Housing people should take priority

Vaughan Milner warns of another disaster in the making as Christchurch people are confronted with a shortage of decent and affordable housing.

In all of the recent debates about the rebuild of Christchurch the needs of ordinary people for certainty about decent and affordable housing seem to have been lost or minimised.

There are an awful lot of people worrying about their TC3, orange and white zoned properties adding to the well publicised worries of red zoners and displaced renters.

In the midst of this elemental concern about shelter and having a home, the angst about the cathedral or rebuilding a rugby stadium is misplaced.

Housing citizens should take priority alongside redevelopment of basic services and true community facilities like swimming pools, parks and libraries. Certainty as to the redevelopment of the convention centre is also important as a generator of jobs and drawcard for hotels, conference traffic and associated small businesses.

Delays in housing insurance settlements and convoluted legalities about what policies mean, demonstrate insurers cannot be relied on to act ethically when it comes to the crunch.

Some insurers, including the EQC, are advertising their achievements yet many of their customers are waiting in indeterminate queues, receiving conflicting advice or simply being ignored.

While the Government is positioning itself as not interfering in the insurance situation, someone needs to make insurers accountable and pressure insurers to do the right thing, quickly and effectively.

Statements that private insurers may work with the commission to speed up solutions for TC3 residents should be turned into action. Customers who have been told one thing then had what they understood to be a decision reversed for a cheaper option should have access to speedy and binding reviews.

Insurers (including EQC) should set up staffed information desks in malls and provide a face to face response to customers concerns. While many in the city are getting on with life many are doing their best but being constantly sideswiped by uncertainty and loss of hope.

A meeting of the heads of Christian social service agencies last week confirmed that a broader demographic than ever is seeking help for anxiety, depression, grief, anger, relationship issues, addictions and financial woes.

While for some these enduring problems of living were present pre-quakes, the trend is towards a more widespread experience of such woes and increasing complexity of issues.

Social service agencies are seeing people from all walks of life rather than the stereotypical marginalised. The issues are much the same as ever, but the natural disaster has spread problems indiscriminately and the effects will ripple on for some time to come.

It is also noticeable that growing numbers of children are living in makeshift and often cramped housing with adults who are keeping a brave face but under immense and increasing stress that affects their parenting.

At the same time, social and health agency staff are under the same sort of pressures in their personal lives and significant attention is having to be paid to workforce wellbeing.

A "physician heal yourself" ethos means social service capacity to respond is weakened at a time when demand is increasing and likely to do so for the foreseeable future. Additionally, agencies themselves are facing unprecedented financial pressures. Insurance costs have been ratcheted up, with my agency, for example, having to pay nearly the equivalent of the cost of three social work or counsellor positions more for insurance than before the quakes.

Other agencies, like households, are facing rental increases or just managing in temporary accommodation.

In the face of this funders, particularly the Social Development Ministry and philanthropic trusts, have been generous through the crisis and early recovery. However, there seems to be some reluctance in accepting "earthquake related issues" and "ordinary" social/ emotional issues are pretty much the same thing and require a sustained social service response.

The reality is long term funding and investment in social capital is required to increase the community and its agencies capacity.

Humankind has a lengthy history of playing out its response to trauma and uncertainty with mental illness and aberrant emotional reactions. Why do we think this disaster will be any different particularly when the new twist of widespread pressures around housing is added?

All of these things emphasise another disaster in the making. From a social perspective the main issue facing Christchurch is the need to get as much certainty into the future of housing as quickly as possible.

Having a secure, affordable and warm house is a basic need.

Having a definite time line and actual decisions about when individual housing issues will be resolved is the next best thing. Home is where the heart is.

Where that need for certainty and security is not met, anxiety and distress become insidious, as do corrosive reactions that wreck relationships or cause longterm emotional damage. Local neighbourhoods suffer as people move about trying to secure housing with no social cohesion or connectedness occurring.

Cantabrians have shown themselves to be amazingly resilient for over 18 months. The rest of the country and the Government at large has been incredibly generous. Now is the time for insurers and leaders of the rebuild to pay careful attention to people and the basic need for certainty about having a place to call home.

Vaughan Milner is chief executive of Presbyterian Support Upper South Island.

The Press