Significant revamp of state housing ahead

CYNICAL: Rod Oram says Finance Minister Bill English has produced a deeply cynical Budget.
CYNICAL: Rod Oram says Finance Minister Bill English has produced a deeply cynical Budget.

The Government is planning a significant revamp of the state housing system in the Budget, including extending the income related rent subsidy beyond the traditional state house to non-government organisations such as churches and iwi.

Finance Minister Bill English this morning confirmed the housing changes would be part of broader action on poverty revealed by Fairfax Media today.

''On social housing ... there is now a consensus between the Government, the housing providers and social services that the system of state housing needs to change reasonably significantly. So we will be signalling further steps in that,'' English said.

Non-government agencies wanted to see more change more quickly and the Government was trying to meet that expectation.

"We want to see more people providing housing and we have got a number of social housing providers - churches and NGOs - that are keen to get access to the same subsidy as Housing Corporation has, so there will be no reduction in subsidy, in fact probably an increase. But they will be distributed a bit differently.''

There could ''possibly'' be fewer state houses, but there would be more people with access to the income related rent though the accommodation supplement would not change.

The Budget would also contain more measures to address housing affordability.

Soon after his comments Housing Minister Nick Smith issued a press statement announcing two initiatives costing $377m that would see ''up to 3000 new state house bedrooms and 500 new homes''.

Smith said the first initiative, called Project 324&5, would convert three bedroom houses into four and five bedroom homes.

It recognised that Housing New Zealand, and particularly Auckland, had an oversupply of three bedroom homes and a real shortage of larger ones.

"The initiative is expected to deliver up to 3000 new state house bedrooms to 2000 properties over the next two years, with three quarters of them in Auckland.''

Smith said the second initiative would see an additional 500 two bedroom state houses built over the next two years on large Housing New Zealand properties in Auckland.

English said the Budget would also include ''very practical'' measures recommended by a ministerial committee on poverty that would be tightly targeted to those facing the worst deprivation.

''We don't believe there is 'a' solution to poverty in general. So I would not expect any large scale intervention. We've been focusing on reaching the hard to reach and intervening to improve their lives.''

The cash would come from a mix of new and redirected spending.

"Often what's required in families with the most deprivation is to reconstruct some sort of order in their lives. Of course the parents are a critical part of that.

''In the past services have tried to support the disadvantaged. There are a smaller number of people who are in significant deprivation and they need to be found, they need relationships built and trust built and in a lot of cases hope rebuilt. That's a complex process.''

He said the Government did not agree with the Opposition view that the most important thing was how poverty was measured.

"We are trying to change the nature of the spending, not just the amount."

Meanwhile Prime Minister John Key has firmed up support for a move on food in schools.

He said children who are not fed become victims and the Government has to deal with that.Food in schools, along with better housing and a revamp of family tax credits were key recommendations of a report to the Children's Commissioner by an advisory group on child poverty. 

Key said he believed strongly in personal responsibility and parental responsibility, ''but if there's an instance where they don't, for whatever reason, and a child is hungry then the child's not going to learn well".

If a child was not properly cared for the Government could leave them alone but they become a victim, he said.

"These are youngsters that we want to grown up as happy healthy New Zealanders to do that they need a good education."

Yesterday, Key would not rule in or out a move on food in schools but said National would not back Mana leader Hone Harawira's "feed the kids" member's bill. 

However, he pointed to his state of the nation speech in 2007 and the Government's support for KidsCan, Fonterra's milk in schools programme and an extension to the fruit in schools scheme as signals he backed such moves in partnership with business. 

Deborah Morris-Travers, of lobby group Every Child Counts, said she hoped the Government would use the Budget as a first response to the hard-hitting report. 

It estimated the economic costs of child poverty was $6 billion-$8b a year and found up to 25 per cent of children - about 270,000 - lived in poverty.

The Dominion Post