UN right about 'human rights' housing crisis, but wrong about the solution

Dr Eric Crampton
The Dominion Post
24 February, 2020

The United Nations is correct to consider New Zealand's housing crisis as a substantial human rights issue.

But while the UN is often excellent at seeing problems, it isn't so good at suggesting appropriate solutions. 

Henry Cooke last week reported that the government had invited UN special housing Rapporteur Leilani Farha to spend ten days visiting New Zealand

The problems in housing are obvious and have been for some time. Too few homes relative to the number of people who want to live in homes pushes up the cost of housing – both rents and the price of houses. This leads to overcrowding and people living in garages, sheds and vehicles. 

The results are severe because housing costs contribute materially to New Zealand's poverty statistics.

The effects of overcrowding are seen in our health statistics and the inability to find housing in employment-rich places means people are often stuck in locations with few opportunities. 

All of those have human rights consequences.

But they also stem from absolutely none of the problems Farha pointed to. They stem from ignoring one other rather important right.

Farha suggested New Zealand needs a capital gains tax to keep housing costs in line. But a capital gains tax has never built a house.

New Zealand has a shortage of houses. If you look across the United States, in which capital gains taxes vary state-by-state, housing affordability is not driven by differences in capital gains regimes.

California's capital gains tax on housing is more restrictive than Georgia's, but fast-growing Atlanta is far more affordable than San Francisco. Tax isn't the issue.

She also suggested rent freezes as a way of keeping costs down for tenants. But rent controls discourage investors from building new housing. And they also make it harder to deal with the existing shortage: under a rent freeze, just what would happen to potential flatmates in an overcrowded apartment when rents are high, but who you wouldn't consider otherwise? There must be somewhere for them to go. 

At the core, Farha saw the problem as property price speculation. But the real problem is a massive shortage of housing. And that is an issue of the set of rules councils put in place which make it difficult to build new housing, and a set of institutions created by central government making it difficult for councils to accommodate growth.

What we really need is a right to build, and the institutions to support it. 

Farha urges us to take the housing crisis seriously as a human rights issue.

What should we think about Hutt City Council taking extreme efforts to prevent Jono Voss from building a tiny home on a trailer, and the Environment Court backing this rights violation?

Laura Wiltshire reported on the case just this past week. Should we not consider both Hutt City Council's acting general manager of city transformation Helen Oram, and Environment Court judge Brian Dwyer, as human rights violators?

I rather think we should. If Voss has a right to a home, council and the Environment Court are the ones preventing him from having one, no matter how you might wish to couch it.

Their joint insistence on rules that would make it too expensive for him to build his tiny home are denying him a fundamental human right. And we should remember that their following the rules of the system is little defence when it comes to fundamental rights violations.

The Nuremberg Defence did not work for those who tried to invoke it in the 1940s. 

What should we think about cases where prominent and politically powerful people lodge objections against new construction near them, and especially new construction for poorer people, and the councils that heed those complaints?

A columnist last week reminded us of the former prime minister Helen Clark's 2000 submission in opposition to a dwelling house in her neighbourhood.

The homeowners in her neighbourhood, according to her submission, "have no desire to see their neighbourhood downgraded by the unwelcome and unwarranted intrusion of a very large number of unsupervised, yet needy, transient tenants". 

But those needy and transient people have human rights too.

Isn't blocking the place where they might have lived a violation of their human rights?

Should this kind of human rights violation lead to charges in New Zealand courts, or a United Nations Human Rights Tribunal?

Don't those who want to build housing for transients and the poor have rights too?

By contrast, when an upzoning was proposed for my neighbourhood of Khandallah, I submitted strongly in favour of allowing greater density. I did not want to suffer the fate that should rightly befall human rights violators. 

We do not need UN 'experts' in housing that seem utterly clueless. 

We have better experts right here. 

Minister Twyford was absolutely correct when last year he suggested the best way of dealing with capital gains is by allowing so much building that those gains never happen in the first place. 

It's time to build. And it's the right thing to do. 

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