Never Owning 'Our First Home' by Andrew Dean

If you are a twenty-something New Zealander and missed out on a slot on the latest reality TV show to spruik the property market, what chance of getting on the real estate ladder? Not great, writes author Andrew Dean, unless there is serious intervention.

In the TVNZ series Our First Home, parents buy a property for their children and they all renovate it together. The house is then sold, with the aim of using the profit as a deposit for the children’s first home. And we get to watch, wondering whether this process of making already unaffordable homes more unaffordable will finally allow these young people to get a place of their own.

Earlier this year, in response to a question about housing, Prime Minister John Key told Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report, ‘I don’t think you can call it a crisis.’ Yet the reality in our cities – alongside the reality of our reality TV programmes – suggests there is little else to call it. In Auckland, the median house price is now over nine times the median annual household income. Nationally the ratio is nearing six, making owning a home out of reach for many. Our First Home offers what seems like a reasonable solution to those trying to get into the housing market – speculate on property in order to get property – one that would be appealing were it not so manifestly absurd.

The programme is an index of the failure of politics to address the problems that young people face in the housing market. There are political measures that would really help them to get into their own homes, such as mandating more affordable new builds and taking the incentives out of property speculation. Better new entrant wages, reversing the trend to casual labour and the end of education debt in the form of student loans, would all make lasting differences too. Yet these are all somehow less real than using your parents’ money to compete in a reality TV show in which you make money by speculating and flipping property, before eventually buying your own home.

Where would the young people in the programme go to resolve the problems they face, in this the real world, rather than that, the fantasy one? It is clear that they would not go to the ballot box, as their parents and their grandparents did. Politicians of all stripes have abandoned young people’s interests: Labour has given up its capital gains tax policy, while National and ACT favour loosening urban limits so that everyone can enjoy the social, cultural, and economic benefits of urban sprawl. In an era when variants of ‘leave it to the market’ make up the majority of the political debate, it is hard to imagine any political party intervening with the property market to the advantage of those who do not own their own homes.

Everyone has a theory about why so many young people do not vote, but Our First Home is almost all the evidence we need. The political and social circumstances that allow for a programme like that are the same ones that have seen a whole generation drop out of electoral participation. Only a little over 60 per cent of enrolled 18-30 year olds voted in the last election, compared with over 85 per cent of enrolled voters over 60. It is not apathy that is stopping young people – they care deeply about the world in which they live – but resignation, as they simply live with the circumstances in which they find themselves. Politics in its current form has little to offer them: they know they must rely on individual solutions that rest in their own hands, rather than in collective ones.

As a result there is a certain circularity to the problem: disempowerment breeds disengagement which breeds disempowerment. Groups of people that do not participate in the political process lose the capacity to have their needs catered for. At the same time, those whose needs are ignored are the least likely to participate. The decline in voting among young people is counter to their interests, as we observe in the failure of the political system to address the housing crisis, but neither the decline nor the crisis are likely to be addressed in the current environment.

Putting an end to the world that created Our First Home will take much more than a few technical fixes. At the very least, we must put an end to the sanguine belief that the market will simply fix the problem. Intervention is needed, both expanding supply and dampening demand. More than that, the generational experiences of young people must not be discounted, even if they are not making it to the polls – they are not making it to the polls because of these experiences. But that is a longer project of listening and caring, one that is not taking place right now. After all, there is no crisis, and the winners of Our First Home made $190,000 off the sale of their property at auction.

Andrew Dean is the author of Ruth, Roger and Me: Debts and Legacies. A version of this post was first published as an Otago Daily Times op-ed on the book’s publication in April 2015. A second series of Our First Home is returning to New Zealand screens in 2016.