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Enough reaching for rabbits out of hats. Time for a 25-year housing strategy

Today’s housing crisis is the fruit of successive governments failing to put the time, effort and funding into sustainable housing solutions, says Bernie Smith, a frontline social housing worker from the Māngere-based Monte Cecilia Housing Trust. 

This is an abridged and edited version of the Bruce Jesson lecture, delivered last week

This government has spent 11 months claiming all the issues they are confronted with today are solely due to the previous government. But in my view what they and we are confronted with today is the fact of successive governments not putting the time, effort and funding into sustainable housing solutions, with no generational housing strategy that builds strong healthy communities for the present and the future generations.

The National government in their last year of office did what I call a ‘dump’ at the emergency housing end and now we have a Labour government trying to do a dump at the ‘first home ownership’ end by playing the numbers game. They think can build us out of this housing crisis.

We need to stop pulling rabbits out of hats and looking for quick fixes. We need to stop the blame game. We need to stop thinking central or local government will resolve this issue.

What we desperately need from this government is some leadership and commitment for a New Zealand housing strategy that equally looks at the living wage and reduction of poverty. A housing strategy that looks at the whole length of the housing continuum and the implications that each part presents.

We need a 25-30 year strategy that every political party agrees to and that every voter holds every political party accountable to achieve.

A strategy that’s not created by politicians or bureaucrats, but by the homeless, renters, community housing providers, people who are living the experience, by Māori, Pasifika and other ethnic groups; a strategy that is not Canadian or Australian, but a New Zealand strategy that recognises housing design suitable for Māori, for Pasifika and other ethnic groups, intergenerational living, affordable rentals, affordable home ownership and does not forget a strategy that includes building strong, healthy and safe communities with clear milestone targets.

We have I believe a housing volume focus at the moment, instead of a community value focus. A community-value focus is where people – no matter if they’re in state housing, a private renter or an owner occupier – are seen as an equal.

Communities where people feel they belong can put roots down, get their medical, educational, social and religious needs met, a community where every man, women and child can stand tall in their culture, their faith, their gender and feel valued.

Politicians and bureaucrats can’t seem to design such a strategy without their own political beliefs interfering and then moving the dream and vision to a dollar value – but they could in partnership and collaboration with those working in the sector and those with lived experience.

New Zealand is in the midst of a worsening homelessness crisis.

What is often missed in the stories and stats are the increasing numbers of children who are at risk because of their homelessness and transient lifestyle, and who are often disconnected from school, health, church and social activities.

Over the 2017/18 financial year, 1349 children accessed Monte Cecilia’s services. 50% of those children were under eight years old

Eighteen months ago we had three children who had just undergone cancer treatment, and a fourth child with brittle bone disease where Ronald McDonald house was over full and these children had no family home of their own so came to Monte Cecilia.

Last week we got a request from Auckland Health needing housing for a family who are in Wellington specialist health services because their child has a one-of-a-kind disease and this family has no housing options in Auckland to come back to.

I’m not aware of any policy settings in New Zealand that specifically addresses the housing needs of children, especially those who are living in poverty and are homeless.

Counties Manukau DHB have in the past reported that in winter high admissions of children to ED can be linked back to overcrowded, substandard housing

We urgently need to ensure policy settings put homeless children as a top priority, and there is no hindrance to their personal development. We need to ensure these children do not end up stuck in the poverty and homelessness trap.

We need to ensure they do not end up as adults in our institutions, or living by the hour or the day or the week in crisis, but ensuring they are in safe, warm and sustainable housing. That they and their children can believe they have a future, building a strong, healthy city and a nation where homelessness and poverty is rare, brief and non-recurring – and when it does occur we see it as everyone’s issue to resolve, not just central or local government.

