When it comes to our homelessness crisis, you can come up with constructive ideas or, it seems, you can blame those living in their cars for bringing it on themselves

Solutions. At least the immediate and practical ones. They've been pretty thin on the ground in the Auckland housing debate, especially when it comes to the social housing crisis. But today another couple of suggestions caught my eye.

National has a line -- presumably focus group tested -- that both its housing ministers are using a lot at the moment regarding both the middle-class house price "challenge" and the social and affordable housing crisis (and yes, even Paula Bennett has acknowledged living in a car is a crisis for the families involved). The line is "we're pulling every lever".

It suggests vigorous action and thoroughness. Nick Smith and Paula Bennett use it a lot. To ram home the message that they haven't been blind-sided by the homelessness issue that has sparked such public concern in the past five weeks both those ministers -- joined by Bill English -- insist they've known about it for more than a year. 

To add to that, I'm reliably informed, John Key when he speaks to sympathetic audiences has begun stressing that 'homelessness is nothing new'. It's all a way of suggesting that the government have the issue under control, aren't asleep at the wheel and, heck, it's all a media beat-up.

The problem with that is two-fold. First, EVERY social agency you talk to will say this isn't 'homelessness as usual'. In the past year something new has happened; we've reached a tipping point in the lack of houses continuum that means rental prices are rising rapidly and people are falling out the bottom of the housing market. I've still seen no evidence the government appreciated the urgency and extent of the problem until the past five weeks.

Second, if it did know, that makes its response -- or lack thereof -- even worse. Because surely then it would have done more than the $41m emergency housing package created for Budget 2016, which we now know was simply filling in housing holes created in previous years. If it appreciated we had tipped into new territory, it would have funded for the future as well as caught up the past. And it wouldn't have thrown out its panicked policies -- flying squads, $5000 to leave Auckland, block-booking motels.

But the question remains, is National in fact "pulling every lever". I've written a bit recently about some of the other policy actions it could be taken, such as negative gearing, investor restriction, direct house building and so on.  

On The Nation today Auckland Deputy mayor Penny Hulse threw her weight behind one we've proposed here on Pundit: Putting a 'use it or lose it' clause into any deals to develop Crown land.

And Paul Majurey, the chair of the Tamaki Collective (that's the group of all Auckland's iwi), added another new one. He pointed to the land on Moire Rd, Massey that was released yesterday by the Crown. There, 196 homes are to be built by Fletcher Residential on land that used to be the Ministry of Education's. 

Of the homes built, 20 percent are to be deemed "affordable". But as Majurey says, if this is an emergency, why not 50 or 60 percent? He wants to see more affordable houses required on any developments of Crown land.  

That's another lever the government is not pulling.

Why? Ideology. For all the rhetoric, when National says "we're pulling every lever", it's saying "we're pulling every lever that we feel comfortable pulling". Which is the right of every government.

But we need to be honest about this. If the government really saw this as an emergency -- and this is why its refusal to use the word 'crisis' matters -- if it really wanted above all to just put a roof over people's heads, there is so much more that could be done.

One person who is being honest about their ideology is former ACT MP Rodney Hide. In a remarkably heartless and ill-informed discussion on NBR radio, the man whose ideology helped drive the sell-off of council houses, boost property prices and transfer wealth from the public to the private, says New Zealand doesn't really have a homelessness problem. Rather, it's just the media and politicians "blowing things up into crises".

Hide goes on to say the media is "making up stories", accuses journalists of just turning up to political stunts and even homeless people preferring vans over houses. To listen to him, all the homeless are people who have been evicted for some unquestionable reason and have brought it on themselves by doing drugs, having babies and not getting jobs.

Now I've got no problem with an informed advocacy of personal responsibility. But this is a commitment to narrow ideology in the face of an avalanche of facts to the contrary.

Hide has cherry-picked a few stories of homeless people who have been evicted or made bad choices to suit his purposes. He uses these few cases to imply they are indicative of every case. He can therefore wash his hands of other people's misery, blame the media and blame the victims. So much easier.

Of course it's rich for a man famous for his yellow jacket and bubble car to mock political stunts and the media's reportage of them (journalists have always covered stunts, including many of Hide's). But, speaking as a journalist in several stories on the subject, including the one that sparked this debate, it's downright insulting to say the media is "making up stories". 

