Recently, Adam McKibben in the UK newspaper The Independent made the following claim:
When we look back through history, we see that all the major changes in British housing have taken place due to mass movements – tenants’ unions.
He goes on to credit collective action by renters for forcing successive governments to improve housing quality, build social housing, control rents, and in general keep housing issues on the policy agenda.* He argues that, as in the past, “tenants need to come together to put a stop to the housing crisis.”
The crisis in housing for New Zealand renters is just as acute as the UK’s. Our problems include: 34,000 people unable to access housing; 23% of renters spending 40% or more of their income on housing; 70% of children in poverty living in rental homes; high rates of infectious disease due to household crowding; and high rates of respiratory illness due to poor quality housing.
Perhaps our need for a tenants’ union to try to address the crisis is even more urgent than that discussed by McKibben, given the lack of a political voice for renters. In the UK, Shelter conducts research and run campaigns to bring the issues facing the badly housed to the attention of the public and politicians. In Australia, renters can look to tenant organisations in every state, or to Australians for Affordable Housing and Shelter. Such organisations submit on legislation, lobby governments and work to keep issues such as tenure security and quality housing in the public eye.
Public participation in the law and policy process is recognised as a good thing. Indeed, as our Government puts it, “the involvement of…organisations in decisions that affect them is a sign of a healthy participatory democracy.”
However, some part of the community manage to represent themselves better than others. They meet inside the Beehive, shout from the outside, submit on legislation or rouse their members to. In the area of housing area, organisations represent home-owners, community housing providers, and landlords. On the building and planning side, various organisations participate in the policy-making process (for example, see submissions to the Productivity Commission inquiry here). Though social service organisations and research groups who submit on legislation and policy documents often draw attention to the issues affecting renters, renters have no equivalent to the lobbyist maintained in Parliament by the landlords’ association.
But that’s not to say renters couldn’t have an equally loud voice in our healthy participatory democracy – one that reflects the fact that they’re a good third of the population. Funding for such an organisation could come from the interest on the bonds that the Government takes care of for us.
Perhaps it’s time for New Zealand renters to come together to push for their interests.
* Can the same be said for New Zealand? Wait for me to finish my thesis and I’ll speculate.