21 Nov 2014

Maori at risk in low-end housing: expert

7:12 am on 21 November 2014

A public health specialist says Māori are over-represented in the number of people who die in low rental accommodation.

Michael Baker, the University of Otago's Housing and Health Research Programme co-director, says the kind of loss of life where three young people recently died in a Hamilton rental property happens regularly - and Māori are over-represented in the statistics.

Professor Michael Baker

Professor Michael Baker Photo: SUPPLIED

Professor Baker says tāngata whenua are being left to fend for themselves in dangerous low-end rental properties and more state housing is needed to combat the problem.

Social housing is of a higher standard that improves people's health and safety, he says, particularly that of Māori and Pasifika.

His research team has been doing a study for nearly 10 years and found that Māori make up a third of occupants in social housing and half are children under 20 years old.

"We now know a lot about the people who live in social housing and they are a vulnerable group. You have to be amongst the poorest 5 percent of New Zealanders to even get through the door of a Housing New Zealand home. People's health improves hugely when they move into social housing from the private market and increasing the number of state houses is an important investment.

"Housing markets are very bad for poor people, and what we are seeing in New Zealand now is a tidal shift towards becoming a rental society. If you look at the last few census periods, you can see that in 1986, three-quarters of the population were owner-occupiers, and we're now down in the last census to around two-thirds.

"We can see a future in our life time where the majority of New Zealanders will be renting their homes and that would not be a bad thing if we had a tradition of high quality social housing that was owned by councils or Housing New Zealand equivalents, was very well-maintained and people had really great security of tenure, but the private rental market does not provide that. The evidence is that a lot of rental housing is very poor quality.

"It's potentially very grim for Māori, as under 50% own their own homes and if they are going to be thrown to the mercies of the private rental market representatives of the Māori community should be very concerned about this trend."

Govt change in philosophy

Professor Michael Baker says the Government needs to reverse its social housing policy and build more.

"They are a key investment for reducing child poverty and improving the health of Māori and Pacific children, in particular. The wholesale selling off of Housing New Zealand properties is not a substitute for a housing policy. It seems quite bizarre to be doing that in isolation."

Professor Baker believes there has been a change in philosophy on the Government's part since the early 2000s. He says his team worked closely then with Housing New Zealand when they were rolling out their Healthy Housing Programme in Auckland and then extended to Northland and Wellington.

He says it had high-quality linked-up services and upgraded the houses. It was found the programme reduced hospitalisations of young people by 20 to 30 percent, but it was discontinued

"They had an agenda of not just being landlords, but being concerned about the health and well-being of their tenants and they really acted accordingly. The Meningococcal disease was raging at the time and they said they didn't want any more children dying in their houses. They really made a big commitment to implement the Healthy Housing programme."

Professor Baker says the evidence shows that they did a fantastic job in those years and reduced household crowding which causes many diseases such as rheumatic fever.

"My experience of Housing New Zealand is that they are a remarkably good landlord, but what I see now is that they are being systematically eroded in terms of their standing and capability. Their capacity and mandate has been greatly diminished. Instead of them saying, 'Yes our job is to deliver more comprehensive services for our tenants', it's really retreating to being a landlord of last resort."

Minister responds

Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett provided the following statement in response.

"Professor Baker is making a number of assumptions that are not based on fact. The Government's social housing reforms are focused on ensuring more New Zealanders have access to warm, dry, affordable housing.

"We are currently working through the options on how best to provide this, which will include talking with community organisations, iwi, the private sector and local authorities. It's important we get this right and we have a process to go through before any decisions are made."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs