An Auckland story

My parents started their married life in a garage-size bach which my father pre-fabricated where he had lived in Wellington, and then shipped by New Zealand Railways to a quarter-acre section of land at Mairangi Bay.  This was 1947, ten years before the Auckland Harbour Bridge was built, and a time when Mairangi Bay was a remote rural backwater without water reticulation, sewage, or sealed roads..   My father, who possessed a range of technical skills (photographer, radio serviceman, mechanic, carpenter, plumber and electrician) had it in mind that Auckland was the only place to be in New Zealand for an enterprising person with a technical bent.   The family settled in Mairangi Bay because they could afford to buy a section there, and Dad began work as an x-ray serviceman with Phillips Electrical Industries in the city, which entailed a long daily commute including a ferry trip from Devonport to the city.

His ambition was to move the family to Auckland city, in particular the Epsom area, and sometime about 1955 he entered an ex-servicemen's ballot for the right to buy one fifth of an acre of land in Gillies Ave which was one of the last remnants of the Noakes farm running between Gillies Avenue and Manukau Road, close to the site of the Epsom Girls Grammar School.  He won the ballot, and my parents proceeded to clear the land of its rough vegetation, and to build a house.   The rimu framing and flooring timber and the Californian redwood weatherboards came from the Manukau timber company sawmill just a few hundred metres down at the end of Silver Road,  My father did much of the work himself, working through weekends and summer evenings, and the family moved into the house before it was lined or furnished.  We led a very basic life.   In the early days, most of what we had was made at home.  Mum sewed our clothes, did the baking and preserved produce, Dad built the furniture for the house, and we all worked on the garden.

After we had been in Gillies Avenue for no more than a couple of years Dad set up his own business, actually a couple of businesses.  The first was making ear moulds for Phillips hearing aids.  The second was in the application of X-ray technology to detecting flaws in metallic and other materials, which is now a branch of what is called non-destructive testing.  For the next thirty years the NDT business was run from a  laboratory and office which my father built alongside the house.  He had a staff of only two or three at a time, and the business went up and down over the years, but eventually prospered to the point where it was bought out by the Swiss-based multinational SGS, and has now grown to become the largest and most significant non-destructive testing firm in New Zealand.

My father used the proceeds from the sale of the business to build a yacht and go sailing, and also to buy one of the three single story brick units which had been built on cross leased land on the last vacant section next door to our own.    At about this time the three oldest boys, including myself, had gone out into the world and were following our own fortunes.   I married and after a period of years spent in various kinds of labouring work and haphazard study trained in forestry at Canterbury University School of Forestry.  My older brother followed my father into non-destructive testing, while my younger brother became a bicycle mechanic.  I and my younger brother eventually settled down in Rotorua, while our oldest brother, sister and youngest brother all remained in Auckland.   Those who stayed in Auckland  prospered in business, and saw their nett worth increase to an almost startling extent as their property values soared.   The two of us in Rotorua had more modest careers, and arguably more modest ambitions, and, although in comfortable circumstances, even if we wished (which I can say we do not) we would not be able to afford to return to living where we grew up in Auckland city.

My father died in 1999, and my mother remained in the family home until her death in September 2012.

At this point I should point out a paradox.   Our family was politically left wing.  Despite spending most of his life as a small businessman, like his grandfather and some of his aunts and cousins (though not his father), our father had communist sympathies.   Our mother, who was of a more moderate disposition, was a member of the New Zealand Labour Party until her death.  Both parents were active in the New Zealand Peace Council and the campaign for nuclear disarmament.  We five children, even those who have been in business or become affluent in other ways are at least left-of-centre politically.  We participated in the anti-Vietnam war movement and the 1981 campaign against apartheid in South Africa.

In 2013 we were thus a left-leaning family of five middle aged siblings, all in reasonably comfortable circumstances, all on pretty good terms with each other despite the occasional episode of tension over the years, and we were faced with the decision of what to do with assets of our mother's estate.  The terms of her will were unremarkable.  Each child was to have an equal share of the estate, which comprised an Epsom house with a market value of possibly $2 million, a two bedroom flat with a market value of close to $600,000 and a smaller sum in cash.   The normal way of handling such a situation would be to sell the properties and distribute the proceeds of sale.

