In December 2010 the National-led coalition government announced a dramatic change in the way state housing is to be delivered.1 Under a general policy drive to “return the Housing Corporation of New Zealand to its core business”, the Housing Corporation has been told to ignore former objectives such as strengthening communities and focus simply on the provision of accommodation “for those who need it, for the duration of that need”, where duration is defined essentially in terms of income. The idea is that the $15 billion worth of capital tied up in state-owned houses is more efficiently used by moving people on from state housing as soon as their incomes change. In tandem with this policy, housing provided by private sector community housing groups would be assisted to provide more affordable housing for people coming out of state housing tenancies. This bold new direction was mapped out after a review that took a little over five weeks, by a small team of housing “shareholders”, headed by a business consultant who the government has also seen fit to appoint to the New Zealand Racing Board.2
This change in direction has a significant impact on tangata whenua, since 31 per cent of those on state housing waiting lists are Māori. Close to 40 per cent of Māori households in Auckland earn less than $51,000 a year and around 17 per cent are in the truly desperate situation of earning less than $25,000 a year.3
So how is the new policy working out? The answer comes from a surprising quarter and, although politely worded, is damning.
In April 2012, the government’s new Productivity Commission released a report on housing affordability as a constraint on the economy. Under the heading, Start the reforms at the other end of the housing ladder, the commission warned:4
“Starting the reforms at state housing without addressing demand pressures and without building sufficient options for people to ‘move on’ is generating a risk that those who are reviewed out of state housing have to accept inadequate housing alternatives, or are placed in a situation that leaves them vulnerable. Handled poorly, today’s ‘ready to move on tenant’ is tomorrow’s vulnerable household in the greatest need of state assistance.”
There is growing discontent over Housing New Zealand’s approach, according to the commission.5
The commission also noted “[t]here is limited financial capacity in the community housing sector, and current funding appears insufficient to expand the community sector to meet the government’s objectives.” The commission suggested that one answer might be to hand over state housing on a ‘large scale’ to community associations, including iwi.6 But this is not an area the government has shown much, if any, interest in. The report also discusses the role that the Whānau Ora scheme might play in social housing, but it’s clear that Whānau Ora will have limited impact in this area.
So while there is much debate, consultation and engagement with tangata whenua over matters such as asset sales, and the careful nuances of language required to preserve Treaty rights, a large and vulnerable section of society, including many tangata whenua, are being experimented upon in a fashion so cavalier that a standing government commission has found the new policy to be fundamentally flawed within a mere 16 months of the change being embarked upon. The Productivity Commission points out the likely extra fiscal costs. More important is the grinding personal despair that will be visited on hundreds of families and thousands of children, many being Māori.
The report also looks at the perennial issue of how to fund housing developments on multiple-owned Māori freehold land. The key problem is banks have great difficulty lending on a title containing dozens, hundreds and in some cases thousands of owners, for whom a mortgagee sale would be unthinkable. This matter has been examined over the years from a hundred different angles. The commission throws a few interesting legal suggestions into the mix. But the problem will remain pretty much intractable as long as we think that the private market can fix a Māori land tenure system mangled by colonisation. The only schemes that will ultimately work are those where, whatever happens in the foreground between developers, banks and owners, in the background the state stands in as the ultimate guarantor. These are the wages of colonisation, and they need to be paid.
3 www.productivity.govt.nz p240-241
4 Ibid p235
5 Ibid p220