Would the Good Samaritan sell state houses? An economist responds.

The new, space-saving state houses being built by the Tamaki Regeneration Company, replacing old state houses that are ...
Chris Skelton/Fairfax NZ

The new, space-saving state houses being built by the Tamaki Regeneration Company, replacing old state houses that are being demolished.

OPINION: In a recent Perspective in The Press, Riccarton Baptist Pastor Anthony Rimell rode almost apologetically into the issue of state housing under the heading "Why Good Samaritan would oppose selling state houses"

I wish that more of my fellow Christians would be informed about and engage in the discussion about housing. Anthony and I would agree on much. We should love others simply because they are there to be loved. We should stand against oppression. New Zealanders need better and more affordable housing. New Zealanders who are in better housing do better in life.

But we would not agree on the notion that the Good Samaritan would automatically oppose the selling of state houses. 

Old state houses in Tamaki are being demolished and replaced by new homes.
Chris Skelton/Fairfax NZ

Old state houses in Tamaki are being demolished and replaced by new homes.

The story of the Good Samaritan reminds that we have an obligation to help those who need our help. The Samaritan could have said that the man was foolish for travelling a dangerous road alone and left him to suffer the consequences, but he did not. He reached out to help. The Samaritan does this in two ways – first he himself takes care of the man and then he pays someone else to take further care of him.

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The objective of the Good Samaritan was to see that the man who had been hurt was restored to health – "I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have". Who actually did that was much less important to him. The Samaritan realised that he didn't have to personally and physically provide the care. But he did make sure it was done. He in fact paid an inn-keeper, who presumably ran his inn for profit, to provide the care.

When helping others we want to help as many as we can as best as we can and for the least cost that we can. The latter is important. If we can reduce the cost of providing the desired level of support then we make it possible to help more people. The Samaritan would applaud that.

The objective of providing housing to low income groups is to provide as much housing as we can to as many as we can for as little cost as we can. This can be done in different ways and no solution is best at all times and in all places. 

In one place it may be best if the Government builds and owns houses and rents them out. For some families it might be best for the Government to subsidise them to build their own home. For others it may be to subsidise their rent. Finally, it may be best in some situations for Government to fund the building of houses that are then owned and managed by other groups (e.g. community housing groups, churches, private landlords) with conditions imposed on those groups to protect vulnerable tenants.   

What this means is that selling state houses may not always be a bad idea. What matters is making sure people have a roof over their heads. 

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Where another group can provide housing in a more cost effective way then we should support that.

Further, existing state houses may be in the wrong place or in the wrong configuration. A three bedroom house on a quarter acre section that houses four people is not the best use of that land. If four townhouses can be built that house 16 people this quadruples the number of people we help. That may be hard for the four people currently living in the 3 bedroom house and we need to help them, but the Good Samaritan would make a stand for the other 12 people who currently don't have a house at all and desperately need one.

Pastor Rimell suggests that the "average job" being done by Housing NZ is due to the Government taking dividends and taxes from it. Maybe that's true and that a lot more money would improve Housing NZ. But that is not certain. 

It's not clear that increasing Housing NZ funding would house as many people as the other ways we can use to provide homes for low income people. Regardless, extra funds for Housing NZ have to come from somewhere and the same tax dollar cannot be spent twice.

Ultimately, Anthony and others opposed to selling state houses are firing at the wrong target. The basic problem is not who owns houses but that currently there are too few houses in New Zealand. And since what is most urgently needed are new houses, I think the Good Samaritan would make his priority supporting any move to reduce barriers to building new homes. The number of available houses does not change when the Government sells a state house or buys a house.

I also suspect he would remind us of the real objective and that how many houses the Government owns is simply a means to an end and not an end in itself.

Stephen Hickson is an active member of Lincoln Baptist Church and teaches economics at the University of Canterbury.

 - Stuff

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