The Level 3 Lowdown on Housing and Covid-19

A public statement on housing during covid-19 from the housing campaign team working with ActionStation.

A young girl with panda earmuffs holds a sign saying “Fill the Ghost Houses”

Everyone should have access to a warm, dry, accessible and secure home at an affordable level that allows them to thrive.

We are a group of campaigners and organisers brought together by ActionStation to work toward this vision. As our covid-19 cases drop to low numbers, housing solutions are more important than ever. An economic recession will have a particularly significant impact on those who are homeless, live in insecure or overcrowded housing, or have high rent and mortgage payments.

Covid-19 has revealed many truths about the housing crisis in Aotearoa:

We aren’t the only ones concerned about housing right now. The Manawatū Tenants’ Union released an open letter calling for urgent housing solutions. This includes a ‘living rent’ where no tenant should have to pay more than 30% of their income for their home.

Auckland Action Against Poverty have called for a rent amnesty and for the government to force owners whose properties were vacant to house homeless or poorly housed people. Renters United have recommended a Covid-19 Rent Subsidy and greater flexibility for tenants to renegotiate their tenancies.

University students have been speaking out against hostel accommodation charges (and winning!) and renters have started organising rent strikes for immediate rent relief and long term housing solutions.

”Homes are for living not for profit” — photo by Vanessa Cole

On the 2nd of April 2020, we delivered our petition for an Emergency Housing Plan petition to Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson. It was the first online petition delivery since lock-down. Over 11,000 people signed on to four key demands around housing during covid-19 and after recovery. We have not heard a response from the government regarding this petition.

Let’s take a moment to have a look together to compare what we asked — with what the government has done for better housing.

We called on the government for:

An immediate amnesty from paying rent or mortgages, and a ban on all evictions throughout the covid-19 pandemic. This should be extended for a period afterwards to help people recover financially and emotionally.

What’s happened:

At the beginning of lockdown the government temporarily froze rent increases, banned most forms of evictions and gave renters the right to continue in tenancies during the lockdown.

The Government stopped landlords from being able to make Tenancy Tribunal applications for 3 months taking effect 26 March. This is unless someone seriously damages the property, engages in “anti-social” behaviour or is behind rent for more than 60 days (an increase from 21 days).

If renters were struggling to pay their costs, Government advice is to approach Work and Income for accommodation support. It advises ‘talking to their landlord’ to work out a solution.

The government addressed home-owner needs by negotiating a ‘mortgage holiday’ with willing banks.

Our reckons:

While these changes were welcomed, it doesn’t go far enough to be described as a ‘rent amnesty’ and does not protect renters in the long term.

If people are unable to pay their rent due to loss of household income and employment they are still at risk of their landlords evicting them. They could be forced to take on debt as the alert levels ease. A landlord will be able to take them to the Tribunal despite the government’s changes.

The government’s policy is only putting off renters having to face the Tenancy Tribunal. After the 60 days is finished, there is no guarantee that renters will be protected from having to pay rent arrears back.

We see a meaningful rent amnesty as no eviction or debt owed for not paying rent, so that people can genuinely recover after covid-19. Renters should not have the continued threat of their case going to the Tenancy Tribunal. We don’t think banks should profit during covid-19 while others make cuts. Mortgage holders should not be charged interest during mortgage ‘holidays.’

#EmergencyHousingPlan! — photo by Val.

We called on the government for:

Long term rent caps to enable people to recover financially, emotionally from covid-19.

What’s happened?

The government announced a rent freeze for six months, which meant that any scheduled rent increases could not go ahead. However, this froze rents at already extremely high levels. It also does not prevent landlords from increasing rents by a larger amount once the government lifts the rent freeze.

Our reckons:

1 in 4 households spend more than 40% of their income on rent. We are calling on the government to not just freeze rents but to put in place policies that will decrease rents. This can be done by legislating rent caps at a level so that nobody is paying more than 25 percent of their income on rent.

