Rather than ‘bold’ government action, the latest housing package will mean more of the same for our most vulnerable New Zealanders, writes tenants’ advocate Ben Schmidt.
Last week the Labour government announced policies to address the housing crisis which, once again, continued to ignore the struggles of the renters and beneficiaries that I work with every day at the Manawatū Tenants’ Union.
Since 1983 the Manawatū Tenants’ Union has advocated for and worked directly with renters across the Manawatū free of charge. We worked with over 400 tenants last year and increasingly tenants are contacting us for help as the housing crisis worsens. Since 2016-2017, we’ve had a steady increase in tenants contacting us with around 1,000-2,000 conversations being held between 2019-2020.
Behind every one of these conversations is an individual or family stressed and struggling to make ends meet in substandard housing. We’ve had people living in houses so mouldy they’ve had to leave for their own safety, people unable to cook a decent meal because their emergency housing didn’t have a proper kitchen and tenants facing a surprise rent increase of $140 a week.
The housing policy announcement last week was disappointing but unfortunately, nothing new. The Labour-led government’s Welfare Expert Advisory Group made over 40 recommendations in 2019 for restoring dignity to social security, including substantially lifting main benefits. The Child Poverty Action Group has since reported that none of these recommendations has been fully implemented.
In 2020, the Residential Tenancies Amendment Act was met with howls of despair by some landlord advocates, but it was heavily focused on superficial changes without taking action to seriously limit the amount by which rent could be increased. The removal of no-cause terminations was welcome, but it makes little difference for a tenant facing eviction and homelessness anyway. Other changes were largely cosmetic: tenants care less about putting up a poster on the wall than they do about affordable rent and secure housing.
Just days into raising Covid alert levels last year, we saw the first introduction of rent control in Aotearoa since the 1980s through a rent freeze. This was a chance to achieve big, lasting change. Alongside unions, community groups and social services, we organised an open letter in April 2020 calling on the government to raise benefits, ensure rent increases were capped coming out of the freeze, and build significantly more public housing. Despite the window of opportunity opening, nothing changed.
Once the rent freeze ended in September last year, we witnessed a major spike in tenants contacting us for help with unaffordable and excessive rent increases. Increasingly, we work with tenants on the public housing waitlist to try to increase their priority rating in a cruel struggle pitting thousands of people wanting a decent place to call home against each other. The government has talked about kindness. But who gets that kindness?
It’s not just tenants who are calling for change: even the International Monetary Fund has suggested New Zealand introduce “adequate unemployment benefits”, while the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing has recommended rent control in Aotearoa among other actions.
For the government to prioritise a fair life for all, three basic changes are crucial: immediate rent control, a massive state housing build, and liveable incomes for all.
Rent control can ensure rent is fair and affordable and stop landlords soaking up parts of wage and benefit increases. The current approach of relying on the kindness of the landlord and the vagaries of the market is unacceptable and immoral. We only need to look at cities such as Berlin and New York to see commonplace and functioning rent control. There’s a growing call for rent control in New Zealand, including from the campaign group Renters United.
Alongside rent control, we need a massive boost in housing supply through building more state housing. Not just state housing for the most desperate few, but decent, public, affordable homes for all like we saw after World War II. Right now, the government isn’t even planning to build enough public housing to meet the waitlist, let alone in four years’ time. Their plan of around 18,000 new public houses over a number of years is dwarfed by the growing waitlist of over 22,000 households.
In addition to implementing the recommendations of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, we need liveable incomes for all as demanded by Auckland Action Against Poverty: including increasing all types of income support to the living wage amount, individualising benefits and removing sanctions. Among renters polled in a survey on income support last month, 80% supported an increase. Trust renters and beneficiaries to use their money best, and give them enough to live with dignity and without navigating a maze of technicalities and supplements.
We’re working with a coalition of organisations, including unions, service providers, and NGOs, brought together by ActionStation to increase income support. It’s time the government listened to that coalition, alongside calls by an increasing number of child poverty experts and frontline support services.
What will it take to see meaningful change on housing and poverty from the government? The response to Covid-19 has proved it’s more than capable of mobilising an evidence-based crisis response for a global pandemic. Will they do the same for the hundreds of thousands of individuals, children and whānau locked in poverty by skyrocketing rent prices and insufficient income support?
This year’s budget is an opportunity for the government to show that renters and beneficiaries are not the forgotten people of our politics. I hope, on behalf of all the people that I work with, that it won’t give up this chance.