Opinion: Government response to housing crisis a disgrace

(Published in Hawke’s Bay Today, 4th March 2017)

In the last week, the National Government has learnt that abolishing the Housing portfolio does nothing to fix the housing crisis.

The massive blowout in the emergency housing grant scheme is a scandal that, once again, shows how unprepared and out of touch National is when it comes to housing.

The Government expected 1,400 homeless families to need grants to pay for a week’s accommodation in a motel, but in the first quarter 9,000 grants covering 2,600 families were issued.

The cost to taxpayers was expected to be $2m a year; it was $8m in three months.

Deputy Prime Minister and former Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett’s response was to admit the Government had “no idea” of the scale of the problem. Prime Minister Bill English claimed these were the “hidden homeless” who have somehow just come out of the woodwork.

National has sold off state houses, taken $1.8 billion out of Housing NZ, set up ‘flying squads’ that failed to find the record number of families sleeping rough and have time and again either ignored or tried to suppress reports telling them their social housing policies lack leadership and a coherent plan. We are short 60,000 houses and the shortage is growing at over 1,000 houses a month. Houses are unaffordable and rents are skyrocketing, squeezing family budgets. Even TripAdvisor users are leaving scathing reviews about motels being used by the Government as dumping grounds for the homeless.

This is not a new problem, and it’s only getting worse.

To community social workers, budget advisors, organisations like the Salvation Army and the staff in electorate offices around the country who have been working with the thousands of families in desperate need for years; this is a crisis that is only escalating in size.

In fact, very recently this paper published two hard-hitting stories about local whānau we’ve been working with who have been staying in rundown motels for thousands of taxpayer dollars a week (I am pleased to be able to update readers that the whanau featured have now been moved into stable accommodation).

Of all the excuses, denials and shrugs of surprise from the Government, the response that has disappointed me the most has been from the Māori Party leadership, particularly the Minister of Māori Development, Te Ururoa Flavell.
It’s the Māori Development Minister’s role to lead public policy for Māori, and to provide guidance to government about policies affecting Māori wellbeing.

The housing crisis is disproportionately affecting Māori, and it is the most critical and urgent challenge facing our people today; it must be a priority kaupapa for the Minister of Māori Development.

Yet, there has been a deafening silence from the Minister and his Māori Party Co-leader Marama Fox.

The only comment Mr Flavell has made since the emergency housing scandal broke is to promote a papakāinga project in Ngāruawāhia as evidence that Māori are finding our own solutions to housing.

Papakāinga housing is a hugely positive and worthwhile initiative – but it’s a drop in the ocean.

Lauding the success of a project housing five whānau, while staying silent on the struggles of thousands of families a month sleeping in motels, cars and garages is an absolute dereliction of duty.

Perhaps the Māori Party are staying silent so no one draws attention to the fact that they voted with National in 2016 to pave the way for the sale of up to 8000 Housing New Zealand properties.

Either way, the silence from Flavell and Fox has to be taken as an admission they have no real influence in areas of policy urgently affecting Māori.

We need to reverse the trend of plummeting homeownership, and ever-increasing numbers of our people in desperate housing situations. To deliver those outcomes Māori need a strong voice in Cabinet, and a government who is willing to face the housing crisis head-on, not deny the problem even exists.

A Labour Government will increase funding for emergency housing, helping an extra 5,100 people a year. Labour will put an end to National’s practice of stripping hundreds of millions of dollars of dividends out of Housing New Zealand. We will build affordable homes for whānau to buy and state houses for those in need.

Eight years of inaction and failed housing policies under National are hurting this country. This year, let’s make a conscious choice to fix the housing crisis and change the government.

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