A home for life: A new way to look at social housing
A fatal stabbing at a Christchurch community housing complex came as no surprise to tenants habouring fears of worsening anti-social behaviour. Nadine Porter looks at what could be done to improve the system.
When Simon (not his real name) found his ex-partner dead on Christmas Eve, he could have spiralled back into drug addiction.
But with the support of a community housing organisation, Simon, who was once homeless, was able to move past the trauma of that day.
He and his 4-year-old daughter are thriving in a brand new spacious house in a Kaiapoi subdivision.
It’s a long way from the Christchurch motel that first housed the father after he gained custody of his daughter.
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Arriving outside the house for the first time in March last year, Simon wept, not believing that this beautiful home would be his to rent in perpetuity should he want it.
Like many people that find themselves homeless, Simon was not experiencing social issues when he found himself homeless. With many years of sobriety behind him, he successfully ran a security business on the West Coast but came back to Christchurch to nurse his parents, who both had dementia.
For 10 years he was their sole carer but by the time they had passed away he was left with no savings and was on a benefit.
When the family sold his parents’ house, Simon found himself homeless.
He moved into a former nursing home and began the daily wrangle with government agencies that became a blight on his life.
When his daughter was two, Simon was awarded custody but needed to find suitable accommodation. He ended up in a motel.
When Kāinga Ora did find the pair a house it was in Lyttelton – on the outskirts of suburban Christchurch – but without a car, Simon had to turn it down. He had a third of his benefit cut after not accepting their offer.
“Talk about beating you when you are down.”
‘Everyone treated me like a person’
A number of case managers from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) interacted with Simon over this time. All of them, he says, stripped him of his dignity.
So when MSD rang and told him he had been passed on to VisionWest (a non-profit housing and social service provider focusing on the homeless) he was weary of interaction with yet another organisation.
But when he went to their offices he was shocked at how differently he was treated.
“Everyone treated me like a person. They were engaging.”
It was the first time that he felt someone cared about him.
Recalling that feeling, Simon gets emotional when he thinks about the first family home the organisation rented to him.
“It was like a big blanket washed over me and I could actually concentrate on getting my life together.”
VisonWest not only housed him in a large modern furnished family home in Hornby – they also offered him any wraparound support he needed, practical or social.
For almost a year he stayed in Hornby, in a transitional home, while VisionWest assessed where best to place him long term.
Today he and his daughter live in a supportive community. The pre-school and supermarket are a short walk away.
He loves his home and the certainty that he doesn’t have to move again if he doesn’t want to.
Now paying rent of $113 a week, or 25 per cent of his income, Simon hopes to go back to work when his daughter gets older.
Social workers remain a positive and important part of his life, he says. He finds the care VisionWest offers sets it apart from the current model of social housing where providers are purely landlords.
The organisation also works on building a strong community around clients and Simon has attended a barbeque and other ongoing events.
“They are a breath of fresh air.”
For Scott Figenshow the solution to Christchurch’s social housing issues lies in Finland’s stunning decrease in homelessness.
The Nordic country had 18,000 people living rough in 1987 but is now on track to eradicate the problem entirely by 2027.
By adopting the American Housing First model developed in the 1990s by Dr Sam Tsemberis, Finland has been lauded internationally for successfully implementing the programme, developed to help people with mental health problems living on the streets.
Housing First has also been rolled out in major New Zealand cities, offering wraparound support and the security of long-term tenancy to give residents certainty over their lives.
That support might include tackling addictive personality traits, training, education, employment and learning new skills.
Figenshow, Community Housing Aotearoa’s chief executive, said homelessness in Finland was now brief, rare and non-recurring because housing providers had invested in building permanently affordable housing and many tenants would rent their entire lives because of the security.
He said that while social housing was being built through Kainga Ora, the lack of affordable housing among low wage earners trying to get ahead could lead to a previously independent person with mild mental health issues developing into a tenant with complex needs.
Many Kiwis were experiencing significant housing and financial stresses and were exhibiting mental health issues, but these did not necessarily become entrenched if they had a job, income and a secure house, he said.