In Auckland we have:

  • 92,000 households living in unaffordable rental situations (spending more than 30% of income on rent)
  • 36,000 households living in overcrowded conditions
  • 20,300 homeless
  • Māori (to a factor of five) and Pasifika (a factor of 10) disproportionately affected

Our government has set some aspirational targets for new KiwiBuild housing, reducing poverty, rental law changes, healthy homes guarantees, regulation of property management, a tax working group, and movement to a living wage

These goals and objectives are desirable, but does KiwiBuild consider the real impact of this intensification socially and financially going forward 5 – 15 years from now? It’s a volume focus in my opinion, not a value focus,

There are many NGOs in this country doing creative, life-changing work using well-researched models that seek to be at the top of the cliff, not picking up broken people at the bottom of the cliff.

When is the government going to support Community Housing Providers rather than developers who take the profit into their own pockets?

This is not a great long term housing solution

A New Zealand housing strategy with the right people involved would look at the whole housing continuum.

KiwiBuild is great for middle class New Zealanders with higher household incomes.

We are missing the middle part of the housing continuum – affordable rentals and affordable home shared-equity ownership packages.

The increase in emergency, transitional supply is great and the extra funding into Housing First is awesome. They are all necessary parts of reducing homelessness, but the present struggle is affordable housing supply so people can be housed in warm, secure and sustainable housing long term, not KiwiBuild properties that are out of reach.

We need good quality homes with mixed tenure, homes that are affordable enough to be in reach of teachers, police, nurses and every person who keeps this city running, whose total household income is only about $100,000.

And then let’s not forget affordable rentals for our working poor who are equally important in keeping our city running but with a household income of only $40,000 – $80,000, where every dollar earned is spent just on living and saving for a home deposit is near to impossible.

Affordable rentals means we reduce homelessness dramatically and affordable shared-equity homeownership frees up the rental market and gives choice

What would happen if …

What would happen in state housing if every applicant got to have an open and transparent discussion about their dreams and aspirations? Once approved for housing they would be linked to a facilitator or mentor who would walk that journey with them empowering them to open doors to further education, to greater employment opportunities, to financial literacy or a savings plan, to home ownership. What would happen if only 25% of the 66000 State Housing tenants went on to self-sustainability?

That would likely increase state housing vacancies by over 16,000 per year once up and running; it would assist by building stronger and healthier families, communities and cities.

What would happen in state if an Earning, Learning Housing model was developed that could assist our skills shortage, could drive down HNZ maintenance and upgrade costs, but above all assist with upskilling and sustainable work?

What would happen if every HNZ home today met the healthy homes WOF, and every unsafe, damp, non-compliant lodge shut down?

What would happen if we had a 25-30 year housing strategy? It would reduce homelessness and poverty, and reduce the prison population because upon release they would be appropriately housed. The whole housing continuum would be impacted evenly, affordable rentals and home equity ownership would become the norm. One government wouldn’t build and then the next government sell off state housing, ample funding would be available to ensure HNZ housing stock was well maintained and Community Housing Providers would build more affordable rentals giving tenant’s a choice of landlord

What would happen if children who were homeless were given top priority on our housing wait register? Surely poverty would be reduced, better connection to health, education and social connections and a reduction in our prison population and less demand on our mental health services as they become adults

The good news is that community housing providers are happy to partner with the government and Housing NZ to lighten the load and offer their skills, their creative thinking and solutions to collaborate in tenancy management and supports offering choices for individuals and families, greater tenancy sustainability and opportunities to develop community participation building safe, healthy and strong communities.

Community Housing Providers are waiting to partner with the government to create home equity ownership packages, and build more affordable rentals.

CHPs say ‘bring it on’ – every tax dollar funded will return another dollar, not just in bricks and mortar but more importantly strong healthy connected communities.

This housing crisis is not a central or local government issue to resolve in isolation, this crisis has been in the making for many years and it’s now going to take many years of courageous and creative solutions backed by strategic planning and financial backing.

Let’s together be bold and build a future that we will be proud to leave our children and grandchildren where homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring.

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