Here’s the dream

In another five years, bubs will be starting school, and we’ll have had all the babies we’re going to have, and we’ll pick a city and pick a suburb and stay there for at least the next 20 years, in a house we can call our family home. We’ll get to know our neighbours, our kids will play with other kids on the street, they’ll go to the local school, we’ll put down roots.

We’re in no great rush to buy a house before then. I get a headache thinking of the prospect of yoking ourselves to a mortgage while we still have twenty grand of student loans between us to repay, and while I’m facing a few years of on-off maternity leave/part-time work, especially given the cost of childcare. And besides, we might not stay in this shimmering harbour capital, we might be drawn back north to our hometown, where we can sit in traffic for hours but also climb volcanoes, swim at wild beaches, and wear t-shirts all year round.

Either way, the best time for us to buy a house is a few years down the track. Or it would be, in a functional market. Instead, my father-in-law says “the best time to buy is always last year, the second-best is today.” Then there’s the government deposit subsidy (both actual and proposed), maybe we should buy a house while our income is below the cap? Maybe we should buy something that we don’t plan to stay in for more than a couple of years, just to get a toe-hold? Or just because it’d give us secure tenure for the next four years, which is worth the premium?

Maybe that sort of thinking is contributing to ridiculous house prices in urban centres.

It’s obvious that the market is completely distorted because all buying decisions are predicated on the distortion. You can’t pay too much for a house in central Auckland, it’s sure to be worth twice what you paid for it in another ten years. Buy now, even if your repayments are crippling, better than waiting.

The only real winners are the banks. It might look like those who bought good thirty years ago have done well, and sure, they’ve been personally lucky; but when housing becomes as much about making money as having a roof over your head, communities suffer, and everyone bears that loss. You knew your neighbours, but then they moved, sold up for a million dollars; you love your house but you know how much you could get for it and that opportunity cost weighs over you. Your new neighbours are renting, they’re not making the effort to get to know you, they’re only going to be there a couple of years.

My opening vignette conjures up the romantic notion deep in our national psyche, but it’s not really how things are likely to play out, I know that already. I’m living in my ninth house. Three houses my parents owned, two they rented, four my husband and I have rented together. In two of the homes I lived in as a child, I had that neighbourhood coziness, but most of the neighbours in both those places have moved on now.

Are politicians cynical when they talk about home-ownership building stable communities, or are they living in a bubble? The fact that the family home is a sacred cow excluded from a proposed capital gains tax is telling. An acknowledgement that the houses people own and occupy will one day be sold, a dash of doublethink to undercut the idea that owning a house is about making a home, not just a matter of property.

Which brings me back to where I started. It’d be nice, one day, to own a house – but what I’m really interested in is making a home for my kiddies, nestling them into a little village where they can feel they belong, where the connections to place and people are strong. Home ownership is not an ends in itself, it’s just the means. The housing market militates against this, both through prices to buy and structures for renting. I’m not wedded to buying a house. The dream isn’t home ownership, it’s a stable community.

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