It's also patronising in the extreme to suggest he knows better than the dozens of social workers, social agency leaders and other experts in the field who have without exception (and as noted earlier) said this is a new sort of crisis.

The suffering of those in cars and garages is real and is not just about bad life choices. Of course, some stem from that. There's a whole other argument about how good a choice you can expect from someone who's living in a car, but undoubtedly some people need to own how they ended up in this mess.

But many, many more have done plenty right and still ended up homeless. Consider the family who moved for work (as Hide would urge them to) only to find even with full pay they couldn't afford the rent. 

And the bigger point... Is he really saying that the heart of our homeless crisis is a lack of personal responsibility, rather than a failed housing market, a lack of building and investment in affordable housing, bad planning laws, greedy investors, a stinting on infrastructure, and all the other things we know lie behind Auckland's housing woes?

Is he really saying there's not a fundamental lack of houses and if these people just made good choices, they'd be able to afford a happy home? If so, he's not only callous he's deluded.

What we need now is not victim blaming, it's the sort of solutions people like Penny Hulse and Paul Majurey are trying to get debated. What we need is not pulling people down. but more lever pulling to get more houses built, and quick.

Comments (13)

by Anne on June 18, 2016

"$5000 to leave Auckland"

You forgot the $2000 (or was it $3000) to come back to Auckland and get a job. Leave on Friday - collect your $5000 on the way. Return on Monday and pick up your $2000/$3000. Not a bad little earner for one week-end. 

As for Rodney Hide... there are none so blind etc. etc.

Seriously, thanks for an excellent post Tim Watkin.

by Dennis Frank on June 18, 2016
Dennis Frank

Vic Crone suggested a lever to pull on the tv news tonight: http://www.newshub.co.nz/politics/using-water-meters-to-help-ease-auckla...

Rare to see a politician being that clever, eh? Feasibility depends on current legality of implementation, but a damn good idea.  Investors feel protected by traditional property rights:  if they want to keep their houses empty, that's their prerogative. May require new legislation to compel them to tenant empty houses.  I doubt councils have the power to do so at present.  

The rationale for legislation ought to incorporate the concept of civic duty.  The prospect of being forced into moral behaviour will be traumatic for many wealthy investors, so they should be publicly advised to ready themselves for counselling.

by Lee Churchman on June 19, 2016
Lee Churchman

Now I've got no problem with an informed advocacy of personal responsibility.

There isn't any such thing. In some way we will pay for the bad choices other people make, whether we like it or not. The rational thing to do is minimise those costs over the long term. If that means spending money on the "undeserving", so be it. I'm tired of wasting money indulging conservative paranoia about "funding sin".

by Andrew Geddis on June 19, 2016
Andrew Geddis

From that announcement about the Massey land just released for development by the Crown, I note this line:

This site was purchased last October, repurposed to allow residential development in November and offered to the Iwi Limited Partnership in January this year. The Iwi Partnership declined the offer ...

Can I just note that this is what I said last year had to happen (and Nick Smith swore blind didn't, and so wouldn't occur)? So ... told you so.

by Megan Pledger on June 19, 2016
Megan Pledger

Auckland could have been looking at future planning 5, 10 years ago which would have avoided this current housing crisis if they hadn't been so involved in setting up and trying to get the "super city" to work.   And whose idea was that - Rodney Hides.

The cost of Auckland trying to get it's processes right have been at huge social cost as well as financial cost.


by Tim Watkin on June 19, 2016
Tim Watkin

Thanks Anne. Feared I was getting a bit ranty!

But to be fair you can't quite work the system the way you describe. If you come back to Auckland within a year, MSD will reclaim the money.

by Tim Watkin on June 19, 2016
Tim Watkin

Dennis, I saw that news story. Sadly Crone's comments meant Majurey's more pertinent comments didn't get the coverage they deserved. It does sound like a good idea from Crone, but I see discussion on Twitter today that Watercare can't/won't do what she wants. Others suggest insurance companies may be another way to get the information, but they're not under the council's control in the same way. So it may all be harder than it looks.

