Friday 15 September 2017

A Policy A Day: Addressing Homelessness

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We're exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that - after all, we're voters too. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today's post is by Lamia Imam

There is a lot of disagreement around how bad the homelessness situation is in New Zealand. While the experts and the politicians are busy fighting about the definition of homelessness, we can’t ignore that there are a lot of people who are living it rough in Aotearoa. Last year there was a cross-party inquiry into homelessness (by the Labour, Green, and Māori Parties) which suggested that the level of homelessness was higher than at any other time in history. They also suggested that the cause can be traced back to the last 30 years. So we can safely assume that we aren’t going to solve this problem overnight and the solutions will have to be multi-faceted. It is not enough to just focus on the affordable housing aspect but wages, welfare, rental standards, and healthcare all have to be addressed together, which makes the problem more difficult than just building houses.

Earlier this year, a Yale University study put New Zealand at the very top of the list of OECD countries with homelessness as a percent of the total population on a per capita basis. We also know that the government has been putting people in motels and putting them in debt as the motel costs are transferred to the homeless. The government is spending as much as $100,000 per day to provide emergency housing, which is well above what was budgeted. Emergency housing grants have been steadily increasing over the last few years, which shows that the problem isn’t getting much better.

New Zealand is a small country. In the broader scheme of things, our homelessness problem could be addressed if there was political will. The National Party in government has effectively made an ideological decision to do as little as possible to house the most vulnerable people in our communities. Over the last 9 years, the government has made a number of decisions in the provision of social services which has seen a slow erosion of the safety net. From welfare reform to the selling down of state housing, inadequate social policies have harmed those on the lowest incomes and/or no incomes. Effectively, our current government is now in the business of subsidizing the motel industry, which is unacceptable. There is no benefit to this approach other than boosting our tourism numbers because Statistics NZ is using the motel occupancy by homeless people in their domestic tourism numbers.

The easiest way to fix temporary homelessness is to provide access to low-cost shelters and homes, and provide folks with a long term solution. Labour’s Kiwibuild program is designed to make low-cost housing available, combined with making Housing New Zealand a public services organization rather than a state owned enterprise which will make more housing available. The Greens also have a similar policy to build more houses and making homes available for those with the most need immediately. They also want to remove the dividend requirement for Housing New Zealand temporarily. When I checked last, the National Party did not have a homelessness policy on their website although, they are evidently attempting to address the issue through the last couple of debates. New Zealand First does not have a specific homelessness policy, but they do have a housing policy in principle which would restrict home ownership to New Zealanders. The Māori Party wants to set targets to eliminate homelessness by 2020 by building houses, and the assumption is that they would adopt the recommendations from last year’s inquiry as well. ACT does not seem to have a homelessness policy and TOP would like to outsource it to NGOs.

The steps to addressing and preventing homelessness must include the following:
  • Living wage
  • Access to mental health services
  • Rental standards and security of tenure
  • Low-cost government housing
  • Increase in state housing numbers
  • Emergency housing plan
  • Greater regulations of investment housing (including but not limited to capital gains tax)

·     Currently, the housing market is designed to enable exploitation of low income and vulnerable people because there is very little oversight of the rental market. There has been a lot of focus on foreign investment, but an inadequate understanding of how Kiwi homeowners also use the same conditions to their advantage. The motel policy is not sustainable and puts homeless people at a greater risk of being homeless for longer due to the level of debt incurred.

Right now, about 1% of the population is considered to be housing deprived, which does not necessarily mean homeless but generally means that they are not in good living conditions. This translates to about 45,000 people. The government claims that the actual figure is a lot lower - somewhere around 4,500. The definition of what constitutes homelessness is technically irrelevant because even those who do have access to a home are paying a significant amount of their income towards housing costs. This means that many people are one paycheck or one illness away from being facing homelessness. Without adequate measures in place, the government risks creating long term homelessness that will have an effect on other areas of social development such as health, criminal justice, and education, particularly affecting children in homeless families.

Based on the policies put forward by the various political parties, a Labour-Greens- Māori mash-up could be the best way to address homelessness. However, it is equally important that any new government does not get bogged down by setting targets and creating more inquiries/studies. For the most vulnerable and at risk folks, there needs to be an immediate commitment to creating access to housing (non-motel) which can be used to get people off the streets and cars. There also needs to be an immediate halt to the selling of state housing at a time when housing is unaffordable and an increasing number of people do not have any homes at all. There cannot be a policy justification for selling state housing while putting people up in motels and charging them for it – which translates to a much higher cost than the average rental.

Housing is a necessity and is key to eradicating poverty. As New Zealanders, we should be ashamed that our country would be at the top of a list given the history of our welfare state. There are some easy and quick ways to fix this issue but for an ideological aversion to it. Surely that is an untenable position for any government.

Lamia Imam is a communications professional currently working in Austin, Texas. She previously worked as a policy analyst in the New Zealand Parliament and the Ministry of Justice in Wellington. She was one of the contributing authors of The Interregnum, a book of essays by young writers commenting on the current state of political uncertainty.

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