Housing crisis: State must step in, says economist

OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 05:00 13/04/2012
Debbie Morris
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ
DESPERATE PLEA: Debbie Morris says Christchurch's rental accommodation shortage is so serious she and her two daughters may have to resort to sleeping in the family car because they are running out of places to stay.

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The Government must intervene in Christchurch's rental housing crisis, a leading economist says.

Robin Clements, a senior economist with research and investment house UBS, said the Government needed to actively assess the crisis rather than just leave it to boil in the hands of the market.

Pressure is growing on the Government to do something after Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said last month the solution to the city's critical rental shortage was best left to the market.

Clements firmly disagreed with Brownlee, who refused to comment on the issue yesterday.

"Markets only function within the parameters of which they are given and Christchurch's market is working and it is doing what markets do, but that is not providing an outcome that is socially acceptable," Clements said.

"So, unless they want to sit on the sidelines and watch the crisis deepen, action is required."

Unaffordable housing, land supply restrictions and long-hauled consent processes were underlying the crisis, Clements said. Over time he believed property owners would meet the fresh demand of housing in Christchurch, but with winter impending "we don't have that sort of time".

The city's health system was already on the edge and urgent housing was needed to protect vulnerable families before winter, he said.

In a letter to Brownlee last week, NZ First said leaving the rental crisis to the market was a "recipe of chaos".

"There is now a very serious housing shortage in Christchurch and the rental market is out of control. Too little is being done too late. The time for the Government to act is now," the letter from MP Denis O'Rourke read.

NZ First called for regulation of rents "immediately".

Tenants Protection Association manager Helen Gatonyi "couldn't agree more". She said if the Government didn't intervene it would have to take responsibility for the consequences of its inaction.

"How bad do they actually want it to get before they have the courage to do what everyone is saying and respond to this crisis?" she asked.

"The Government is responsible for the wellbeing of its people and housing is fundamental to a person's wellbeing, it underpins absolutely every other aspect of their life, and if the market isn't able to provide that housing or accommodate that need, then isn't it the Government's responsibility to do so?"

As the crisis deepened, more people would become homeless, which Gatonyi said would be far more costly than immediate intervention.

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SOLO MOTHER: ALL IWANT IS A ROOF OVER OUR HEADS

A Christchurch woman has been couch-surfing with her two children for weeks and fears they will have to sleep in their car tonight as the city's rental housing shortage hits breaking point.

The single mother has been turned away from stretched welfare agencies, temporary housing villages and caravan parks.

For the past two nights, Debbie Morris and her daughters, Chelsea, 11, and Sarah, 8, have slept on the couch of her friend's red-zoned Burwood home.

She had "no idea" where they would sleep tonight.

Early last month, they were forced into homelessness after their landlord increased the rent at their Addington home by $65 a week.

Their belongings have been stored in a shed while they couch-surf the city in search of accommodation.

Morris said yesterday that she was afraid she had "run out of friends' couches".

"I have hit breaking point and I am literally taking it day by day," she said. "I don't know what I am going to do. We will all go into the car if we have to.

"I never would have foreseen this. All I want is a roof over our heads. I want to come home and cook my children a meal. I don't want to drag them from house to house, from couch to couch."

Morris works part-time at Tower Junction and her children are enrolled at Burnside schools.

She moved from Australia to Christchurch with her two youngest daughters in early 2010 for a better life. In just over two years, she has lived in 13 properties across the city but said she had never been able to settle for "one reason or another".

One woman she boarded with became terminally ill, another got fed up with tenants and then the rental crisis hit the city shortly after the earthquakes, she said.

She was denied a spot in a caravan park because she was not a red-zone resident. Work and Income and Housing New Zealand had told her "they couldn't help us right now".

Since the family started squatting, Morris said, she had suffered stress-related health problems and taken time off work. Her children had missed school and her youngest daughter had needed counselling.

"You feel so inadequate as a parent when you are left in this situation. I feel like I have let them down, like I am not good enough as a mother."

She pleaded to anyone in a position to help: "I want my children to feel safe. I'm a good person. I have good references. Please help us."

- The Press

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