Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: The Housing problem hits rock bottom

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Dr Bryce Edwards.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards – The Housing problem hits rock bottom

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

Housing affordability continues to dominate New Zealand politics, and finally the focus is on those worst hit by the crisis – the people who can’t even find a proper roof over their heads. It’s a shameful problem, but are there any radical solutions?

State housing and the crisis at the bottom of the housing market could yet be the biggest political story of the year. The escalating housing affordability problem – which is termed a “crisis” by the left, and a “challenge” by the right – has mostly been concerned with the impact on so-called middle New Zealand. Most of the debate has been on the cost of buying property – especially for first home buyers. 

The debate has expanded to include the increasing cost of rental accommodation and unhealthy homes, and now it has landed on the problems of those who can’t even afford to rent a proper home. So this week we’ve been talking about overcrowded flats, and people living in structures not designed for habitation: garages, shipping containers, and even cars. 

The situation is even getting international attention – the Guardian newspaper has reported the experiences of The Salvation Army’s Campbell Roberts, who says that it’s the “worst homelessness I have seen in 25 years” – see: New Zealand housing crisis forces hundreds to live in tents and garages.

The homelessness debate of the past week was sparked by Mike Wesley-Smith’s report for TV3’s The Nation last weekend – see the must-watch 13-minute item: Auckland’s hidden homeless

The reporter was so moved by his investigation that he wrote about his experience putting the story together, which is also well worth reading – see his opinion piece, Surely NZ is better than this

Wesley-Smith says, “To witness young children aged under five living in a car for two months was bloody shocking.” And although the situation of the low-income families was depressing, he also reflects that the “car community” was still a positive one, with mixed backgrounds: “Many were working full time, some had university degrees, some were Maori, some were Pasifika, some were European. If these were the people society forgot, they didn’t forget each other. They cooked together, kept the surrounding park tidy and even cleaned the local toilets each morning. The local cleaning lady can’t speak highly enough about them.”

He also reports on the very good work being done by social workers and government agencies, but nonetheless “something is seriously wrong with the system”.

RNZ has also played a significant role in fostering the debate, with both Morning Report and Checkpoint featuring substantial investigations and interviews on homelessness. John Campbell has some excellent videos and reports – see his two five-minute videos, Auckland’s housing crisis worsens and WINZ emergency housing at $1330 a week

Such coverage has moved many to take the problem seriously and reflect on the severity of the situation. Late on Tuesday night, for example, Linda Clark (‏@lindaclark1) tweeted: “If you’re heading to bed about now to a bed and not a car or a garage then spare a thought.”

Emergency accommodation debate

The Prime Minister’s appearance on RNZ’s Morning Report on Monday played a significant part in keeping the focus on the plight of those urgently needing housing. Asked what homeless people should do, he replied: “My really strong advice is to go and see Work and Income… and we’ll see what we can do, because I think people very often don’t understand what’s available to them”.

This sparked responses from a number of people who had sought such help, without satisfactory outcomes – see, for example, RNZ’s Work and Income advice ‘passing the buck’ – homeless mum and Homeless mum: ‘It’s pretty scary at night’.

The focus turned to the fact that Work and Income are willing to find emergency motel accommodation, but the agency then insists on the homeless paying back the cost – see Alex Ashton’s Homeless borrow thousands for motels

Although the policy is set to change, many now have huge debts to Work and Income, and an online petition has been started – currently with 3,186 signatures – to get the debts dropped – see the ActionStation petition: Minister Anne Tolley: Forgive WINZ motel emergency accommodation debt

Blogger No Right Turn makes the case against how Work and Income are operating: “So, basically, WINZ fails to do its job of providing people in extreme need with a state house, then makes its victims pay for that failure. And at a top rate too, far more than you’d pay if you just booked a motel online. But because its not on their budget, and someone else eventually pays, WINZ has no incentive to ensure that its victims are getting value for money” – see: Forgive this odious debt

Work and Income’s procedures have been judged to be incoherent, unfair and unaccountable – and that’s not the view of the agency’s critics, but of the Ministry of Social Development, who told Paula Bennett this last year – see RNZ’s Emergency housing sector ‘unaccountable’.

