Housing takeover 'doesn't make sense' - Street

Last updated 12:58 10/04/2014

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Further welfare shakeups are to hit low income New Zealanders.

From Monday, Work and Income Nelson will handle applications and assessments for social housing from the Nelson, Tasman and West Coast regions. From July 1 it will introduce reviewable tenancies for those in social housing.

Nationwide the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) will be taking over some social housing services from Housing New Zealand, and will open up rent subsidies to community housing providers.

MSD general manager Marama Edwards said the changes will provide "a more comprehensive assessment of people's social needs, with housing included alongside employment, income and other social services".

All Work and Income Nelson staff would be trained on housing assessment policy and procedures but it would be a "relatively small" component of their role, she said. There would be one dedicated role to manage the core housing work.

The MSD said if reviews found the circumstances of tenants in social housing had improved and they believed applicants were no longer in need of the subsided homes, they could be moved into the private market.

Nelson-based Labour MP Maryan Street said with the recent criticism of Work and Income, it did not make sense for the MSD to take over social housing as well.

She said Work and Income needed to restore its reputation before it took on additional responsibilities as "it might re-create the same levels of complaint we get from Work and Income".

She called the move "a major mistake" and said it represented the Government trying to shed its responsibility of social housing. She feared the "welfare mindset" at the MSD would affect the way people were dealt with when looking for social housing.

"Everyone is entitled to adequate housing . . . I shudder at the impact this will have on people in need of housing in the Nelson area."

Street believes this reform will lead to the eventual shutdown of Housing New Zealand with its diminished responsibilities.

However, Housing Minister Nick Smith said Housing New Zealand would still be a significant player in providing social housing.

He is confident there will be "better housing options for the most disadvantaged families" under the reform.

So far 12 organisations have signed contracts with MSD under the scheme.

He said there were discussions about social housing organisations taking over Housing New Zealand stock in Nelson, later on this year.

Beneficiary Advocacy Federation of New Zealand spokeswoman Kay Brereton said while it seemed to be all about efficiency, she was worried about how the users would experience the system because "so many people who are using Work and Income are having bad experiences".

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"I think there's a possibility to make that worse. A big part of the problems is the stress case managers are under, and how that results in the customer service, this adds another thing to do."

Salvation Army Community Ministries Nelson Tasman Bay manager Jill Knight said the social housing change was "a brilliant move".

"Most of the people who would be looking for social housing would be beneficiaries, and for them to not have to explain their situations to two different people will be so much better."

She said it would be better for Salvation Army clients as the agency could better work with them to see if it was worth applying for the social housing and "stop wasting people's time" in applications that were unlikely to be approved.

She said it was not unreasonable to review people's needs for social housing as situations did change.

"I think if your circumstances have changed we should not see people in Housing New Zealand or social housing. It's about being fair and reasonable - if people's needs have not changed it won't change for them."

She hoped the change would inspire much needed smaller unit homes being built under the scheme.

Nelson Tasman Housing Trust director Keith Preston said the trust, which provided affordable housing in the region, planned to take part in the scheme. He is waiting for the final agreement from the MSD.

However, the trust did not have any vacant houses to rent at present so any agreement would not come into effect until they did, he said.

He was not either for or against the change. He said the regulations and registrations were "a step in the right direction". The trust has 32 homes and plans to increase this to 39 by the end of the year.

Currently, the trust charged its tenants 80 per cent of market rent.

"If we sign up with MSD we can get paid the full market rent but tenants will only pay up to 25 per cent of the market rent. We get the subsidy of 75 per cent. It makes a large difference to our rental income," he said.

"Having access to the income-related rent subsidy is the carrot you get for signing up to the MSD scheme." This would mean they could build more smaller houses.

He conceded that signing up with MSD would mean they would need to take tenants with higher housing needs and it would be up to the MSD to decide who was eligible.

Housing New Zealand regional manager tenancy services Symon Leggett said demand for state housing in Nelson was relatively low.

At the end of March, 32 people were on the waiting list who were priority A, and 39 people who were priority B applicants in the Nelson, Blenheim and West Coast areas.

WHAT THE CHANGES MEAN: From April 14 MSD will handle applications and assessments for social housing. Currently this is done by Housing New Zealand. In Nelson this will be done at the Work and Income office. Income-related rent subsidies will be open to registered non-government and community housing providers (to date it is only open to HNZ)

There will be tenancy reviews from July 1 – the first year of reviews will be on those paying market rent or near-market rent. MSD will manage all social housing applications, including screening eligibility, assessing needs, managing the housing waitlist and calculating and reviewing income-related rent.

It will also refer applications to approved social housing providers and pay the income-related rent subsidies to housing providers. It will be responsible for fraud investigations and legal actions, recovery of debt from underpaid income-related rent and reviewable tenancies.

Housing New Zealand's role and that of social housing providers, from April 14 will be based on tenancy management including matching prospective tenants to houses, starting and ending tenancies and managing tenant agreements.

It will also undertake landlord duties, including charging and collecting rent, buying, selling and developing properties and the management and maintenance of houses.

- Nelson

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