More Ambulances, or a Better Fence

Written by Anthony Rimell

March Housing Madness: More Ambulances, or a Better Fence?


Tetraplegic Tracey Penney and family spent two months living in a van over Christmas before being offered an Auckland HNZ house (and only 1 week after the situation was publicized in When the family was appropriately rehoused Tracey was able to re-engage with health treatments, as she had stopped home visits when the family had become homeless. 

Three events this week, explain to me, why when polled most New Zealanders indicate that New Zealand needs a new direction with regard to housing.

First, the Tamaki Redevelopment Company, a government and council owned entity which is only a year old, that had been tasked with redeveloping a state housing area, announced it intended to sell its tenancy management arm.  A Canberra based organisation called PowerHousing, announced it is interested in taking it on. They want to grow their business in New Zealand in conjunction with housing providers here.

Next at least 2,500 Housing New Zealand (HNZ) tenants in Christchurch began receiving letters from  HNZ advising them that their houses were going to be assessed by a private company, the Greenstone Group, as part of the sale process.  The Greenstone Group are industrial, commercial and large-scale property managers.  Each assessment will take one-two hours on site, plus time for analysis.

And then the Government announced it is trialling ‘Housing First’: an Auckland-based program to combat homelessness. The aim is to house those who have lost their housing, by providing a wrap-around service. They are working with the Auckland City Council and Community social housing providers. The scheme ‘apparently’ acknowledges that before addressing other issues, we first need to house our people.

I say apparently, because this announcement ignores the fact that the government has spent 8 years undermining its own specialist housing providing Crown entity –Housing New Zealand (HNZ). HNZ’s state housing numbers are declining especially on a per capita basis, despite New Zealand being many years into a housing crisis. The current number of Housing New Zealand housing is around 64,000 down from a peak of 70,000.

housing graph

If the government really wanted to provide ‘housing first’ services. the simplest and easiest way would have been to let HNZ build more state houses, by not to taking $1.8 billion out of the HNZ in dividends, interest payments and taxes. This was once the fence that stopped our most vulnerable from falling over the cliff of poverty and deprivation. It needs to become that fence again.

If the Government really did want to engage the community in social housing, it could have encouraged new social housing providers to build more social housing while it added to the existing state housing stock. The government haven’t done either of these options –what they have done is a shell game where housing has moved from state to privately controlled entities.

The real intent of this Government is to rebrand state housing away from being a core responsibility of the state to private providers being responsible for providing social housing. In other words, the government wants to treat state housing as a business, and in the process tenants are being treated as chattels.

In the PowerHousing case, they wouldn’t be interested in the Auckland pilot if they were going to lose money. In fact, they may see the intensification housing development opportunity in Tamaki as a cash cow which they divert back to fund their Australian community schemes. And the Greenstone Group is a fully commercial business, who will charge hundreds of thousands (if not more) for their work.

In both cases the money comes out of the pot originally intended for state housing: going to money-making ventures instead of to expanding, managing and maintaining our current state housing stock. That lack is why we see people living on the street: there simply aren’t enough State homes.

What’s worse, in all three cases, no-one is talking to the vulnerable groups, asking them what they need.

The Bryndwr HNZ residents I speak to about these letters are scared. They feel powerless. They feel ignored. They worry about the invasion of their privacy by Greenstone Group.

Somehow in all of this the government has lost its way, it appears to be worshipping mammon –the almighty dollar -without any consideration to its higher moral obligations. It has a duty of care to its citizens –especially to its most vulnerable citizens. The sign of a decent society is how it treats its most vulnerable and quite rightly New Zealand has a history to be proud of in this regard. But in recent years, in the housing space, the question of whether New Zealand is really a decent society is being reconsidered which is causing deep unease.

New Zealand needs a new direction on housing and that direction needs to be guided by the moral values that New Zealanders most care about. The biggest problem with PowerHouse is what they are: an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff of failed housing policies.  We dont need more ambulances: we need to rebuild that better fence.