The Government has announced significant new funding for emergency housing – see RNZ’s Govt to spend $41.1m on emergency housing

However, this isn’t necessarily about the purchase of new beds, but funding existing ones. Russell Brown says therefore it’s “basically keeping the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff from being scrapped and sold for parts” – see: Crowded houses

Brown also points out that the level of accommodation supplement provided by Work and Income hasn’t been increased for years. Similarly, see RNZ’s Plea for budget to deliver on Auckland housing. In this, Budgeting and Family Support Services chief executive Darryl Evans says, “The accommodation supplement – which many of our families will apply for and qualify for – hasn’t risen for a number years. And so the maximum entitlement is $200 a week, but if the rent is $500 or $600, then there’s a huge shortfall.”

Emergency ideas

Debate has turned to how New Zealand society can immediately find shelter for those in need. The Executive Director of Unicef, Vivien Maidaborn, has put forward a list of ideas, including the need to “Create an immediate process for government to rent motels, and empty buildings like, defense force buildings, education or health buildings and prepare them for emergency accommodation.” – see: Housing crisis: A call for urgent action.

Others have suggested camping grounds and provincial agricultural housing – see the Herald’s Emergency housing crisis: Camping ground solution debated

The state housing problem and solution

Of course New Zealand does have a traditional way of dealing with the housing needs of those on low-incomes: state housing. But the supply of such housing has not keep up with the growth in population, to say nothing of the collapsing ability of many to afford to buy property. There simply aren’t enough state houses anymore to cope with greatly increased demand. Max Rashbrooke (@MaxRashbrooke) put it succinctly on Twitter: “20,000 fewer state houses (per capita) than in 1991. 34,000 ppl in severe housing deprivation who need c.20,000 homes. You do the maths.”

Back in the early 1990s there was one state house for every 50 citizens, and now there is only one for every 68. Therefore it seems that a massive expansion of state housing is required if the government is to solve the crisis. 

The Green Party has announced something that might go partly towards this, proposing that Housing New Zealand no longer be required to pay dividends and tax to the government, which might allow the agency to build an extra 450 houses a year – see Nicholas Jones’ Greens plan to free up $207 million to build new state houses

And to make their point, the Greens have spotlighted the desperate struggle of one woman to find housing for her family – see Sam Sachdeva’s Auckland mother shares housing woes as Green Party pushes for more state house.

But does state housing need a rather bigger expansion? Bryan Gould suggests that it’s simply a question of priorities – see: Homelessness a problem Govt chooses to avoid. He argues “The problem of families with children forced to live in third-world conditions is eminently resolvable. It simply requires the application of resources – resources that a country with our wealth could easily afford.”

There are some signs that Labour is set to announce a policy of major state house building. At its upcoming centenary celebrations later this year it’s likely to use the occasion to show how it can still propose bold and radical policies in the social democratic mold. A massive house building exercise might well turn out to be its most radical policy announcement of 2016. 

So National could be vulnerable on this issue. And, as Brian Rudman argues, they can’t plead ignorance on the state of homelessness – having been well aware of the problem since 2008 – see: Blaming others won’t build homes, Mr Key.

To get an historic account of the importance of housing – from a very personal perspective – it’s well worth reading Lynn Williams’s On the state of housing. It’s a heartfelt and stirring story about what housing means to the realities of individuals’ lives, with the conclusion that the current housing situation “is the exemplification of all that is wrong with our society”.

And if you want to know what it’s like to have to deal with Work and Income, a sad picture is painted by Vicki Anderson in her article, Joining the queue at Work and Income: Where no one seems happy.

Finally, for parody about the dark situation faced by the homeless, see the Standard’s Key to Homeless: You Can Stay at Mine, and Raybon Kan’s Car-sleepers camping at the bit for Key’s help.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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