By Vanessa Cole, Housing Researcher
As our country self-isolates, many people do not have a warm, dry, accessible and secure home to retreat to.
Before the pandemic reached our shores, we had over 40,000 homeless people, including those living in overcrowded homes. Nearly 15,000 households were on the waitlist for public housing. Even more people needed access to state housing but do not fit the priority criteria.
For Māori, the injustice of disproportionately higher rates of houselessness in their own home is a marker of ongoing colonisation. International experts such as Leilani Farha were calling for major interventions in what she called a human rights crisis driven by housing being treated as an investment. In short, we had a housing crisis on our hands, before we had a global pandemic.
And now we have both.
In response, the government recently made emergency provisions for low and middle-income people. But these measures do not even scratch the surface when it comes to relief for housing stress. We have been warned that the upcoming economic recession could hit us worse than the 2008 financial crisis. The choices that our government makes now are crucial to how our people will survive and thrive in the next few years.
Collectively, we can decide where we as a country go next. We can choose to make housing and poverty an even larger crisis. Or, we can be bold and imagine housing solutions that address our current need and future-proof our country for the years ahead.
This starts by looking at housing solutions for the many instead of those who treat it as an investment. Emergency housing should have never become our default answer to homelessness. But if people have no other choice, they should not be placed in debt or be forced to renew their accommodation for the duration of this crisis and until the Government finds people permanent state homes.
Instead of accepting a housing shortage, we can choose to think differently about the homes that already exist. According to the 2018 census data, there are 191,646 unoccupied dwellings, with nearly 40,000 in Auckland. By bringing these unused homes into public ownership we can provide safe and healthy state homes for thousands of people living on the street, in garages, in overcrowded housing or unable to afford private rents.
A bold solution would include a rent amnesty, such as suspending rents and ensuring tenants do not need to pay them back in the future. Over 90,000 people have supported the call for rent relief in Aotearoa. The government has granted home-owners some reassurance that they can access mortgage holidays. This must be made available to everyone who needs it, and banks should not be making profits through interest. For renters, however, it is not enough to rely on the good will of landlords and property managers who have their own interests in securing their investment. A property investor will still have their asset, but a renter risks losing the very roof over their head.
We know the impacts of COVID-19 will not ease overnight. A simple solution is to introduce rent caps in the long term. Right now, 1 in 4 renting households spend more than 40% of their income on rent and housing costs. Rent caps are a way for the government to limit the amount of rent landlords can charge, so that tenants are able to meet their housing costs. There are different ways of doing this, but one way could be that no household pays more than 25% of the median income on rent. This would provide long term relief for those already paying excessive costs in rent. It also gives the government time to focus on building more public rental homes for everyone who needs affordable housing.
If we take the time to boldly imagine new housing possibilities, we can create housing that is environmentally sustainable in response to the climate crisis that looms over our future. If we choose to see our homes as a place of economic stability, we could return land to mana whenua and make it easy for Māori solutions such as papakainga to be built.
If we move beyond housing as primarily an investment, then we can provide accessible housing to disabled and elderly communities. If we value housing as a space for living instead of for profit we could build and acquire enough state rental homes so that everyone can have one.
Let’s take this opportunity to change our direction and imagine secure, beautiful, genuinely affordable homes for everyone.