by Joshua O’Sullivan
Housing New Zealand has done an about face on its duty of care towards its tenants with more stories coming out every day. Even the mainstream media has picked up on some of the abuses such as the elderly disabled man getting kicked out of his house in Mt Roskil, or the continued stories of harassment of tenants by HNZ staff. Or the “transformation” of Glen Innes, removing as many state tenants as they can and transferring the ownership of those properties (some 2800) to private developers through the government and council owned Tamaki Redevelopment Corporation. But all this large scale gentrification projects as they are reported in the media miss the disgusting carelessness HNZ has when it interferes with people’s lives. Those affected by these evictions often have nowhere else to go, and while the government is selling off these state houses and over 5000 families still on the waiting list, HNZ is not rehousing them.
That list while large is not the full story either. HNZ through its on-going merger with Work and Income New Zealand has begun shedding staff – in fact for the entirety of the South Island there is only one HNZ staff member that is authorized to finish applications for admission to the waiting list. This means that the number of families in New Zealand that desperately need a place to live maybe far larger than that which is reported by government statistics. With an on-going housing crisis particularly in Auckland, private renting is not an option for these families which leads to overcrowding and homelessness. This decision by the National government to throw out tenants in this period is a cynical and careless move to make money off of badly maintained, old housing stock – without building replacements. This is a program designed to impoverish the poor further and make those who are in the property investment sphere much richer.
Most of these families have been in their Housing New Zealand homes for many years some even decades. What follows is a story from my good friend about her struggles with Housing New Zealand and their callous attempts to throw her out on the street for little to no reason – simply because her house lies in a now “attractive” and thus profitable suburb. It is a disturbing tale of a corporation that is supposed to look after those that need help, but in reality has now been turned into money making enterprise – making money off of other people’s misery.
My friend has lived in her house for over 22 years, she loves it, even though there have been difficulties in the past. The house is damp and poorly insulated and is a two story building with a sharp wooden staircase in the middle. When her son was young he suffered a medical illness which left him prone to uncontrollable seizures, meaning that he had to be cared for and looked after. She made many requests to HNZ to fix the damp problems as respiratory illness was common throughout the year in the house, she also asked for a transfer to another house without a staircase worrying that someday her son would have a seizure while walking up or down them. For 18 years Housing New Zealand denied her requests and to this day they have made no attempts to make the house more liveable.
Up till last year, my friend was a model tenant – the house was looked after, the rent was always paid on time, and it was by all accounts a happy family home. Then her work scaled back and could only offer half the amount of work it could previously. Put in this financial bind, she contacted HNZ several times and at times when her pay would be late from her employer and was then put through to manage her accounts – as she was now $2000 in arrears. The problem was in addition to delaying the process substantially, HNZ had been charging her market rates for her property, after some communication and battling with HNZ the market rates were dropped.
This year her work collapsed and she was now out of a job. She then had to go to WINZ to secure some level of income through the jobseeker support benefit. WINZ as many beneficiaries know is not the most welcoming place particularly for those in desperate situations. Through her first meetings because she was still moving through legal processes with her previous employers WINZ denied her benefit due to difficulties pertaining to meeting extensive jobseeker requirements. She had not been made redundant or fired but was just not receiving pay. After several weeks she was finally granted her jobseeker support benefit from WINZ and could finally start living her life, the benefit gave her a meagre $200 per week, minus $20 to cover the food grants she had gotten earlier to feed herself and her family.
HNZ pounced on this unlucky turn of events and started harassing her for the $549 in arrears she had chalked up over this period – not taking into account that WINZ had actually paid off most of the arrears accruing from the stand down period. This amount totals just one week of rent. HNZ began sending out notices for mediation over this issue between her and HNZ representatives at the tenancy tribunal. 4 notices were sent out of which only two were valid and tried to present the argument that this was the second tribunal. She assumed the notices were about paying back the money and didn’t expect anything suspicious. The day of the mediation was a scandalous affair, the representatives from HNZ made a deceitful case alleging my friend to be a problem tenant stating among many other things that she had already been to the tribunal on another matter. When questioned on this they presented no evidence and had to back down from the claim. HNZ representatives, presented papers to the adjudicator who based upon this small sum of money in arrears granted HNZs wish for eviction to be carried out within just two days. It was only after the tenant pleaded to have at least a week to gather the money to pay off the arrears, that the tenant was even told that that tribunal was about eviction.
That ruling was for an eviction to be carried out within one week, for just being late on one week’s rent. This disgraceful and immoral ruling flies in the face of laws protecting tenant’s rights. Who has ever heard of someone being evicted in one week – for being in arrears of one week’s rent. In private tenancy the landlord must wait for at least three weeks rent to be in arrears before they can even begin to start the eviction process and that also requires a notification period. HNZ had stated that this 3 weeks in arrears occurred over the period of stand-down with WINZ despite the fact that WINZ had paid most of this money back and had made a commitment at that point to pay for all of the arrears. This was made worse by the fact that the date of the eviction fell on her birthday.
This painful treatment shocked many of her friends that heard it, myself included. It is utterly unacceptable for a government department to behave, particularly one that is supposed to support some of the most vulnerable families in the country. After this shock I encouraged my friend to find some advocacy groups. Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) helped immensely by sorting out all her entitlements with WINZ and gave her the contact details of the Tenancy Protection Association. AAAP helped her deal with WINZ who also stated to HNZ that they would be willing to pay for the amount in arrears to keep her in her home; Secretary of local MP David Shearer was also immensely helpful. HNZ responded with a no. Both advocacy groups were shocked at her story and appalled at the absolutely disgusting actions of this government agency.
Another appointment was made at the court for another hearing of the tenancy tribunal and this time with the help of the Tenancy Protection she finally won her case. This battle, though it had to be hard-fought against case with no basis at all – was a success.
But for many under auspices of the Housing New Zealand Corporation success is an uphill battle. A battle the people of Glen Innes know well in particular. The government’s push to create a private social housing model and make billions on the selloff of state houses will impoverish thousands of families within New Zealand. We must unite in solidarity with these people who are being pushed out of the city they grew up in. If you wish to contribute your time and effort to this cause – link up with protest groups around the country such as here at Save Our Homes. As we can see from my friends story HNZ will do everything in their power to make selling state houses a priority, even if you are a model tenant. Their lack of communication not only with their tenant but also with other government departments such as WINZ (who administrates them) shows their disdain for the correct process and the rights of the people.
Poverty and exploitation are necessary realities for the development and survival of capitalism; they are its life blood. Our poverty is their prosperity; our misery is their means to gather more wealth. In New Zealand a cynical move to make a quick buck by selling off state houses not only reduces the government’s debts and its duty to care for its citizens. It also makes millionaires out of the property developers who buy up these properties, refurbishing them, washing away the happy family memories, and sterilising them for a new upmarket owner. These ruling class magnates are deeply interwoven into the fabric of the state. Parliament functions as way to govern the competing interest of capitalists – not the public they claim to represent. This is why there is no solution from the government about the housing crisis, about the extreme rates of poverty New Zealand, about the injustices wrested upon the working class every day. We can fight and when this battle over state housing in New Zealand, it is a tough battle but through solidarity and activity we can do it. However to truly be rid of a government that is beholden to business and not people we must root out capitalism.