Burning down the house: how social housing could break NZ communities

Merivale in Tauranga, New Zealand has 22 streets. There are just under 900 houses in those streets. We have comparatively low levels of home ownership and high levels of absentee landlords. Over 200 of the houses are owned by Housing New Zealand, the government’s state housing organisation. Originally the Housing NZ houses were all built on quarter acre sections, though since the 1990s the majority have been in-built, which is to say there are now at least two houses there. The most intensive instance was in Surrey Grove, which went from under 20 houses to over 30 houses in a ten year period. Most of the original houses are weatherboard, framed with native timbers, particularly rimu. After that, many of them were built from brick. And latterly they are a combination of kind of wood and plastic cladding products. There has been a slow project to retrofit houses with insulation and heating; I am not sure if that is complete yet.

Under 3,000 people live in our neighbourhood. People transit in and out of Merivale pretty frequently. About one fifth to one quarter of our population live here for less than a year. Housing New Zealand houses obviously are part of that picture. I don’t know of research into why people have moved out of Merivale, but anecdotally I know of people who have moved to: avoid oversight by government agencies like Child, Youth and Family and Work and Income; escape intimidation and violence; and avoid paying their debts. These people have often ended up homeless, living with other whānau in garages, on the lounge floor, in cars and at caravan parks (Te Puke Caravan Park is a pretty common choice). There are also whānau who have lived many years in the same Housing New Zealand house and consider it their home.

Unwelcome changes in Housing New Zealand policy are just part of the lives of people who live in Housing New Zealand homes. In my time at the Merivale Community Centre, the unwelcome policies included:

  • greater use of market rents for those whose income rose;
  • putting in heat pumps and wood pellet burners for heating, options that whānau who have lived in those houses can’t afford to use;
  • greater enforcement of the no pets policy;
  • greater enforcement of the over-crowding policies, which are nonsensical in a community of large Māori and Pacific Peoples whānau as they require a house to have a room for each person of school age minus one (so if you and your partner have six kids, four over five, you are probably overcrowded unless you have a five or six room house);
  • only repairing internal damage to houses if the hole is bigger than a fist hole, and then it is only plastered, not painted;
  • the multiple changes in the criteria for whom can get a house (when you a priority one year and not the next, it can get you down a little);
  • moving management of tenants to Work and Income whilst Housing New Zealand deals only with the property as an asset.

I say unwelcome because, whilst some of these policies are sensible and have a good evidential basis, Housing New Zealand tenants were never consulted about what they thought or what would work for them. At this point let me acknowledge that Housing New Zealand tenants can be really hard work; people who have lived with desperation and poverty tend to have picked up some dysfunctional and anti-social habits. But this is the point of the Housing New Zealand stock: to provide housing for the most needy, and you can’t encourage integration and transformation if your policies encourage people to view themselves as oppressed and second class.

These are the houses that the Government is trying to sell to social housing providers in one of the largest asset sales since the 1980s. These are the houses that the Salvation Army said it will not purchase this week because they couldn’t find a model that would work. As Major Campbell Roberts stated, “I don’t think there has been enough thinking gone into it.” The Salvation Army also gave the run down and poorly maintained state of the Housing New Zealand as an impediment to taking on these capital assets. Don’t let the Government fool you: this is a huge blow to their plans.

So now they have quickly segued to talking about consortiums of social housing providers and investors buying state housing together. This is exactly what John Key had refuted; that private companies and property developers will be the beneficiaries. Instead this will indeed be a movement of significant public assets into private hands. One group, Accessible Properties that manages the IHC’s properties, has already put up their hands for 1,000 houses (just roughly if the average NZ house price in $425,000, that’s a book value of between $200 million to $425 million of property that goes from public to private hands in only ONE instance).

The Government argues this will bring “better outcomes for tenants”. The Opposition and the Government are throwing reports and research at each other to argue that very point. If I look at my neighbourhood, a significant number of our residents are already tenants of private, absentee landlords (people who own houses in Merivale but have never lived here as distinguished from residents of our community who rent out their houses for a period when they go away to Australia or some such); so what have been their outcomes?

Whānau cannot present as they are to get a house from a private absentee landlord; they pretend, often sending a young woman by herself with one tidy child to apply for the house, and misleading the landlord about how many other people will move in. The relationship with private absentee landlords is rarely founded on trust in Merivale. I cannot think of one whānau of an absentee landlord who has had work done on their house whilst they were living there; no retrofitting to make them dryer and warmer; nothing gets repaired; the chattels aren’t maintained (work and repairs all happen when they leave). They are unsupported as whānau with needs in relation to gang intimidation, anti-social youth behaviour, drug abuse and selling, and domestic violence; the landlords’ only interest is their property, not the lives of their tenants. Landlords rarely work with them when they start getting behind on rent, preferring to take a legal avenue to exit people from those houses.

These will be the “better outcomes” of moving Housing New Zealand tenancies into private hands, which is what is about to happen. If the Salvation Army can’t handle the size of the task, no other not-for-profit in the country can do it without dancing with the devil of private finance and private management. Work and Income, Housing New Zealand and Child, Youth and Family are flawed institutions, but at least they have a duty of care to their clients. Private consortiums, property developers and landlords have no such obligation. People in Merivale who are tenanted in this bold new world of social housing will be left to rot in their poverty and violence and they will inadvertently take our community with them. The only agency we are going to see more of here under this proposed social housing disaster is the New Zealand Police.

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