When Natalie Robinson shared her journey to home ownership on The Spinoff earlier this year the responses included snark, unsolicited advice and shame. Now she says we need to keep talking about New Zealand’s housing crisis, but without the antagonism.
Earlier this year, I noticed an article on The Spinoff, calling for people who were struggling to buy a house to write in with their stories. Those words jumped out at me. I sent what I originally intended to be a brief email, but my anger, despair and general hopelessness at the time fuelled some keyboard bashing. Our story of a two income couple with a 20% deposit moving out of Auckland and still unable to buy a home eventually became part of the Unsettled documentary.
But, it just so happened that the week it gets released is the week we go unconditional on our first home (finally!), so I decided to write some more words about our experiences, but this time with positive reflection, when I can.
Over the last year, as we looked at properties and learnt about real estate agents, conveyancing law and Kiwisaver requirements, we’ve discovered one big truth: everybody’s experience is different.
The stories which generally get published in New Zealand media at the moment seem to be either ends of a vastly different spectrum. It’s all “we brought this $900,000 house because we stopped drinking lattes, and granddad left me $200,000”; or people feeling the housing crisis in an extreme fashion, being left crammed into unhealthy homes, or worse, cars. The people around us, meaning to be helpful (I think) would chip in with stories from their experiences – about buying a house on a benefit, or buying a house with a 2% deposit.
We felt like we were whinging when we told our story, because hey, on paper we’ve have it pretty alright. Facebook commenters were quick to tell us we’d gotten it wrong, or question statements I’d made, challenging our experiences with anecdotal tales of their own – a continuation of the adversarial (often along generational lines) conversations that emerge whenever New Zealanders talk about housing.
But we think our story represents what a lot of people are facing and experiencing, albeit in relative silence. For us, it felt like doors were constantly closed in our face. Gently, mind you: the banks knew in a few months our situation could be better, and then they’d want our business, and our 30-year commitment.
We learnt that we shouldn’t be so quick to tell people we were buying a house. For me, saying it started as defence mechanism, when people would get a bit judgy about my return to my hometown. I’d quickly offer up “we want to buy a house, and that’s not gonna happen in Auckland”, because Auckland house prices are a millennial’s equivalent to the weather as a conversation-starter.
I learnt to do my research, and keep doing it. We had to keep constantly re-assessing how much money we had, between our various sources, and how much this meant we could get from a bank, when the time came. It was pretty amazing that at any one moment, I could tell you how much was in my and my partner’s Kiwisaver fund, down to the cent.
We learnt to push through real estate agent talk, and quickly get very specific about what we wanted, and where we were willing to make sacrifices, and where we weren’t.
When we finally got to the stage where a bank would give us a mortgage, the next challenge began. Despite the comments from well-meaning people that ‘it’s a buyers market’, we constantly found ourselves tangled in multi-offer situations, or ringing about a house that had been listed and sold within 24 hours. And that’s without the intimidating auction sales that larger cities have.
The thing I’ve learnt most is that the process and the system is confusing, and there are many people who love to keep it that way. Our small town is starting to feel the pressure, with increasing demand for emergency housing as cheap properties are snapped up by investors. It made the national news recently. In discussing it with a colleague who’s involved with the group of stakeholders working to find a solution, the thing that struck me is how many New Zealanders think that a house is out of their reach. The conversations about becoming a homeowner aren’t supportive or inclusive, and instead all this confusing jargon is used to create a divide which is only becoming larger and more obvious.
In an election year – full of promises about affordable housing, emergency housing, less red tape for those wanting to build, and ways to help first-time home buyers – I think talking about everyone being able to live in a healthy home (be it through a secure renting system or owning) is is an important conversation to have, and to keep having.
Unsettled: Housing in Crisis was made possible with funding from New Zealand on Air. Click to begin the experience.