OPINION: The suggestion by Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples that those having extreme difficulty finding affordable housing in Christchurch should squat in abandoned red-zoned homes rather suffer through the harsh cold of winter by sleeping in cars or the like may have come from the heart, but the minister should have used more of his head before he spoke.
Clearly the minister has been told some distressing stories of the hardships some people are facing and his response was a compassionate one. It was, however, a foolish thing for the minister to advocate.
For one thing, there are already enough problems with crimes, particularly arson and burglary, being committed in the red zones and their vicinity without the minister putting the idea in people's minds of breaking the law further.
Given the amount of offending that has occurred in those areas over the past few months, the authorities are unlikely to be sympathetic towards anyone found unlawfully on unoccupied premises.
A more important objection to Sharples' suggestion is the risk of injury to anyone inclined to take it up. Sharples was careful to restrict his notion to "abandoned but not dangerous" red-zoned homes, but squatters are unlikely to have the capacity to accurately make a sound judgment on the safety or otherwise of any place they may wish to occupy.
The more serious issue raised by Sharples' visit to Christchurch is the question of whether the city is facing a housing crisis and, however the housing situation may be characterised, is the Government doing enough to meet it?
After hearing of the "chronic housing issues" Maori community workers are still battling with, including a blind couple living in a garage and a woman who had been living in her car for two weeks, Sharples said there was no doubt in his mind there was a crisis. This reflects the many anecdotal accounts reported by welfare agencies in thepast few months.
The Government, while conceding that there are housing difficulties for some people, denies the situation amounts to a crisis.
It points to the considerable resources it has devoted to providing more affordable housing since the earthquakes, including accelerating repairs to 212 Housing New Zealand homes and creating a third temporary village, adding 83 houses to the rental market.
The Building and Housing Department is also compiling a report to try to get a better, more robust understanding of the scope of overcrowding and homelessness.
That is a welcome move - any policy response, if one is needed, must be based on sound data. But, whatever the report discovers, finding an appropriate response, one that does not turn out to make the problem worse, is more difficult.
The suggestion of some welfare advocates of a rent freeze, for instance, is a prime example of such a solution. Not only would it be easily evaded, it would ensure that the shortage of rental properties would simply get worse.
As anyone who visits Christchurch's northwestern suburbs and further afield will be aware, a great deal of new building is already going on to replace the housing stock that the city has lost.
That will provide a medium-term solution to much of the problem. In the meantime, ad hoc solutions to alleviate the distress of the worst cases is probably the best that can be done.
- The Press