It all made me recall Gareth Morgan joking on The Nation a month or two back that he doesn't have tenants in his six houses because they just make the carpet dirty. To be fair to him, he was using the argument against himself, saying the current system promoted unproductive behaviour such as his. But presumably there are more landlords like him and while each one thinks it makes sense for them, on a whole it's denying people a roof over their heads.

by Charlie on June 20, 2016

The problem with citing "EVERY social agency" is that they have an agenda too. They need a 'crisis' to justify their very existence!

However. You'll find the good burghers of Auckland are quietly pleased with their property values and don't see any need to waste most on 'social housing'. Especially if its near them!  ;-)

There seems to be an amazing lack of creativity within the Auckland council. Or is it just plain stubbornness? Driving around the suburbs near the CBD I can point out several areas which are ideal for rezoning into high-rise. These could accommodate enough apartments to get rid of most the backlog. I'm not thinking of expensive leafy suburbs or parkland either. I'm thinking of the extensive car sale yards and low rent workshops in Kingsland along New North and Dominion Roads. I'm thinking of the 'big box' sheds and more low rent workshops around Lynn mall and the railway station. I'm thinking of the tired old council apartments in Eden terrace. I'm confident that if I did a proper survey I could easily pull together enough under utilized land to solve the problem in one step.

The problem, such as it is, is that nobody is even trying.

by donna on June 20, 2016

Thanks Anne. Feared I was getting a bit ranty!

You were. And justifiably so. In fact, more people should be getting on their high horses about this total shambles.

And as for Rodney: yep, it must be about individual failure because markets don't fail. And if they do, they just need the freedom to be more market-like. Sure, it's brain dead but, well, what can one say?

by Murray Grimwood on June 20, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Actually, the post and I think every comment thus far, misses the obvious,

If you limited the number of people - either by good 'life choices' (my partner and I chose from 2, 1, or none 30 years ago, for obvious planet-full reasons) or by stopping immigration, or better, both - you woudn't have a 'housing crisis.

But then you'd have to acknowledge that there are limits to growth, and that we have to shoulder personal responsibilities, and do so collectively.

I learned some of this at the University which employs Andrew Geddis. I don't see him addressing the fundamental issue - is this a 'systems analysis' failure, in that SA is lacking in that edifice? Regardless, it only takes logic and a map, to see that you can't grow suburbia forever, and logic alone to tell us that resource run-down ends in much worse 'poverty' than living in first world consumer items.

by Tim Watkin on June 20, 2016
Tim Watkin

Charlie, I think you're being too hard on the Salles, Monte Cecilias, Housing Foundations, the 50 social workers Mike Wesley Smith asked at a single meeting in prepping his story and others... The distinctive thing they are saying is not 'fire, fire!', but that this is the worst they've ever seen it and it started 12-18 months ago. As I keep saying, we've hit a tipping point and they're being quite specific in their concerns and timeframes.

And I don't think the council's being stubborn. It simply cannot borrow more for infrastructure without a credit downgrade. Councillors are trying to sort the unitary plan, which needs to be done to give a base for all this. Consent processes are still too long; but on the other hand if they're too quick, hello leaky homes again. Already about a third of building inspections are being failed cos of corner cutting. And there aren't enough tradies, as I've written before... So it's hard.

But that's why we look for the low hanging fruit!

by Murray Grimwood on June 21, 2016
Murray Grimwood

The low-hanging fruit has all been picked.

We are now into the entropy phase, too many ageing balls in the air now.

Leaky homes and homeless people and virtual 'wealth' are merely manifestations of same. As we go further down the degradation ladder - both in terms of resources available and infrastructure age - the problem will only get worse, Triage will be the order of the day, and increasingly so.

Just a point - there is more square metreage per head than there ever was. So the existing infrastructure must be badly distributed. That's the only valid socialist part of the debate - the rest is physics. No amount of decision-making or wishful thinking - or praying - can change the laws of thermodynamics.

Is anyone suggesting we perhaps double or infrastructure while also maintaining the existing, while also addressing Climate Change and also leaving enough options to future generations?

No. Not here for sure, and not anywhere else much.

The yardstick that has to be drawn over any 'solution' is real sustainability. Can it be maintained?


by Anne on June 22, 2016

" ... to be fair you can't quite work the system the way you describe. If you come back to Auckland within a year, MSD will reclaim the money."

Tongue firmly ensconced in cheek.


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