Monday, February 11, 2013

Faculty Housing: a tale for Waitangi Day

It was Waitangi Day on Wednesday... the 173rd birthday of the document which turned Aotearoa into New Zealand, at least for some people and in some ways. The treaty itself is laid out in three 'articles' and each of these has a different way of being problematic in terms of translation, application and breaches.

The major guarantee for Maori is the wording 'tino rangatiratanga' which is in the second article: this is what Maori retain, and it is often - (un)helpfully - directly translated 'absolute chieftainship' although, of course, it is perhaps more helpfully translated 'sovereignty' (well, more helpful if you think that's what Maori retain), a term which has become prominent in many Indigenous communities as an expression of - yes, here's another catchphrase - self determination.

But what do all of these things - self-determination, sovereignty, absolute chieftainship - actually mean? And how do they work across Maori and English languages?

Since 1840, one issue for Maori has been determining the relationship between tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake: both of these are translated 'sovereignty' but they are clearly not the same phrase in Maori. Rather than providing a linguistic or anthropological analysis of how these are and aren't connected, I think it's easier to tell a story. A tale.

A tale for Waitangi Day.


Here at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa there are three complexes of housing for people who work at the university. This is a very expensive real estate market, and moving here from outside Hawai'i is inevitably a costly process, and this housing is intended to 'soften the blow' a little for new employees as they transition to life in Honolulu. The benefit of Faculty Housing is that it is subsidised: rent for a large two bedroom place per month is around $1100, which is several hundred dollars less than on the 'open market' and with the advantage of being well maintained and close to campus.

So, as soon as I was offered the job at UH, I asked to be put on 'the list' for faculty housing. I was ineligible for one of the complexes (because it is for familes with more than three people, and we are presently a two person family) so my name went on the list for the other two.

I waited, and waited, and shortly before moving here I started to wonder if I should come up with an alternative plan for accomodation so I emailed someone who explained that I am a lower priority because I have come in as an Assoc Professor rather than as an Assistant Professor, and (in answer to my next question) no, the fact I was coming from overseas didn't make a difference. Clearly at some point they thought it would be a good idea to prioritise the list by 'need' and the way they thought they could determine 'need' would be to put the Assistant Professors up the list because they are newer to the game. That's fair, right?

This makes sense, of course, until you consider that 'Assistant' and 'Associate' are not the only ways that 'need' might be determined. If we're talking about financial need, it's possible that people coming from overseas are likely to be financially disadvantaged regardless of rank because it costs so much to move here and we tend to arrive with weaker currencies in our bank accounts than US dollars. Also, people are paid different rates depending on the College and Department they work for: as someone who works in English, even on an Assoc Prof salary, I am earning significantly less than I would be if I started in the sciences, for example. Indeed, I am unlikely to ever make as much money at UH, at any rank, as a starting Assistant Professor in Astrophysics.

This also makes sense unless you consider that US work visas work in such a way that new employees who are not US citizens are likely to be on a visa which disallows them from working for an employer other than UH (no second job to make a bit of extra cash, something many academics rely on) and their spouses will be disallowed from working at all. During the transition to the US, until green cards are in hand, the money of non-US citizens has to stretch further, wider, longer and deeper and we have no legal way to 'top up' our income.

I started to realise I needed a plan B for housing, and found a subletting arrangement elsewhere on the island that worked well for the first semester. As soon as I arrived, however, I sought further advice and information about Faculty Housing. I was in a holding pattern, waiting my turn on the list, and wanted to know how long I might need to wait.

It turned out we might have to wait a while.

The theory of Faculty Housing is that you can stay for a maximum of three years (a one year lease which can be renewed twice) which is fair enough. It means the available housing can be used by the maximum number of people coming into the university and three years should give people enough time to find their feet. However, the management of Faculty Housing doesn't apply this rule in any kind of consistent way, which means that there are people living in Faculty Housing for years. And years. Like, eighteen years. Twelve years. Many, many years. This isn't a transition for these people; it's a lifestyle. A lifestyle which means if you want to see a really nice selection of new (and often luxury) cars in Honolulu just go to the Faculty Housing parking lot.

Because people don't tend to leave, new people don't tend to be able to come in. There are always exceptional circumstances which mean a rule needs to be stretched - family situations, health situations, and so on - and it is appropriate for some people to stay for longer than three years I'm sure. But when we noticed the lovely cars outside many of the place, when we realised some families there are made up of two working adults who are highly paid, and when started hearing there are apparently people living there who own and rent out residential properties elsehere in Honolulu, we started to really wonder.

Now, you may be thinking 'but academics have sabbaticals - do the people who stay in their houses for all that time never leave? Or does that create 'natural' opportunities to move people out?' There's an answer of course, and that answer is subletting. This is expressly against the rules but overlooked. People on the waiting list are often desperate enough to sublet from people already in faculty housing while they wait for their name to come up... which is understandable because believe my I know how desperate one can feel in this real estate market! But, this only means that the people from whom they sublet are able to stay in their apartment for even longer. And so it goes on.

