14 Apr 2016

Pensioners fear housing privatisations

8:36 pm on 14 April 2016

Pensioners living in council housing in Horowhenua are worried they could lose their homes if the council goes ahead with plans to sell off the units.

Mayor of the Horowhenua District Brendan Duffy

Mayor of the Horowhenua District Brendan Duffy Photo: RNZ / Michael Cropp

At a meeting last night, Horowhenua District councillors voted to seek expressions of interest from community housing providers for the 115 units in Levin, Foxton and Shannon.

Foxton pensioner John Lyons fears his home of the last eight years could be sold to a faceless corporation that does not care about him.

He said he and his neighbours, who only found out about the proposal at a meeting two months ago, were not reassured by anything they have been told so far.

"It's just a whole pack of lies, they're changing their minds - every week they've got a different idea. But the big idea is they're definitely going to sell these flats to pay the bills."

Horowhenua mayor Brendan Duffy said affordability was "a big factor" - but the council was also concerned about tenants and giving them the best service in the long term.

"It's not about turfing the baby and the bathwater, we want to explore how we deliver the best possible services within the resources that we have available and we think this option is worthy of exploring."

A condition of any sale agreement was that all properties would remain community housing, he said.

Under a community housing provider, tenants could actually be better off by up to $61 a week because they would be able to qualify for the government's Income Related Rent Subsidy.

Since central government scrapped capital grants for councils to build social housing some years ago, the clear message had been that councils needed to focus on "key infrastructure requirements" - and social housing was not one of them.

"The delivery of what's understood by a lot of people as social housing or community housing is not a piece of core responsibility of councils in government's mind and it's becoming more prevalent in local governments mind, as well," Mr Duffy said.

Privatisation trend worries advocates

However, the government's push for more private involvement made some housing advocates nervous.

Auckland Tenants Protection Association chair Peter Klein said some community housing agencies did a good job - but once that housing stock passed out of public hands, there was a danger it could be fully privatised.

"The private rental sector, generally it doesn't have the welfare of the tenants necessarily as one of their main concerns. So a lot of these tenants are the most vulnerable types of people in society and already under pressure."

So far, four councils - Auckland, Hamilton, Christchurch and Whakatane District - had completed the process of handing over their social housing to community providers.

Community Housing Aotearoa director Scott Figenshow said all the stock had gone to not-for-profit organisations, which was the best way of ensuring tenants' interests came first and the public retained the good of that investment made over generations.

Mr Figenshow said that for the sector to grow and prosper, providers needed assurances from central government they would continue to be able to access funding, especially in the form of income-related rent subsidies.

It was not fair that tenants in council-owned properties were barred from getting the subsidies now, he said.

"Why should a tenant lose out on access to rent subsidy simply because their landlord happens to have been a local authority," he said.

"So it's about levelling the playing field. Let's make sure this is about looking after tenants, making sure they've got equal access to resources, regardless of who their landlord is."

Some councils staying the course

Meanwhile, some councils were bucking the trend and holding on to their community housing - or as in the case of Auckland Council, which owned 1412 pensioner housing units, were looking to increase it.

Auckland Development Committee today voted 14 to 8 to increase its pensioner housing stock.

Councillor Cathy Casey said there were 380 people on the waiting list as at March 2016, and during the annual plan process, many organisations talked about the "dire need" for more council investment in housing for older people.

"Our current Housing Action plan states that we will enable redevelopment projects on existing council housing for the elderly sites while maintaining at least the existing number of units for older people. Today we changed this to read an 'increase the number of units for older people' and we will now look at the financial consequences of this decision."

Councillor John Watson said with one in four New Zealanders aged over 65 by 2036, Auckland Council needed to act urgently.

"What is really concerning is the emerging lack of rental options for older people in Auckland."

In a closed session this afternoon, Wellington City Council's community sport and recreation committee rejected a proposal from management to increase rents for some tenants to help pay for a massive $400 million refurbishment that was a joint partnership with the Labour-led government in 2007.

Under that agreement, the council was to stump up $180 million of that - but existing rents would not cover it.

Committee chair Paul Eagle said councillors did not feel comfortable asking tenants to meet the shortfall and had decided to look at alternative funding.

Meanwhile, Local Government New Zealand and other city councils were lobbying central government, hoping to be included in the income related rent subsidy scheme.