Housing the most vulnerable does not need to happen at the expense of secure tenure

A Herald editorial has provided some food for thought on the social housing reform that came into operation earlier this month. The transfer of some functions from Housing NZ to the Ministry of Social Development, and HNZ’s new status as one of various providers in a new social housing market, are changes that, if implemented correctly, may have benefits.

However, it is odd that the Herald reported that there has been “little comment” on the reforms. Its own online edition has published articles that set out the opposition of state tenants and community organisations to aspects of the reform. The Editor may also be interested to read the many submissions to select committee that detailed why some of the changes brought in by the Act are so worrying.

These concerns include the fact that introducing reviewable tenancies will do some harm to current state tenants. There are many benefits to state housing. Not only is it in better condition than private rental housing, which is the other alternative for low-income people, but it provides for security of tenure. Unlike private renters, and until now, state renters could plan for the future. Where there is secure tenure, we are more likely to see stable, supportive communities, and superior health and educational outcomes. Research has shown that the longer people spend in state housing, the less likely they are to be hospitalised.

I agree with the Herald and the Government that the most vulnerable should be housed. There are an estimated 34,000 people who urgently need homes. They are crowding in with family and friends, or they live in camping grounds, emergency accommodation, cars or the street. Many others are in the private rental sector, and are paying more than they can afford in rent. This forces them to make sacrifices in heating and food. Overcrowding and substandard housing causes infectious and respiratory illness at great personal cost, and great public expense. Private rental housing needs to be improved – perhaps through a rental WOF – and tenure security must be available to those who want it.

Proposing we solve the problem of homelessness by causing displacement to the current tenant population – which may include, after the first year, the elderly, the disabled, and people with children – is flawed. New Zealand has one of the lowest proportions of social housing in the OECD (5%), and it’s simply not enough for our needs.

What we need is more social housing. A number like 318 – the additions to the state housing stock last year – or 100 – the number of houses it’s predicted will be provided by community housing providers in this first year – will not cut it.

The shortage of social housing, and the end of an era where at least some renters were able to experience the benefits of tenure security, must be challenged.

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