In early 2014 Finance Minister Bill English boasted that the government’s new housing policy would see “the biggest changes in state housing since it was invented”. He was not talking about the vastly increased dividend that the government demands from HNZ ($215 million net in the 4 years up to 2013), or changes to the in the threshold for state housing assistance so that only the most urgent cases are now eligible. Nor was he referring to the fact that all tenants including the elderly and disabled would have their tenancies reviewed and if ineligible, would be required to find alternative accommodation. No, the really exciting announcement for Bill English was the intended sale, for approximately $5billion, of 22,000 state houses, to private social housing providers.
The sale of state houses and the extension of reviewable tenancies to existing, sometimes long term tenants is obviously part of the governments wider agenda for privatisation of social services and comes at a time when problems with inadequate and unaffordable housing for those on low incomes are already being widely reported in Christchurch and Auckland. However there are also major housing problems for low income people outside those areas, including Dunedin.
Much of the privately owned lower cost housing stock in Dunedin is old — villas built pre 1940 and poorly maintained. A 2004 study of low income housing in Dunedin found serious problems with the lack of maintenance being undertaken by landlords resulting in many being insufficiently insulated, ventilated and/or heated and the high percentage of income being spent by poor families on rent. They also noted the insufficiency of legislation to ensure a reasonable standard of housing, particularly those built before 1976. A follow up study in 2013 found improvements in some areas but only 23% of the low income housing assessed passed that organisation’s Reasonable Rental Standard, down from 36% in 2004.
Dunedin’s hilly topography means that there are pockets of the city which see little sun during the winter months and with electricity prices rising by 25% in the past 6 years many low-income renters are unable to heat their homes adequately. The health effects of such cold damp housing are well documented. The study above also found that the bonds payable by tenants have increased- in some cases very significantly.
In Dunedin mental health patient whose needs are not so great as to require supported accommodation are often housed in groups of severely run down flats and boarding houses throughout the city.
Under the Government’s latest policy 496 of Dunedin’s 1438 state houses will be sold over the next 10 years. This is at a time when 57 eligible people – already assessed as having the most urgent need – are awaiting a placement for “social housing” in Dunedin. These people, who are already accepted as having an urgent need sometimes wait for several months before they are allocated a house while at the same time significant numbers of state houses stand empty and dilapidated.
It is not clear at this stage who the government intends to sell Dunedin’s state houses to. The Salvation Army has rejected any involvement in the scheme on the grounds that it does not have the capacity to offer a service under the scheme and in response the government has made it clear that property developers and consortia with expertise in multimillion dollar property management, groups with no interest in the provision of social housing other than as a business proposition, are likely to step in. At time when the government is talking tough about protecting the vulnerable- its housing policy will increase social exclusion, ill health and insecurity for the poor.