Across the world, the housing issue continues to rise.
In New Zealand, the bubble has ballooned for the last ten years, particularly during Covid.
The number of new houses built for applicants is small, with no immediate solution on the horizon. Those houses that shift are generally older, with significant structural and health problems.
But why exactly are we here if the demand for housing exists?
The housing dream
The ’50s, as advertised in America, was a boon season for housing. A middle class was created and given tax breaks and enough wealth to spend in an increasingly blue-collar marketplace. Propped up by pent-up demand and a surging economy, the dream became every nuclear family with its own home. A nuclear family unit was, of course, husband, wife and 1–3 kids.
General inflation continued through the 1980s. New initiatives, such as the one followed in the UK under the Thatcher administration, were implemented to reduce the necessary amount of state housing. Extra discounts made these houses more affordable, and property ownership became more feasible as more money came in. A new form of renting out to tenants was available — a blow to the American dream of manly homeownership but more faithful to an economy of plentiful capitalists. Those who had stakes in property could boost prices as they saw fit.
We’re now seeing a levelling off of the housing boom, which is being overtaken by the increase in national debt. Notice I’m not being nation-specific here — this crisis has legs and is spreading worldwide.
Fast forward to now, and in New Zealand, many are (or were, before Covid) choosing to immigrate, with the demand for affordable housing at an all-time high. Meanwhile, newly arrived immigrants are pushing the market further without GPD support.
So who are you going to call?
A conservative démocratic libertarian named Heinlein
The Dean of Science Fiction, Robert Anton Heinlein, was deeply a product of his time and country. As a navy officer during the Second World War, he held strong views regarding patriotism and duty to the government, chastising his fellow authors, such as John W. Campbell and Isaac Asimov, for sitting the war out in a lab.
Yet he wasn’t above critiquing the views of his beloved nation. Beginning his life as a democratic campaigner, Heinlein, like H. G. Wells, soon turned to the bosom of fiction to relay his message. For Us, the Living (1939) is his first novel and reads much like the earlier utopianism (including Wells himself, with the likes of The Sleeper Awakes (1899). As in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) style, Heinlein has his protagonist wake up in a future world, recovered by people who happen to be accomplished twentieth-century historians (or conveniently know someone who is).
This plot device was often used by the utoponists to quickly rush the audience into the essential facts of the matter — the structure of the future utopian society. For Heinlein, in 1939, that meant a system of social credits and anarchist collaboration with a valid government of the people, similar to B. F. Skinner’s later utopianist experiment Walden Two (1948).
Later in life, following the Second World War and the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War (which again has returned with Putin’s recent power grab over Ukraine), Heinlein lost much of his faith in humanity. A stricter form of authority was needed, with proper world governance that would enforce peace and prevent us from acts of savagery.
Such beliefs inevitably put Heinlein at a strange dissonance from his patriotism, particularly considering the United States’ constitutional attitude to the free market. But Heinlein was all about peace before anything else.
Where am I going with this?
Heinlein is most famous for two novels, aside from his Starship Troopers (1959) — Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966). Although dismayed at having them portrayed as part of the 60’s counter-cultural hippy movement, these books present very different attitudes to property, governance, and our relationship with each other. Taken together, these three could solve the housing market.
Property and governance
Homeownership is a solid cultural symbol that displays success and the ability to provide for oneself. Realistically, it’s as primordial as the caveman who bashed his way to a nice dry spot above the Savannah to raise his brood.
Yet we also acknowledge that leaving the rest of the tribe to starve isn’t feasible or desirable in a social system like ours. Even while we continue to reduce population pressures, what to do with the remaining people matters.
The answer to this may be a case of going backwards to go forwards, viewing the housing issue from another angle entirely. Imagine housing as we do public transport — we all use roads under the government’s jurisdiction. Thank heavens for that. Otherwise, we’d have so many competing roads, tollbooths and dead ends that we’d never get anywhere.
Perhaps it’s time to adopt something similar and treat our housing economy like a precious, enclosed reason — as with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The system is one of Rational Anarchism, in which each person is a self-responsible individual who accepts some form of governance as needed. In such an environment, individual ownership is non-feasible — the community couldn’t support any homeless. So instead, all housing is regulated by one anarchist government.
Perhaps the most significant change in attitudes has been the withdrawal of the 50’s family dream. Now we’ve welcomed all our taboos to the fore, including divorced and single parents, remarriages, same-sex relations and a host of other pairings, including an increase in the value of nonsexual friendship. We moved out of the extended family mid-last century, and now we’re moving back in with new families unrelated by blood. There’s also been an increase in friends and multiple couples buying a place together to get on the property ladder.
Heinlein’s thinking extends this idea with group or line marriages, where groups of men and women exist in one large, complex family of multiple marriage pairings. This is similar to his idea in Stranger in a Strange Land, in which common communities share the same space and grok awareness together.
Such a system may answer some of our housing crises' more complex psychological needs. Solving the issues of property and governance also depends on changing the attitudes of individuals, moving away from a competitive, traditional family or newfound family unit to one in which everyone exists and shares the resources of the more prominent family. Such a system might begin under something similar to Aldous Huxley’s The Island (1962) community, where a child is considered the village’s responsibility, not just that of the child’s blood parents. However, the current reality is that children of multiple marriages or non-traditional parents are also highly likely to experience neglect and ultimately feel more cut off from society.
So can Heinlein be right?
This discussion has included many assumptions about the possibility of human behaviour and the state of the economy. To get to Heinlein’s world state, we have to think as collective anarchists, all of us being self-responsible and yet governable under laws that protect our interests, safety and access to resources. This may be possible in SimCity — but we’re not all of an ordinary mind. We’re all tied together by some standard liberal views but also very much attached to our free-enterprise lifestyles.
Right now, we’re like a dog with a stick in its mouth. We want someone to throw the stick for us but don’t want to let it go. Plus, we’re not entirely sure the stick won’t disappear altogether if we do. The collaboration needed here for us to let go of the stick is hard to come by. Affordable housing may never be within reach, and the market increase seems inevitable.
But so, says Ursula K. Le Guin, did the divine right of kings once upon a time.
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Gohin, Madeleine & Hearn, Lizzi. ‘Why is there a housing crisis — and what can we do about it?’ on The countryside charity. 7 December 2021.
Hunt, Elle. ‘Can you help me?’: The quiet desperation of New Zealand’s housing crisis’ in The Guardian. 19 March 2021.
Mitchell, Daniel J. ‘The 1950s Economic Golden Age Is a Myth’ on Fee Stories. 15 November 2017.
Nevala-Lee, Alec. Astounding. HarperCollins Publishing. 2019.
Olley, Sam. ‘Housing crisis: Housing shortage hitting Kaikohe so badly, overcrowding is now the norm, residents say’ in Stuff. 12 September 2021.
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