Shock at lack of social planning

Last updated 09:34 31/07/2012
Social housing
KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ
DERELICT: A quake-damaged house in Barbadoes St, Christchurch.

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There is a critical need for a social housing plan for post-quake Christchurch, writes Tessa Laing.

Attendees at a recent global housing summit in Vancouver reportedly gasped in shock at New Zealand's lack of spending on social housing compared to countries like Australia. International criticism should come as no surprise: it is well established that New Zealand's supply of social housing is inadequate.

Put bluntly, the shortage will only be reduced when there is political will to invest in building enough new low- cost or social housing. However, to make true headway, policy-makers must also take the critical step of developing regional low-cost housing plans. Believe it or not, such plans currently don't exist. At a Wellington social housing workshop in June, visiting American expert Christian Stearn noted that there appears to be "no strategy right now" for social housing in New Zealand.

In its current post-quake state of critical need, dynamic change and new potential, Canterbury is an obvious place to develop a social housing plan which could act as a pilot for other regions. Moreover, the absence of a social housing plan could prove disastrous.

Three years after Hurricane Katrina tore a destructive path along the Mississippi coast, housing recovery efforts in New Orleans came under international scrutiny. A United Nations report slammed the city's failure to adequately house low-income tenants and poor minority groups. Due to lack of central planning and inadequate replacement of low-cost accommodation, hundreds of poorer residents were displaced. Christchurch risks repeating New Orleans' mistakes.

There is a diverse range of low-cost housing needs in Christchurch. Low-income families and disadvantaged elderly, people with mental heath concerns or addictions, young people released from the care of Child Youth and Family, to name a few, all have different low-cost housing needs.

Will the rebuild ensure a suitable quantity of housing of the types required to meet these needs? Will different units be located close to public transport routes and appropriate social services? Without an overarching strategy, there is no way to co- ordinate the efforts of Housing New Zealand, the City Council, not-for-profit groups and private landlords. The type, location and overall number of low-cost housing options changes in an ad hoc manner. Needs could all too easily slip through the gaps unnoticed.

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The current approach to the redevelopment of low- income rental housing in Christchurch is fragmented. Housing New Zealand has indicated it will replace (but not expand) its damaged housing stock, and recently committed to rebuilding about 300 houses in the next 18 months. While few city council plans have been disclosed, the council has sold one block of land in Hornby to an alliance of not-for-profit groups to develop housing for low to medium income tenants. A multitude of charitable agencies seek grants to assist their housing projects. Such developments are important parts of the puzzle, but are not based on a thorough assessment of overall housing needs.

Among the multitude of proposed post-quake "plans" there is no mention of a social housing strategy. Cera and the DBH have commenced research on homelessness and overcrowding in Christchurch. While such research is a vital antidote to anecdotes of people sleeping in cars, garages and overcrowded living rooms, it is unclear how it will play into rebuild policy decisions.

Moreover, the study will not be complete before Warwick Isaac's Central City Development Unit team unveils its blueprint plans. This research may therefore make little impact on decision making for the inner city.

Government social housing policy is shifting in the direction of public-private partnership models, with less and less focus on state housing. A new body - the Social Housing Unit- is tasked with facilitating this shift. It operates by providing grants to not-for-profit housing providers. Whether or not you agree with this policy direction, there are big problems with the current operation of the Social Housing Unit.

Essentially, the Social Housing Unit runs on a competitive model. Each not- for-profit group must compete for a grant for their particular housing project. Applications are assessed on whether the project meets a real need, but also on the efficiency and business management skills of the applicant group. There is no guarantee therefore that greatest housing needs are prioritised.

Moreover, only very few projects receive funding. This year, the Social Housing Unit received a total of 94 applications valued at $177 million. The Social Housing Unit had a fund of only $37 million. Accordingly, only 15 projects nationwide received grants.

Not surprisingly, many groups felt that the application process was a waste of their time.

The Social Housing Unit needs greater awareness of overall housing needs, and co- ordination with state housing providers. In short, the Social Housing Unit should operate within the framework of a regional social housing plan.

Another example of the need for overall regional planning is that a significant proportion of low-cost "social" housing in New Zealand is privately owned. Some landlords provide rentals at a low cost because they are good people. More often, rentals are "extremely cheap" because they are old and run down. There is no guarantee that private properties will remain low cost. As landlords redevelop their properties and areas gentrify, this pool of housing often shrinks, or is pushed out to the outskirts of the city.

Earthquakes can accelerate this process. For example, take Christchurch's inner city east. In the quad bordered by Madras, Fitzgerald, Kilmore and Cashel streets, 250 low-cost beds for single people were lost in the quakes from private bedsit apartments and one bedroom flats. They were old and easily damaged.

In many ways, the bedsit housing was ideal for the disadvantaged tenants who used to live there. They could afford it. They were in walking distance from key social service providers and community groups like the City Mission and Te Whare Roimata. They had support networks and a sense of community. Just like anyone, they enjoyed life in the city.

Former bedsit tenant Darren explains, "This is my home. I like being by the river, the botanic gardens . . . I've gotten to know people here." Darren can no longer afford to rent, so he now sleeps rough, sometimes taking refuge at the City Mission night shelter.

In a rapidly gentrifying area, it is unlikely that "the market" will replace this low- cost housing. When properties are redeveloped or repaired to modern standards, their value increases and rents skyrocket.

The City Mission's brand new facilities could become stranded in an exclusively elite area, cut off from its clients.

We only know about losses in the inner city east because community workers from Te Whare Roimata counted them. These private low-cost rental losses may also exist in other areas of the city. No numbers have been crunched to quantify what has been lost and no plan accounted for their existence.

There may be a number of options for replacing these losses, such as government incentives for private landlords. However, it is unlikely anything will happen unless the need is precisely quantified and a strategy developed.

Unless Christchurch develops an overarching plan, the overall pool of low cost- social housing will dramatically decrease.

Social housing has received a lot of attention recently. Flurries of articles featured people sleeping in cars and garages. A national workshop in June highlighted the need for more innovative approaches.

Even with this increased attention, if the current trajectory continues the most vulnerable will be left worse off in the new rebuilt Christchurch. Christchurch must lead the way and develop an overall social housing plan, or face the consequences.

Tessa Laing is a researcher for the Social Justice Unit of the Canterbury Anglican Diocese.

- The Press

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