Opinion: Home is where the heart is

Why is it that while New Zealand's housing stock continually improves, the problem of adequately housing the population worsens?

The pat answer is to talk about the widening divide between the haves and have-nots, and that is surely partly responsible. You don't hear about people living in garages on the Cliffs or up Valhalla Drive in Richmond, at Little Kaiteriteri or in the flash development above Pohara. Ostentatious dwellings have proliferated in new subdivisions around the region and in some of the desirable older settled areas – Rocks Rd and the Tahunanui Hills, for example – ever bigger monuments to wealth are thrown up to replace the modest dwellings of times past. It sometimes seems that two bathrooms, plus ensuites, are a necessity for the upwardly mobile couple with children, and that three bedrooms simply won't do.

Why is living in a big house so important? They cost more to buy and more to run – rates, electricity, maintenance are enlarged in a big house on a big section, not to mention the work required in upkeep. Yet the common aspiration is to graduate from rented accommodation to a "starter home" – note the not-so-subtle derogation – then something bigger and flasher and finally, for those who can manage it, an "executive home", which has an office incorporated in its fancy design.

It would be trite to make a comparison with living conditions in the Third World, where it is common for whole families to sleep in one room and share a bathroom and kitchen with others. But what about the New Zealand of just 50 years ago? At that time the country was proud of its standard of living, recognised as one of the best in the developed world. What did New Zealanders have? In material terms, not a lot compared with today. It was the norm for quite large families to share an unpretentious three-bedroomed house. The 1962 song "Little Boxes" although American, struck a chord in New Zealand because the picture of suburban life was so recognisable ("There's a green one and a pink one, And a blue one and a yellow one, And they're all made out of ticky-tacky, And they all look just the same.")

None of this suggests that there isn't a housing problem. Clearly, there is. It might be drawing a long bow to suggest that there are lots of people living "on the street" in Nelson. If so, they must be able to afford invisibility cloaks, because they don't show up like the homeless in overseas cities, huddled in doorways, under bridges and, in warm climates, in the parks. However, there are those who are crammed into inadequate homes or forced to occupy sleepouts and the like because they can't afford anything better. That needs to be addressed at a Government level, as it used to be far more adequately, and there's a limited role for councils to play in providing some low-cost units for the elderly and unfortunate.

But building an ever-fancier housing stock isn't helping. When everyone aspires to live in a big house with at least two bathrooms, that's what gets built and that's what people trying to get a foot on the property ladder increasingly have to try to rent. Taken to its logical conclusion, it leads to teeming ghettoes of poverty surrounded by underpopulated affluence – not far from what Nelson is already like. Meanwhile many couples work two and three jobs to keep up the mortgage payments or the rent, and those approaching retirement look askance at the dwindling supply of homes suitable for the "downsizing" they have been planning. Where is the real gain?

The Nelson Mail