If only Housing NZ’s contemptible tactics stopped at the meth-test debacle

If a review of our public housing agency is to be taken seriously, it will need to look beyond just the immediate scandal and seek to understand how its priorities mutated into those of a callous busybody, writes Joseph Nunweek

If you’ve been reading this site and its familiars in the past fortnight, you’ll be aware of Housing New Zealand’s baseless drive to purge its rental properties of methamphetamine, criminal conduct, and wherever possible, tenants themselves. Amid confirmation from the chief science advisor that the drug contamination thresholds being relied on were bunk, no one has really covered themselves in glory.

The responsible ministers from the last government stand transformed, now bewildered and helpless victims of the science (which, as it turns out, wasn’t really science at all). The Tenancy Tribunal, as showcased in a set of decisions reviewed by Russell Brown, faces the reputational risk of being perceived as an easy rubber-stamp for quick evictions and big compensation claims, rather than an independent judicial body.

But worst of all is HNZ itself. In the meth scandal, it doubled down on its conduct even as expert and media criticism escalated, its leadership evading absolutely reasonable inquiries from journalists (Did you make innocent pensioners homeless? If so, how many?) while being paid over a thousand dollars a day.

Chief executive Andrew McKenzie kept mum until finally speaking to media including Radio New Zealand this morning, where he tendered nothing by way of resignation while also painting HNZ as helplessly at the mercy of Ministry of Health guidelines (in October 2016, the MoH’s director of protection, regulation and assurance Dr Stewart Jessamine told Radio NZ that the MoH had notified HNZ that the guidelines were only suitable for use in homes where meth had been manufactured).

There’s a lot of mealy-mouth references to “needless disruption” and not a lot to “eviction”. As housing minister Phil Twyford (who, honestly, recently offered a resignation for far less) has indicated, the whole sorry affair will be up for a review with the findings made public.

Will it go far enough? The agency’s conduct sometimes seemed less like the bumbling of middle-aged public servants trying to understand toxicology (very Roger Hall) and more like a deranged and sadistic crusade (very Moby-Dick). They celebrated $34,000 awards against their indigent ex-tenants in press releases. In internal documents, they evaluated whether they could move to force people into drug tests prior to an offer of social housing. All of which beckons an uncomfortable question – where does incompetence end and a sort of creeping insider’s malice begin?

Look at the headlines the agency made apart from meth testing in the past four years, and the cumulative picture they paint. Here’s Radio New Zealand’s Zac Fleming earlier this year, on a physically disabled 66-year-old who was taken to the Tenancy Tribunal for a small square table and a few small succulents. Housing NZ threatened her with eviction if the offending items weren’t removed from the front of her Freeman’s Bay unit. It dragged her through two fruitless hearings.

Here’s TVNZ in late 2017, reporting on HNZ’s orders that another elderly pensioner dismantle the small and solid bamboo trellis she used to support crops in her vegetable garden. They backed down after social media backlash and some terse observations from Twyford himself.

Go back a few years, to this Otago Daily Times story featuring an extremely distressing photo of tenant Taina Goodwillie preparing to say goodbye to the border collie she inherited.  In early 2014, HNZ documents released under the Official Information Act revealed a change of policy to only allow dogs at state houses “in exceptional circumstances”.

In one of the crueler things I’ve read from any provider of social services (or, look, any human), HNZ went on to state that dogs were a “barrier to independence … that made it difficult for tenants to move on”. It was agreed that any tenant who kept a dog without permission following a warning would be issued with a 90-day eviction notice. That’s Taina’s impossible position in the photo. Her shelter or the dog.

Ninety-day “no reason” eviction notices, available under the Residential Tenancies Act, have been canvassed at length by poverty and homelessness commentators. In the hands of the state housing authority, they’re an extremely powerful and brutal tool that sidesteps the rigour that would otherwise be needed to terminate a tenancy for cause.

