match mine, of a first home they'll never forget.

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