Council bullish on buying state houses

20:44, Nov 02 2014
Paul Eagle
BUILDING BLOCKS: Labour MP Annette King and Wellington city councillor Paul Eagle at the Owen St flats in Newtown. They want more housing partnerships between the Government and the council. 

Wellington City Council is moving ahead with plans to buy the Government's unwanted state houses - at a cost it has yet to explore.

The Government plans to sell thousands of houses as it encourages private social housing providers - including churches and iwi - to take on vulnerable tenants.

If that was to happen in Wellington, the council would be keen to get hold of them, Paul Eagle, chairman of the community, sport and recreation committee, said.

The council's plan is in its infancy, but it could involve forging an alliance with property developers, construction companies, and social service agencies to create a mixed model of low-cost rentals, rent-to-buy homes, and quality apartments.

> Discounted state houses for some buyers: PM

The cost of the plan had not been explored, but Eagle said the city was willing to debt-fund the likes of indoor music venues and film museums, and "housing needs to be on the same radar for the city".

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"We've said to our officers to go away and tell us how much we've got there. We believe we've got the infrastructure to take it on."

The council has 2000 housing units with 3600 tenants, which represents 49 per cent of social housing stock. Housing New Zealand has 48 per cent.

About 270 people are waiting for a council flat to become available and, in the next 30 years, it is expected that an additional 4000 houses would need to be built.

If the council took over the HNZ stock, it would look at each site on its merits to see whether it should be redeveloped or demolished, Eagle said.

"It would be a mixed model of apartments, rent-to-buy houses, rental houses. They would be high-quality, warm, dry, and have all the mod cons, like wifi. It's a better use of the land.

"We are a top-notch provider of social housing. Our staff win international awards for their work with tenants, and for their efforts to upgrade our housing to the highest standard."

Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett said yesterday that she was interested in the council's plan. "Local government has an important role to play in helping people access social housing, and we're interested in talking to the Wellington City Council about their proposal in more detail."

Earlier, she told TVNZ's Q+A that the Government would remain the "dominant" provider of housing, but wanted to open up social housing provision so the likes of churches and iwi would have access to income-related rent subsidies.

Salvation Army social housing spokesman Major Campbell Roberts said it wasn't in a position to buy billions of dollars of housing stock, but if the Government policy was going to work, "council and iwi are two groups who have got a lot of resources and could play a big part".

Acting Labour deputy leader Annette King, the MP for Rongotai, said there was already a $220 million programme to upgrade Wellington's social housing, agreed with the Labour government in 2008, which was working well.

But she was critical of the lack of detail in the Government's plans. "Treasury has been working on this for four years. To say they've haven't got any real numbers or plans yet is being disingenuous."

Prime Minister John Key has said no decision has been made on how many state houses could be sold.

However, King said she believed the Government had decided on the number, but was not prepared to divulge it yet.

Eagle's committee plans to publish a discussion paper on the council proposal before the end of the year.

WORKING POOR 'NEED HELP, TOO'

Housing solutions need to cater for the working poor as well as for beneficiaries, the Salvation Army says.

Targeting the most vulnerable would alleviate problems in Auckland and Christchurch, but the rest of the country was struggling with a group of people who had work but still could not afford private rents, social housing spokesman Major Campbell Roberts said.

"At this stage, government is concentrating on helping the most at-risk. I agree with that, but you can't do it without having other housing policies in place."

Schemes such as rent-to-buy needed to be a priority, he said.

"One problem with the Housing New Zealand policy at the moment is they need one big lever - and if that is to sell off housing, then that's doomed to failure.

"Housing is part of our infrastructure, and you need to prioritise and decide whether having a northern highway is more important than having people with a roof over their head."

Wellington city councillor Paul Eagle said the illusion that social housing was about state houses for beneficiaries had left the working poor with nowhere to go.

"There's plenty of people who might be earning a few more dollars than they did living in social housing, but outside of that they can't afford any sort of a home in Newtown."

Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett said the Government already spent $2 billion a year on accommodation assistance.

The Dominion Post