As Katherine A Lee sets out in her recent honours thesis on HNZ and methamphetamine testing:

“Using (90-day notices) may be an easier option for a landlord who is having difficulty gaining the tenant’s consent to the property, and does not have sufficient evidence for a Tenancy Tribunal order. As long as the giving of a 90-day notice is not a retaliatory move (in response to an exercise of rights by the tenant), there is little recourse for contesting (the notice).”

“Perhaps then,” Lee suggests, “inferences can be drawn” from HNZ’s reliance on 90-day notices. That’s putting it politely.

The efforts of three Pomare women who went to the Court of Appeal to overcome the notices highlight the difficulties involved in doing so. They’d been issued with no-reason notices after occupants of their homes were arrested in a police crackdown on gang activity (the charges brought as part of that were later dismissed)

Whether Housing NZ’s conduct could be deemed a breach of the Housing Restructuring and Tenancy Matters 1992 (the law that governs it as a social housing provider, but not as a landlord), the Bill of Rights Act, or the Human Rights Act couldn’t be in issue. The Tenancy Tribunal was solely obliged to consider whether the Residential Tenancies Act had been complied with, and the higher courts couldn’t displace that.

After a million-dollar bill in legal costs over two years, HNZ relented and let all three women stay. It probably helped that the matter had the attention of the media and Opposition politicians. That level of scrutiny, until now, was rare.

Here’s some tenants who didn’t get it that I, and colleagues, recall dealing with. The man with an acquired brain injury who got into a scuffle down the road from his home, swore at his property manager afterwards and got 90 days to go. The eccentric 78-year old who tinkered with old radios and motors on the front deck of his tiny unit and wouldn’t clean it up. 90 days. The woman with a violent partner in a nasty elliptical orbit, who demanded to stay for weeks at a time then shot through for months. A HNZ investigation decided she shouldn’t have been receiving income-reduced rent. A neighbour had been interviewed and encouraged to dob her in. Ninety days and a $5000 bill for retrospectively increased arrears.

By 2016, OIA documents indicated that HNZ had applied to the Tenancy Tribunal to evict 4% of its tenants in one year. That’s one in 25 tenants, already on the bottom rung of stable and secure housing.

Of course, HNZ are only availing themselves of the same processes available to private landlords at law in New Zealand. But there’s a potent moral argument to be made that they shouldn’t – that their unique role as the country’s largest landlord to people in the greatest social need should mean they act better, and kinder, even in complex and difficult circumstances with cultural and communication barriers. The systemic behaviour above, which combined must be a remarkable drain of time, money and human resources, suggests the opposite.

An effective review of Housing NZ and what it’s become will have to draw these threads together. It’ll have to endeavour to understand how the agency’s priorities mutated into those of a callous busybody that has it in for dogs, domestic violence survivors and succulents, and it will need to recognise the denial of natural justice and human dignity that many of its policies and practices came to obfuscate.

Like a sick house, it might not immediately be apparent where the rot started, but it’s going to have to be removed if we’re to have a public landlord that’s fit for purpose again. As CEO, McKenzie cast a wide and soft hand on Morning Report in apportioning blame to “the whole organisation”. But educated, capable people in positions of management made most of these decisions and should be held accountable.

For the frontline tenancy workers and support staff at HNZ, this can’t be an easy time. Decision-makers in government are generally shielded from those they affect – the people who act as the messengers and executors are not. They have had to field abuse, threats and violence themselves. Many may have become desensitised in a role that should demand sensitivity. It’s imperative they be rehabilitated and encouraged to see their roles as working with, and not against, their tenants.

Lastly, and most importantly – beyond the victims of the meth panic, the past decade has probably seen a lot of tenants evicted on arbitrary and unreasonable bases that no social housing provider should have countenanced. Some of them will be languishing on the wait list with a mark against their record. Others may have colossal and unadjusted debts owing. If a review and reform of HNZ’s ways is to be just, some relief will need to be available to any disadvantaged person who was disadvantaged further.

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