New Zealand was once a pioneer of the social welfare state, but now one in every 100 New Zealanders are homeless. According to the University of Otago, which analysed the latest census data from 2013, more than 40,000 people, or 1% of New Zealanders, are now homeless. This includes those living rough, in emergency housing or living in substandard garages. Homelessness on this scale is new to New Zealand, which was a pioneer of the social welfare state. In the 1930s, it launched an ambitious programme to build thousands of social or "state" houses. The policy was based on the idea of equality, equal opportunities and the fair distribution of wealth - notions that have long been core values for most New Zealanders.
"The ones who can no longer afford to rent a house, the ones who cannot find a garage to live in, many of them are now living in their cars," says Jenny Salesa, a Tongan New Zealander and Labour Party member of parliament. She's seen the number of people coming to her electorate office asking for help with housing more than double in the past year. "We used to pride ourselves as being an egalitarian society," Jenny says. "But we are no longer that unfortunately, especially in Auckland, when we are seeing so many families that are homeless. The amount of rent that is being charged here in Auckland has doubled for many of them. However, their wages haven't doubled. Some of them are working two full-time jobs and they still can't afford to pay the high rent," she says. In South Auckland, Pacific Islanders and Maori, who are much more likely to rent than own a home, are particularly feeling the pressure. "Eighty-two percent of Pacific families do not own their own homes," says Jenny. "They rent either from the government or from private landlords. So when you see rents going up, it disproportionately affects Pacific and Maori families."
"These people are what you might call the forgotten people," Hurimoana Dennis, the chairman of Te Puea Marae, the meeting grounds of local Maori tribes, explains."There is a new strata of the community that has been created and these people are mums and dads sitting below the poverty line," he says. Te Puea Marae opened its doors to the homeless in May, welcoming those with a genuine need. In the last 10 weeks it has housed 160 people, most of whom are Maori. "When they arrive the families are absolutely depleted. Some of them are sick. They are all very, very hungry and the chance to sleep in one place, in a bed here at the marae, is a blessing to them. You can see they are relieved," he says.
"They are living in cars because there is a housing shortage in Auckland of 40,000 now and it's a desperate situation," explains financial journalist and economic commentator Bernard Hickey. Rent rises in Auckland have largely been driven by a dizzying rise in property values - the result of too few new houses being built and a tax system that provides generous incentives for landlords. "In the last four years, for example, house prices are up 85 percent," says Bernard. "For most of that time rents didn't rise nearly as fast, but just in the last couple of years it's starting to overflow into rents and that's putting enormous pressure on those people who have relatively low incomes." The rapid rise in house values has also seen many landlords decide to sell their rental properties. These are often re-sold after only a few months, resulting in even more instability for renters. "Turnover of rental properties is very high, less than 18 months," says Hickey. "That means people are continually bouncing from house to house. That means housing is very unstable. Often it's incredibly poor-quality. It flows through into very high rates of chest infections, skin infections and to overcrowding." He explains "We are the lowest tax country for property in the world and that means housing is treated as an investment. It's not a home,".
The link between poor-quality housing and the health of children has been widely reported in New Zealand with one doctor recently describing how on a cold winter night "the emergency department was essentially a paediatric ward, filled with coughing and spluttering kids. I would talk to them to ask what their home situation was like; the vast majority came from poor housing."
The recent government allocation of nine million dollars (US $6.4m) over the next two years to "tackle the causes of homelessness" and help "people having difficulty holding on to their tenancies" makes no mention of rising rents. Instead, the minister identifies those who are "evicted due to rent arrears, anti-social behaviour or an overall inability to cope".
There is a national government programme offering those waiting for social housing a 5,000-dollar (US $3,500) grant if they move away from Auckland. "Many of the people desperate for a home in Auckland are actually working," says Jenny. "Their children attend the local schools and their families and friends who are part of their support network live nearby. Paying them to walk away from a job and their support networks here to shift instead to a distant town is just not an option for many families."
The government has also promised to spend 1.8bn dollars (US $1.3bn) on building around 6,000 new social houses over the next five years. Half of these are expected to be in Auckland, where the government is also going ahead with a plan to sell off hundreds of social houses as part of a redevelopment plan.
"One of the things this government has done in the past few months is to pass legislation to sell state houses off," says Jenny. "We know that the stock of state houses in New Zealand was up at about 69,000 at one time. They are now wanting to sell 9,000 of those state houses, at a time when we have such a huge shortage of houses."
If you want to see housing provided for need and not for profit, contact:
The World Socialist Party (New Zealand)