On the government’s inertia on housing needs

The weekend protests about Housing New Zealand’s Tamaki Transformation programme (which aims to relocate residents of 156 state house to make way for a mix of state owned and privately owned housing) are merely the tip of the iceberg of Auckland’s shortage of affordable housing – which is set to get worse, not better.

Auckland’s housing shortage may have been compounded by the leaky homes debacle, but as Bernard Hickey pointed out in an excellent NZ Herald column last week, there is no audible political debate on how we should be responding to the crisis in availability of cheap, affordable housing.

The Department of Building and Housing forecast this month that New Zealand needs to build 20,000 to 23,000 housing units a year over the next five years to keep pace with population growth. We have been building at a rate below 15,000 a year for the past three years.

It could be argued that this also ignores the destruction or degradation of large swathes of housing stock in Auckland and Christchurch because of the leaky-building disaster and the earthquakes of 2011. Auckland needs at least 10,000 new homes each year, yet less than half of these are being built.

Late last year, a report by the Child Poverty Action Group pointed out that while the links between inadequate housing and poor health and education outcomes are “well understood” by the government, action is not being taken on a scale sufficient to meet the need. This is a chronic problem, as the Salvation Army pointed out last week in their comprehensive fifth annual report on the nation’s social needs, entitled The Growing Divide..

Among the Salvation Army’s telling points on the housing crisis (see pages 63–72) is that 64% of New Zealand’s population growth over the past five years has occurred in Auckland, but Auckland has seen only 25% of the new building consents. Central or local government, the Salvation Army report says (page 64) don’t seem to comprehend the scale of the housing problem, let alone have an action plan to deal with it:

Government and local councils appear unwilling or unable to acknowledge the extent of the housing problem New Zealand is facing, despite warnings from independent agencies.

In its report last September, CPAG recognised the same levels of inertia, and urged the formulation and funding of a national housing plan to address the current and emerging housing shortages. Such a plan would have to ensure that the housing is affordable and appropriate (eg the national housing plan will have to address issues of overcrowding, dampness and cold). However, these calls are likely to fall on deaf ears in government, given the “shoot the messenger” approach taken in Parliament last September by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett, to CPAG’s entire list of recommendations on child poverty. For example :

Hon PAULA BENNETT: I think I have made it quite clear that I do not put merit on the Labour document that is the Child Poverty Action Group’s report, which, quite frankly, is just a rehash of old policies and of what Labour perhaps intends to do, depending on whether it changes its mind in the next few weeks.

That’s the great thing about any solutions to problems that government keeps on ignoring: they quickly become what Bennett calls “old policies” even if they are the only solutions being proposed to deal with “old” problems such as poverty, housing shortages, over-crowding and the diseases of poverty that they foster, and which clearly test the Minister’s patience if you mention them.

For now, the government appears to be obsessed with just one side of the national ledger. It aims to reduce state spending and the size of government as if these were virtues in themselves, and appears to have little interest or ability in using state resources to help to grow things, or to build things. Yet as Bernard Hickey points out, the current housing shortage offers a golden opportunity for New Zealand to meet its accommodation needs, while simultaneously addressing the major problem we also have with youth unemployment :

New Zealand has 83,000 people aged 15 to 24 who are not working or in education. The youth unemployment rates for Maori and Pacific Island youth, mostly in Auckland, are scandalous at 30.4 per cent and 29.8 per cent respectively….That brings us to a huge opportunity. Why can’t we, as a nation, take a strategic decision to solve these two crises by training these 83,000 young people as plumbers, chippies, electricians, roofers and the like in preparation for a national-scale building programme?…

Before we can do so, Hickey concludes, we need to talk about it, and recognise the pressing need to build more housing. Yet unless the government shows more sign of being interested in listening, all the talk and all the quality research done by the likes of CPAG and the Salvation Army will continue to be futile.


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