Thursday 5 March 2020

Rights to Housing

The United Nations' special rapporteur told us that there exists a right to housing, and that New Zealand is violating it. 

She went on to recommend the kinds of things that are utterly useless in increasing housing supply: more rules on landlords, capital gains taxes and the like.

The whole concept is ludicrous. A right to housing, taken as a positive right, implies an obligation on someone to provide it. And why would you even start there when government so regularly violates basic property rights through processes that make it effectively impossible to build? How can we go around damning landlords, while being utterly inured to the regularised processes that block new housing from being built?

In last week's Fairfax papers, I decided to see what happens if we take this kind of rights-talk more seriously than it deserves. If a landlord evicting a tenant is violating human right, according to the United Nations, what should we think about council bureaucrats who forbid building?
[UN Special Rapporteur] Farha urges us to take the housing crisis seriously as a human rights issue.

What should we think about Hutt City Council taking extreme efforts to prevent Jono Voss from building a tiny home on a trailer, and the Environment Court backing this rights violation?

Laura Wiltshire reported on the case just this past week. Should we not consider both Hutt City Council's acting general manager of city transformation Helen Oram, and Environment Court judge Brian Dwyer, as human rights violators?

I rather think we should. If Voss has a right to a home, council and the Environment Court are the ones preventing him from having one, no matter how you might wish to couch it.

Their joint insistence on rules that would make it too expensive for him to build his tiny home are denying him a fundamental human right. And we should remember that their following the rules of the system is little defence when it comes to fundamental rights violations.

The Nuremberg Defence did not work for those who tried to invoke it in the 1940s.

What should we think about cases where prominent and politically powerful people lodge objections against new construction near them, and especially new construction for poorer people, and the councils that heed those complaints?

A columnist last week reminded us of the former prime minister Helen Clark's 2000 submission in opposition to a dwelling house in her neighbourhood.

The homeowners in her neighbourhood, according to her submission, "have no desire to see their neighbourhood downgraded by the unwelcome and unwarranted intrusion of a very large number of unsupervised, yet needy, transient tenants".

But those needy and transient people have human rights too.

Isn't blocking the place where they might have lived a violation of their human rights?

Should this kind of human rights violation lead to charges in New Zealand courts, or a United Nations Human Rights Tribunal?

Don't those who want to build housing for transients and the poor have rights too?

By contrast, when an upzoning was proposed for my neighbourhood of Khandallah, I submitted strongly in favour of allowing greater density. I did not want to suffer the fate that should rightly befall human rights violators. 
My YIMBY submission for Khandallah is here.

I expanded on things for the Dom this week:
It's now a commonplace for people to view see a positive right to housing, and a commensurate obligation on government to provide it. Even our chief human rights commissioner Paul Hunt said, in response to the report, that the housing crisis is a human rights crisis, and that present conditions violate our right to housing.

But Farha's recommendations start with a positive right. And that is not where we should begin.

New Zealand's housing system is entirely out of order and has been for some time. Every incentive in the system seems designed to stymie councils accommodating growth. The costs of growth are borne by councils while increases in tax revenue go to central government. When councils and ratepayers see growth as a cost, they set rules and make decisions to minimise those costs.

If accommodating more housing requires taking on infrastructure costs that the council cannot bear, councils will find ways of preventing urban expansion and densification.

If liability rules mean councils are left with the total cost if a build goes wrong, they will be extremely risk averse in just what it allows to be built – with the resulting costs falling sharply on people who can no longer afford housing.

This all accumulates to give us a horrible, horrible mess. Every mundane decision to not approve an extra floor on an apartment building here, or to prevent a row of townhouses from replacing a couple of houses there, or to block someone from building a tiny house on a trailer frame in his friend's back yard – they all add up.

It creates a situation that nobody wants and that cannot have been anyone's intention, but is the inexorable outcome when everyone works within the system as they face it in response to the incentives that they are given. Dozens and dozens of decisions made every day within that system really do amount to a substantial rights violation. They prevent people from exercising their right to housing by making construction far too difficult.
I don't really think there's a right to housing. But Councils and central government really are jointly responsible for egregious rights violations. Central government sets a system that makes it much to hard for councils to accommodate growth. Councils respond by having bureaucrats set and enforce rules that work to make housing far too expensive. The consequences are severe, even though every one of the council bureaucrats is only following orders.

And if the United Nations really wants to get serious about rights to housing, well, things could get interesting.

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