Housing NZ cuts kill praised home-find service

18:35, Mar 03 2012

Sweeping housing New Zealand cutbacks have claimed a pioneering South Auckland home-finding service that was so highly regarded it was included in a government-produced promotional video.

The cutbacks, which replaced offices with a national 0800 call centre, appear to have ended the "options and advice" service – pioneered in Manurewa then considered for a national rollout – where tenants who couldn't find a HNZ home, or who were evicted from state housing, were helped to find a private rental.

Lisa Loader, a property manager with South Auckland letting agency South Star Rentals, said she would help at least one HNZ client a fortnight into accommodation, usually those who would be rejected by most private agencies for "backgrounds that would make your hair curl". Some were being evicted from state houses and had nowhere else to go.

Under the "options and advice" scheme, Housing NZ's Manurewa office would advocate for the tenant, organise paperwork and ensure they or Winz paid rents, so that when they moved on, South Star could provide a positive reference that made it easier for them to find future housing. Loader said the service's success was such that the tenants proved as reliable as those applying from newspaper advertisements.

The Manurewa project was so successful it was considered for nationwide expansion, with an internal staff training video produced in 2009, and seen by the Star-Times, praising the service for making it easier for tenants to find housing that "best meets their needs" and helping tenants make "sustainable housing choices". It featured families helped by the service.

But Loader says the scheme is effectively dead. "They are saying the service still exists over the phone, but they are getting pretty slim service – it's `here's a phone number for a local agent, and go hard'," she said. "The intention of the service, as seen on that video, was a hell of a lot more encompassing than that. They are telling us there is a service there when there is nothing."

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A month after first complaining to Housing Minister Phil Heatley and HNZ, Loader hadn't received a promised explanation by Friday, so wrote to HNZ withdrawing her services.

David Zussman, chief executive of South Auckland housing trust Monte Cecilia, said the service withdrawal has had a significant impact, leaving families with "nowhere to go and no one to help them".

Labour housing spokeswoman Annette King also attacked the change and said her office had fielded correspondence from disgruntled HNZ clients, including one letter that called some call centre staff "little Hitlers". A letter from HNZ described the new system as a "smarter, fairer, faster service", something she called an "an insult to the intelligence of all New Zealanders".

Heatley's office referred the Star-Times to HNZ; in a statement, HNZ's general manager of tenancy services, Kay Read, said the service would continue through HNZ's national call centre which would be able to "resolve on the spot" many issues, but conceded that the "additional" service provided at a few HNZ offices would cease.

Sunday Star Times