Although the most conservative of the five, (or perhaps because I am the most conservative) I favoured keeping the estate intact in the form of a family trust, for the  benefit of our mother's sixteen grandchildren.  My reasons had much to do with what I perceive as the weaknesses of the dominant culture in New Zealand: the relative absence of a sense of place, belonging, historical continuity and mutual social  obligation, which in Maori culture is inextricably associated with the institutions of the marae.  I thought that the family home, in a family trust, so far as possible occupied by members of the family, and maintained as an open home, would provide that enduring centre to a dispersed family.  There was some initial sympathy for the idea, but it fell out of favour, mainly because family members became acutely aware of the value (or rather market price) of the properties, the potential for earning substantial incomes from the proceeds of sale, and the possibility of using the capital to leverage further speculation in the Auckland property market.

I personally am concerned by the state of the Auckland property market, and the gross inequality of New Zealand society in which many Aucklanders now have no serious prospect of owning their own home, while foreign investors with access to cheap loans (and large amounts of capital from dubious sources) or better-off New Zealanders (people like ourselves) dominate the market to the exclusion of ordinary young working families.  I did not want to see the sale of our family home become another drop in the raging torrent which is sweeping aside a way of life that we enjoyed in the middle of the last century.  I was not alone in that.  I had an interesting conversation with our sister who expressed reservations about the influence of "non-resident" investors in the Auckland property market
She suggested  "If legislation prevented sales to non-residents then we could sell in a market where everyone was in the same boat and know we were not disadvantaging ourselves. I think it is unrealistic and unfair to leave this up to the individual. We could vote for a law change as some parties have suggested? I think Australia has a law on this".

My response to her was "You cannot now in good conscience tell your neighbours, through Parliament, that they must sell their properties on a depressed market from which non-resident buyers have been excluded, with perhaps the expectation that you would be able to snap up their properties cheaply using the inflated proceeds from your own earlier sale"   Therefore her viewpoint, which is also that of the Labour Party, could just as easily be called "unrealistic and unfair" as my own proposal, and the difference is that I was suggesting a voluntary moratorium on one particular sale, not a government fiat which would discriminate against some and work in favour of others.

In any case, I hold little hope that any New Zealand government will legislate to restrict non-resident ownership of anything in this country, and I believe that the problem is much bigger than non-resident activity in the residential housing market.  The real problem for New Zealand society is that all forms of common wealth have been sacrificed to the advancement of individual nett worth.   Every step away from collective ownership is necessarily and inevitably a stride towards social inequality.  Even if all assets are distributed equally (as in the case of our family) those equal shares may variously  be spent on the necessities of life, squandered, dispensed in charity, used to further expand personal wealth through business, speculation or exploitation.  Whatever the situation, the private distribution of collective assets, whether it be a family home or a state power generator, inevitably leads to greater social inequality.  The question is whether we consider we have gone too far down that track, and if we have, how we can reverse the trend.

I suggest that we start with our own lives and our own assets.  As a society we are too morally compromised to expect the state to act on behalf of our collective interest.  The overwhelming majority of parliamentarians of the right and of the left, from National, Labour, ACT or the Green Party, are landlords or property speculators.  Parliament will not produce a solution to the housing crisis, because the housing crisis actually works to the material advantage of the great majority of parliamentarians.    It is we, the people, acting as individuals, who must stop aspiring to be capitalists who only work to the detriment of the wider community.   The housing crisis is more than an economic abstraction.   It is a cause of real suffering, disrupted lives, recurrent illness, continual stress and broken families.  It is also the source of economic stagnation.   The affluent classes, obsessed with their personal real estate portfolios, have neglected or consciously abandoned their moral obligation to develop productive industry for the greater good of society as a whole.

John Key has declared that New Zealanders should "not be tenants in their own country".   If that is true, why should any New Zealander be a tenant in his or her own home?  How can some 7% of New Zealanders be "landlords in their own country" through a much greater number of New Zealanders becoming "tenants in their own country"?   Things have got out of hand, and I suspect that the greatest damage is being done not by the "non-resident" foreign investor, but by those thousands of New Zealanders who have developed an insatiable appetite for private wealth.  People like the Crafar family who, if they do not themselves fall into the maw of the foreign investor, which is most often the case, will use their wealth in ways which deprive their fellow New Zealanders of the possibility of a farm, a home and a productive life of their own.

It would be grossly unfair to single out one family, except by way of example, and there are Crafars by other names all over this country.  From "investment properties" to "KiwiSaver" all have become hooked on the idea of "money making money" which comes down to the simple truth of other less privileged people making our money for us.

We tend to see our own family as uniquely different.  In many ways it is.  In other ways it represents what our country was, how it has changed over the past 65 years, and the way it is now.   It is neither a wholly bad story nor a wholly good one.  It is a story which should tell us that "We can do better".

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