Housing New Zealand is to shut its offices to clients and only talk to them through a national call centre, a move attacked by voluntary organisations as an abdication of its responsibilities to society's most vulnerable people.
David Zussman, director of the South Auckland housing charity Monte Cecilia Housing Trust, said the changes had come without consultation and the first he had learned of the move was a letter sent last week by Housing NZ.
The letter said that after April 10, all calls – such as those from state house tenants or homeless people seeking housing – to Housing NZ staff and offices would be redirected to a central 0800 number. Clients would not be allowed to turn up at HNZ offices unless they had a pre-arranged meeting with a case manager.
The letter encouraged those without a phone to try logging on to the HNZ website at a public library.
HNZ is already encouraging clients to use the 0800 number and Zussman said it was causing significant issues for his already-stretched staff.
Mike Leon, manager of the Wellington Night Shelter, said the change was "annoying", and had ended his close relationship with HNZ case managers, as he now had to leave a message with the call centre and wait for return contact up to 48 hours later.
"Everything is so impersonal, so many people will struggle with a phone call to access it [the service]," said Zussman, who works with homeless South Auckland families to find accommodation.
"With our advocacy work, how are we going to represent people? No one has come to talk to us about how we are going to access Housing New Zealand to represent people."
Zussman said the change was part of an overall retrenchment by HNZ. "Housing New Zealand have backed off and their minister has said that's fine, hands off, nothing to do with us any more. HNZ used to engage with us. We weren't 100 per cent happy, not even close, but the point is if HNZ are stopping services, who is filling the gap? Nobody. It's depressing ... we are going backwards."
Labour housing spokesman Annette King agreed, saying Housing NZ was "backing out of its responsibility for being anything other than a landlord as fast as they can, on the instruction of their minister ... you can just imagine what it will be like being on the end of a queue ringing up – as people have found with IRD running a similar system."
The changes follow on from the end of the so-called "state house for life" policy in favour of reviewable tenancies and a new system for how Housing NZ assess housing needs, including an income means test. Housing Minister Phil Heatley said those changes were designed to produce a fairer system which ensured those in most need were housed the quickest.
The community housing sector says it is "bursting at the seams" to contain a growing homelessness problem, which it says has gone unrecognised by the government. It has been calling for a national inquiry into homelessness since 2008.
- Sunday Star Times