Is NZ facing a crisis of conscience?

1:33 pm on 25 May 2016

OPINION: The housing crisis has taken on a more visible form, with the issues of emergency housing and homelessness.

A homeless man begging on the street.

As home ownership rates drop in NZ, demand for emergency housing is rising. Photo: 123RF

The causes of homelessness and need for emergency housing are complex, but the common thread is poverty. And no place to turn. At the end of the tether, society decides whether to simply let it happen, or to care and act.

New Zealand has long taken a caring approach. A safety net has been a part of the social contract in post-war New Zealand.

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Motels as emergency housing

But we seem to have become less caring. There aren't enough homes to house the needy. And when those in desperate need cannot be housed, they are put up in motels, at their cost. Having had not enough money to start with, these motel costs mount as debts with social services.

It is easy to vilify the social services that put up people in these motels. But they are making the best of a bad system. With no available emergency housing, there is no real option.

Social workers can provide motel accommodation knowing there is no serious prospect of these debts being repaid. But these debts magnify the burdens of poverty - the welfare system designed to be a safety net instead reinforces the poverty trap.

The real problem is not enough social housing, and specifically emergency housing.

A secondary problem is the philosophy with which we approach social services - increasingly fiscal and punitive.

A graph showing a comparison between the number of state houses and the population size.

Graphic: Te Ara, HMZC, Statistics NZ

Not enough houses for the needy

There are simply not enough houses for the poor and vulnerable. In our history, and globally, we know that market mechanisms are not sufficient to build and accommodate poor and vulnerable tenants.

New Zealand undertook a massive state house building programme to fix this. The state housing stock increased pretty much through to 1991. Since then there have been sell-offs by right-leaning governments and new builds by left-leaning governments. But in net we have no more state houses today than in 1991. Relative to the population, we now have the fewest state houses since 1949.

The period since 1991 has also been a period of falling homeownership. The ranks of renters have swollen, particularly in Auckland. But with new housing supply focused more for the affluent than the poor, there is increasing housing deprivation for the poor.

If we don't build more state houses, the issues around homelessness and emergency housing will only get worse.

A fraying of the social fabric

New Zealanders increasingly perceive the poor as lazy and undeserving of government help. This has probably increased in intensity since the reforms of the 1980s, which placed competition and fiscal probity on the pedestal.

While competition is good in most instances, it also increases tensions between groups, undermines solidarity and triggers resentment towards marginalised groups.

The poor and other perceived 'free-riders' are strongly excluded from mainstream New Zealand. Creating different classes of New Zealand - fraying the fabric of our society.

This creates the political backdrop of mounting debts for motel charges for those in dire need. Dividends are collected from Housing New Zealand, which houses the poor and vulnerable, and this is seen as not morally bankrupt taxes on the least able but as good fiscal practice and necessary discipline to stop free-riding.

Shamubeel Eaqub at a housing meeting in Auckland May 2016

Shamubeel Eaqub Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

A final thought

For those in need of emergency accommodation, life is dire.

Our grudging approach to giving them some shelter at their cost (even if never repaid, but clearly articulated that they are a burden on society) is better than nothing. But it is much worse than what we can be and what we have been - an empathetic society that looks after the poor and vulnerable.

We are small enough and wealthy enough that we could fix the shortage of housing for the poor - injecting a few billion dollars into Housing New Zealand would do it. Other issues around poverty - and the complex needs many of these people have - wouldn't be solved, although safe and secure shelter would be a good first step.

To make progress, we would need to rekindle the spirit of nation-building of the Greatest Generation in post-war New Zealand. The question is, can the disciples of competition and neo-liberalism find any empathy left in their hearts?

*Shamubeel Eaqub is an economist and media commentator who was formerly part of the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research think tank.

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