By Chris Ford
Opinion - Another report has highlighted the stories of hardship faced by disabled people in being unable to find accessible housing but is the government listening?
Recently the New Zealand Convention Coalition, a grouping of seven disabled people's organisations, released a report compiled by the Donald Beasley Institute as part of New Zealand's independent monitoring of our implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) entitled My Experiences, My Rights: A Monitoring Report on Disabled Person's Experience of Housing in Aotearoa New Zealand.
A bit of self-disclosure is required before launching into what this report found - I was contracted as a monitor (researcher) on this project and, consequently, conducted a small number of the 61 interviews with disabled people which form the basis of the research. I also became involved in the transcription of a small number of the interviews as well.
That is why I had more than a passing involvement in this project. Ironically, my former landlords served me verbal notification of their intention to end my tenancy in early 2020 during the monitoring project, which largely took place in the winter of 2019. Essentially, after beginning to hear the housing stories of other disabled people, I became embroiled in my own inaccessible housing journey.
To cut a long story short, as readers of my past opinion pieces on the subject of my homelessness will know, I spent 11 months in a central Dunedin motel before finally being re-housed in a Kainga Ora property in South Dunedin early last year.
The My Experiences, My Rights report follows on the heels of previous inquiries into the poor housing status of disabled New Zealanders. Again, this report returned to the same familiar territory traversed by these reports, including that disabled people tend to live in unaffordable, inaccessible, and more often than not in cold, damp and mouldy rental accommodation.
Yet again, it highlighted the stories of real hardship faced by disabled people in being unable to find accessible housing. One disabled interviewee recounted how she had lived in a tent for 17 months after ACC effectively took away her income. Another young disabled woman interviewee told monitors about her experiences of living in a rest home while looking for accessible accommodation and how she had to live under the rigid rules of the home, which included her having to go back to her room very early each evening and of not being able to enjoy the same freedoms as her young non-disabled friends had in the outside world.
Both our main public landlord Kainga Ora/Housing New Zealand and its private sector counterparts came under fire for their sometimes poor treatment of disabled people. One interviewee, for example, recounted how he and his whānau had been harassed by the state housing agency for simply missing one rent payment after several members of his whānau had lost their jobs. A private sector disabled tenant told researchers that he had been evicted after leaving something on the stove and forgetting that he had done so twice in one day, actions which convinced his landlord that he was supposedly unsafe.
These sorts of negative attitudes and value judgements are sadly common around disability, particularly when the existing power imbalance between disabled and non-disabled people is further exacerbated by the existence of a power relationship, and in the case of housing, one between landlords and tenants.
While non-disabled people experience housing deprivation and hardship too, in the case of disabled people, it is the existence of a disabling society and all of the prejudices that go alongside it which simply magnify the inequities that I and other disabled people face in both acquiring and maintaining the most important of all human rights - the right to housing.
However, as I said earlier, this report follows other reports on disability and housing, with the most recent being the Auckland Community Housing Collective's Where Will We Live in The Future - Disabled People and Their Families report released in late 2021. Further, I have heard that the Human Rights Commission is preparing its own report into disabled people's housing to add to the mix.
All of this report writing on the housing crisis facing disabled people raises one key thing for me: It seems to be a case of yet another month, yet another report on disabled people's housing needs. In saying this, I agree that these pieces of research needed to be done and the voices of disabled people and our families/whānau need to be heard around these issues. The point is, however, is government listening?
I'm feeling exasperated as is there a genuine will to act, especially in finally instructing Kainga Ora to raise its minimum accessible design build target from a minimum of 15 percent to 100 percent. Is there a desire on the part of government to further strengthen the proposed accessibility legislation to ensure that universal design accessibility is mandatory required within all public and private housing constructed in the future? Indeed, what further evidence do they need before they will act?
Ultimately, the Convention Coalition-DBI study amplified the voices of disabled people who called upon the government to fully and finally acknowledge the impact that the housing crisis is having upon the disabled community and to act accordingly. In my view, it could best do this by funding and resourcing a Disability Housing Action Plan as part of a wider New Zealand Housing Strategy, a strategy that has been called for by numerous community organisations for years.
At the end of the day, it is up to the government to be even bolder in tackling the housing inequities faced by disabled New Zealanders. Permanent, structural change which makes disabled people full co-design partners in the housing policy process and one that witnesses the building of more accessible housing would be a good start.
* Chris Ford is a Dunedin-based freelance writer and disability advocate. He currently works for Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA) New Zealand and as a research assistant for two universities. However, the views expressed in this article are wholly his own.