I kept asking about the status of my place on the list and kept being told my rank meant I wasnt a priority, and that there were so many people on the list that it always took this long. Which I believed until I heard about people who started at UH the same time as me who were already in housing and had been since they stepped off the plane. I started to get desperate, and was advised that the thing to do is lobby for my Dean to advocate for me to be prioritised. It turns out, you see, that 'the list' is not really followed after all. There's a complicated system of favours and advocacy which means the housing is assigned to people when they have someone higher up the foodchain arguing for the rules to be broken.

At the end of January Vula and I needed to have a place to live and we were desperate. I was frequently in tears: frustrated with the deep & multi-layered unfairness of the system, beyond stressed about the possibility of having nowhere to live on 1 February, tired from not sleeping properly, and fatigued by constantly having to spend so much energy trying to get some traction with faculty housing. I started to dream about spending our next paycheck on tickets out of here, in a classic case of wanting to run away from our problems.

One day, as I sat hopelessly sobbing and wiping away the snot on the sleeve of my tshirt, Vula gently pointed out the obvious. (No, not that I looked like a mess although that was also true.) The problem here was that we didn't have power over our own decisions. We were waiting for someone else to make this possible for us. As long as we thought faculty housing was our only (or best) option, we were stuck in a pattern of dependence on a system which was deeply unfair in its structure, had always been unfair, and was unfairly managed. None of our logical arguments would change this; none of our impassioned cries would change it either. Too many people benefit from the system in its present state for things to change anyway.

As soon as he said it, the clouds began to clear. It was a relief to suddenyl realise that we'd been confusing 'Faculty Housing' with 'Housing' and it wasn't actually a requirement to have faculty housing in order to move here. Sure, it would have been convenient but, as Vula said in the conversation, if faculty housing wasnt on offer we would have just gone ahead and sorted out our own accomodation sooner. It wasn't the only practical avenue to housing, and it would take less energy to find our own place than to attempt to work with - let along fix - the system presently in place.

I realised I had been nurturing a fantasy of living in faculty housing which I had had since I first lived in Hawaii back in 2003. I'd visited people who had apartments there and had always dreamed of living in such an wonderful environment. When we stayed in a friend's apartment there in January I found myself seeing another side of that dream: the fancy cars, the subletting, the way people kept asking Vula what he was doing there (I guess they don't expect Fijian men to be academics, or spouses of academics?), the narrow band of society who lived there. (Let's face it, Faculty Housing is a gated community with a list instead of a gate.) Part of giving up the fantasy of living there involves reminding myself that it has only been a fantasy: it has never actually functioned equitably, and when it has appeared to fuction well that has been 'paid for' by some other, inequitable, part of the system. And yet, miraculously, the dream has not been totally undermined by the inequity or the experience. Dreams die hard and are astoundingly resistant to facts or realities, including dreams about Faculty Housing. However, at some point you have to make a break with 'what could have been' and start with 'here we are, a family with our own needs, priorities and aspirations.'

In the last two weeks of January we both spent hours looking for places online, going to check them out, filling in applications for places, and trying to stay proactive. After quite a few setbacks we received a phone call offering us the small two bedroom apartment in which I am typing up this blog post. We scraped together the deposit (which we would have called a 'bond' in NZ) and moved in.

We're home tonite. If I lean sideways on my chair, I can look out of the study and see Vula in the lounge. The rent here is marginally more than faculty housing, although the length of our entire apartment is probably as long as the lounges there and, rather than having a bathroom and ensuite like the apartments have there, we have the smallest bathroom in the world. Nothing our neighbour upstairs does goes unnoticed because we can hear his every move; we suspect it's the same for him. Our cockroaches are sturdy and stubborn and there's a giant can of bug spray on top of the fridge which we need to grab most nights. We're still very close to campus - actually closer! - but we're close in the opposite direction and it turns out this means we're closer to lots of other great places and even more buslines. Our neighbours here are all happy to wave and say 'good morning' to both of us, and we enjoy hearing the kids playing up and down the driveway just outside our window. We are deliriously happy: we have our own place, our own whare, our own vale.

At the end of the day, we needed housing. It didn't have to be faculty housing. It just needed to be a place where we could stop constantly battling to get up the list or on the list and could start getting on with our lives as a family. This place isn't as flash as Faculty Housing would have been but it's much more 'us.' We look forward to hosting people here, cooking here, gardening here, writing here, living here. I'm looking forward to blogging here.

I've received an email letting me know it's time to re-enrol on the housing list: I need to supply the letter of my offer of employment at UH, my contract, a signature from my boss. We're not going to bother.


The  moral of this tale, I hope, is clear.

This process has reminded me of what can happen when we as Maori find ourselves locked into a relationship with the Crown in which we are waiting for the email to let us know we got the apartment. I still believe in the dream of Waitangi, and in the dream of an equitable and mutually beneficial relationship between Maori and non-Maori in New Zealand. And yet, we risk wasting so much energy and living our lives 'on hold' if we are not honest with ourselves about the deep flaws in the system and the impact of the intertia of those who presently benefit so much from it.

Mana motuhake, tino rangatiratanga. Sovereignty. Self-determination. These things aren't just big political phrases but how we live our lives... Sometimes it means responding to our material circumstances and making decisions based on what we actually need rather than what's on offer. Sometimes it requires us to address our dreams and aspirations, recognising that if they have been shaped by someone else's values and power they have the capacity to limit us too.

Waitangi Day 2013. That place up there on the hill may be housing, but this place is home.