If some landlords were unable to accept this rent cap or other regulations the government can offer to buy back these rental properties. This will ensure rents are affordable long term, and increase its public housing stock and grow housing as state assets.

This has been done before, by the first Labour government in the aftermath of the Great Depression. It would be a way to ensure that housing is secure regardless of this current, or future, global social and economic crises. Housing is a basic human right, not a luxury that should only be reserved for a few.

We called on the government to:

Buy unoccupied houses (ghost homes) and buildings on the private market for public housing for homeless people.

What’s happened?

Nothing at this time.

Our reckons:

While Kāinga Ora currently leases private housing from landlords and then rents it as public housing, this is not the same as our petition ask. It is also a massive transfer of wealth from the government to private landlords. Instead, these homes should be in public ownership to ensure long-term and secure housing for people now and for the future.

Numbers of people will move from employment to unemployment or underemployment, unable to afford their mortgages and private rentals. There is ever more reason to increase the supply of public housing to house those who have lost income.

The government has bailed out businesses, and banks are supporting homeowners, and yet there has been no meaningful support other than ‘talk to your landlords’ or apply for the Accommodation Supplement.

The government has the ability to restructure the private housing market, enable whānau and hapū to establish papakāinga and build more accessible, environmentally sustainable public homes. This requires bolder action for better housing.

We called on the government to:

Remove all obligations to pay for the costs of temporary emergency housing, and reinstate this as a non-recoverable grant.

What’s happened?

Ministry of Social Development officials say people who need emergency housing at this time won’t have to pay, for now, from 23 March. After a 12 week period, the government will reconsider its decision to make Emergency Housing recoverable, at 25% of a person’s income.

They are considering providing emergency housing for up to 21 days if a person fits particular criteria. This includes having already been in the emergency housing for seven day, not seen to have “unreasonably contributed” to their homelessness and have made a “reasonable effort” to find alternative accommodation.

The government also announced an extra $107.6 million to help vulnerable people in need of housing. The government had already secured more than 1100 additional motel units for people without housing since Alert lLevel 4. These are provided by government agencies, community housing, iwi and Māori providers.

Our reckons:

Emergency housing should never become a permanent solution. But until more public housing is acquired, the government should remove all barriers to accessing it. We support emergency and temporary housing to remain a non-recoverable grant so that nobody has to pay back costs from being homeless. People should not have to pay for short-term accommodation where there is no rental agreement.

People should not have to reapply for Emergency Housing every seven days. Instead, they must have consistent accommodation until a permanent public rental home is available. At present the government transfers massive amounts of money to moteliers and other providers. These funds should instead be providing long-term public housing rentals.

We commend the Government for moving fast to provide emergency accommodation to people in need. But we must ask why decisive action was not taken sooner.

“Accessible housing for all!” — photo by tripups

What does this mean as the alert level eases?

The ongoing effects of covid-19 will last some time. We need to be proactive and bold to ensure that people have a safe, secure, warm and dry roof over their head during recovery and beyond.

The questions we have for our decision makers in Aotearoa as we come out of Level 3 are:

  • How will the government ensure that renters do not go into debt because of covid-19?
  • What secure and permanent housing will we provide for rough sleepers who have been put in emergency accommodation during lockdown?
  • How will we protect people in precarious housing during the economic recession?
  • What are the opportunities for mass builds of public rental homes and papakāinga construction to create more jobs?
  • People who rent should no longer have to struggle in the private market. What are the opportunities for public housing for more people?

Our housing crisis will not solve itself. This is our moment to take bold action to make sure that everyone has a secure roof over their head during uncertain times and in the future.

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Do you want to be part of the movement to support better housing solutions during covid-19 and into the future? If you haven’t already, sign our petition here to join the campaign and stay updated.

Manea says “Fill the Ghost Houses!” — photo by Jasmine.

We work together to create a society where people and planet are more important than profit and Te Tiriti o Waitangi is honoured.