Emergency housing: Welcome to Domicide City
Judging by the plans, Michael Parekowhai’s state-house sculpture on Queens Wharf is going to look fabulous — but what it represents is anathema to me. I disagree with Anthony Byrt that any barb the sculpture makes about gentrification is “made a little spikier by the fact that its main funders are also the city’s most powerful realtors”. Instead, the money is a sign of approval from an industry that has profited from the privatisation of the same public asset depicted. The sculpture becomes a scalp, a triumphant house-seller trophy. Given that our right to a home was once guaranteed by public housing, Light House is an agency’s crowing about the profits made from the destruction of that right. In other words: the sculpture is a beautiful celebration of “domicide”.
And the timing is perfect. The right to a home is currently being eroded in this city as it hasn’t been for 80-odd years — from Glen Innes evictions and the lethal neglect of state houses to ever more exorbitant house prices and rents. The results are dire: 15,000 Aucklanders are “severely housing deprived”; children suffer from anachronistic housing-related diseases; teachers can’t afford to work in Auckland; and we have the lowest home-ownership rates since 1951. This last wouldn’t be such a problem — I rent, by choice, myself — except that New Zealand’s tenancy rights are some of the weakest in the world.
With house ownership no longer an option for the poor, these issues are almost always split into middle-class and working-class categories — and of course “property” gets far more column inches than “housing”. But both sets of issues exacerbate each other and, at heart, are about the same important, complex yet taken-for-granted concept of “home”.
In its barest, biological form, home is where we sleep: our den, nest, carapace and cocoon. The implications are huge. When sleeping, we are at our most physically vulnerable, so a home needs to be secure and safe so that we can relax — it is a place of refuge. It is lockable territory, into which we can retreat and invite trusted others, our backstage from social performance.
When sleeping, we are at our most physically vulnerable, so a home needs to be secure and safe so that we can relax — it is a place of refuge.
Whether we choose to use “home” to mean our dwelling, neighbourhood or nation, we mean somewhere that we understand and find predictable. Home may be slightly boring, but we return in order to breathe easy between adventures elsewhere.
Of course, probably due to those weak tenancy laws, New Zealanders have traditionally tied financial security to this physical safety; we’re taught not to see our dwelling as home until it is also investment. (Are we buying freedom? Maybe not: as an owner, you can bang nails in the walls but the market dictates your weak-tea exterior colour.)
But home is also people. Children born overseas and sent here for schooling are sometimes asked by their parents, “Where’s home for you?” The unexpected reply is often, “Wherever you are.”
Home is where acceptance is taken for granted: a Robert Frost poem says that “home is the place where… they have to take you in”. It’s a place where we belong (another loaded term). If your presence under shelter is reliant on your being on your anxious best behaviour — in a friend’s garage or an emergency shelter — then you are not at home. The homeless are not just those on the streets.
Take away our right to a home and you deny the central focus of most people’s lives. People may reluctantly and permanently leave a beloved home for many reasons, including growing unaffordability, relationship violence, infirmity — and domicide.
Coined by geographers Douglas Porteous and Sandra Smith, the term means “the deliberate destruction of home by agencies pursuing goals [where this] causes suffering to those who lose their homes”. Domicide includes 19th-century colonisation and today’s moving of tenants who don’t want to move.
Domicide motives include profit (and, at the extreme end, conflict and war), but also “goal-oriented planning” and “public interest”. In order to reach laudable goals without causing homesickness for a place to be erased, the importance of home to us human animals must be acknowledged. If home is where the heart is, then domicide breaks hearts. Rented accommodation can be home. Emergency housing is not.
This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of Metro. Illustration: Anna Crichton.