Elderly out on the street?

Council proposal raises fear for homelessness

AARON LEAMAN
Last updated 05:00 27/08/2014
Annette Meehan
Bruce Mercer/Fairfax NZ
UNCERTAIN TIMES: Sullivan Cres resident Annette Meehan has lived in the council complex for 2 1/2 years and enjoys the sense of community among tenants.

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Hamilton's pensioner housing stock is poised for a radical overhaul with a proposal to sell off the council's entire portfolio.

Councillors will debate the proposal's merits tomorrow but already senior citizen advocates are vowing to fight the move, saying any selloff could see Hamilton's most vulnerable end up on the street.

In March the council set up a working group tasked with exploring the council's long-term role in social housing.

In a majority view, the working group led by mayor Julie Hardaker has recommended the council's entire pensioner housing stock be offered for sale to "sympathetic" social housing providers.

Any remaining properties would be put on the open market.

Hardaker said the selloff was a "good proposal" and hoped the council accepted it so it could go out to the public.

She said the Government had made significant changes to the way social housing was delivered and had sent a clear message to councils that they had a limited role in the sector.

The Government had provided access to government capital funding and income-related rent subsidies to accredited housing providers while "completely shutting out local authorities from accessing this assistance", she said.

The council's pensioner housing complexes ran up a $213,000 deficit last financial year.

The portfolio is valued at $26.3m but Hardaker said the working group believed as many complexes as possible should be sold to social housing providers.

"By inference that could mean the council could get less than market value for some of the property," she said.

City councillor and working group member Martin Gallagher did not agree with his colleagues' recommendation and believed council had a role in the social housing sector.

Gallagher said there were other options open to council and intended to push those alternatives.

"I'm deeply worried that a lot of older folk will find themselves in properties the social housing sector doesn't pick up and those units will be sold to a private landowner," he said.

A council report said it was possible only a limited number of approved social housing providers were capable of purchasing the portfolio as a whole.

Properties sold to an open market purchaser were likely to require vacant possession.

The minimum notice required under the Residential Tenancies Act is 90 days.

Sullivan Cres resident Annette Meehan, 70, had lived in the council-owned complex for 2 years and enjoyed the community atmosphere among tenants.

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Meehan said the council was an excellent landlord and hoped the complex did not have to be sold.

"If these units are sold I hope it goes to someone like the Salvation Army or Habitat for Humanity. These are lovely, modern units and the convenience of living here is great."

Sullivan Cres residents Ken and Doreen Curtis were worried at the prospect of a new landlord, especially if the complex ended up on the open market.

Hamilton Grey Power president Roger Hennebry was "disgusted" by the working party recommendation and believed the city's older residents were getting a raw deal.

Hennebry said Grey Power would submit on the proposal if it was accepted by council and argued older residents were being made to pay for the city's high debt.

"The council inherited a lot of these units and they're not costing the ratepayer any money. What this is about is the council trying to lower the debt they made but it's at the cost of the aged people. These people didn't build up the damn debt so they shouldn't be the receivers of the penalties," Hennebry said.

Age Concern Hamilton chief executive Gail Gilbert said a wholesale selloff of the council's pensioner housing stock was a "backward step" and did not make sense in light of the need for social housing in Hamilton.

Any selloff to private developers would cause a lot of anxiety for tenants and could force some from their homes, Gilbert warned.

"The older people in these units won't be able to pay market rent so if a social housing provider can't pick them up, then most of these people will be homeless because there simply isn't enough social housing around," she said.

In 2012 the council reaped $3.4m from the sale of three pensioner housing blocks - in River Rd, Ascot Rd and Johnson St - with two sites going to the highest bidder.

The Johnson St units were sold to the Crosslight Trust and Habitat for Humanity for $610,000, which was $165,000 less than the highest offer.

Crosslight Trust manager Christine Wright said the partnership with Habitat for Humanity had worked well. Crosslight Trust focused on the social needs of the 12 tenants.

Wright said Crosslight Trust was not in a position to purchase any more housing complexes but hoped other social housing providers would be interested if the council opted to sell its stock.

- Waikato Times

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