A societal response in providing plenty of affordable housing rather than a clinical response could help those issues because people could meet their own needs without having to become a ward of the state.
“Do we spend more money on mental health services or do we make sure we’ve got enough adequate affordable housing?”
Ramping up a diverse range of permanent affordable housing that offer tenants choice was critical, including giving Maori a choice to live in an iwi-operated home, he said
“I relish the day when the housing register has a dozen people on it and those people have lots of choices as to where they move to.”
Inclusionary zoning, where every new development must have a percentage of affordable housing, was important and had been used well in Queenstown, but needed central government to enact Resource Management Act reforms to spread it throughout the country, he said.
“It’s one of the many tools we need.”
Currently Queenstown is the only place in New Zealand using inclusionary zoning, where developers wanting to rezone rural land must allocate five per cent of, or a cash equivalent, to the Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust (QLCHT).
Providing over 100 affordable homes, the trust offers a mixture of schemes, including social housing, affordable rentals, rent-to-buy, and assisted ownership.
Julie Scott, QLCHT chief executive, thinks inclusionary zoning could work elsewhere and she often gives presentations to other councils on housing affordability. Still there can be challenges, as Queenstown previously faced litigation over its scheme.
Government legislation could make that easier, she said.
Wraparound support builds relationships
In just three years social service Housing First Christchurch has housed 189 rough sleepers, offering wraparound support “forever and a day”, says manager Nicola Fleming.
Each key worker handles small case loads of 10 to 15 clients the service calls kaewa, offering trained and sustained support rather than handing them over to government social agencies.
That one-on-one relationship is led by choice, according to Fleming.
“They need us or we stand aside.”
Otago University research found people living on the street cost society $65,000 each a year, including mental health and policing, as opposed to the Housing First model of care which could cost as little as $15,000.
“Wraparound support for a long period of time is how you work with people. You need to connect and build relationships,” Fleming told Stuff.
She would like to see their model rolled out across all social housing but believes funding would be the initial hurdle.
In the meantime Fleming believes spending money on permanent long-term housing would help many of the issues today’s providers face.
Some nations have long had wrap-around social housing models in place.
In the Netherlands, social housing organisations are private, non-profit enterprises that pursue social goals within a strict framework of national laws and regulations.
The country’s national organisation for social housing, Aedes, oversees 2.5 million dwellings.
Spokesperson Pieter van Hulten said the Dutch were good at co-operating and that was key to dealing with vulnerable residents.
With 80 per cent of social housing developments having to be allocated to low income earners, van Hulten said performance agreements between the tenant, the housing association and local government were critical and enabled residents to contribute to their community.
Aedes also has a mobile phone app so tenants can let them know the moment they feel unsafe or at risk. Van Hulten said it was key to answer distress calls quickly to build up trust.
Neighbourhood managers for the scheme were the eyes and ears of the community, often nipping problems in the bud or referring tenants for support through community networks, he said.
“We are the landlord, but it's our goal to ... ensure a nice, safe and social neighbourhood.”
Seattle’s community-led model
One afternoon a group of teenage friends who live in and around the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) in the United States community met up.
Their voices grew louder and more lively as they played, leading some residents to feel threatened.
Police were alerted, leaving the boys to feel upset and misunderstood that the residents had not come to them with their concerns.
It was then that SHA youth engagement specialist Ty Edwards stepped in to diffuse the situation, with a mandate to build strong relationships between youth and residents.
Edwards approached the boys and counselled them into attending an upcoming community meeting.
There, the boys explained they weren’t violent and they were loud because they were happy.
Edwards said the action helped the community form a plan ending the police presence and beginning a positive relationship between youth and others using the building.
He then formed a youth council that conducted a survey to identify the top needs in the community, and began focusing on helping youth get jobs, receive mentorship and apply for college scholarships.
The council developed the Youth Station program, a one-stop resource shop where kids could receive help with their homework, employment, start a club or participate in community programmes.
Many teenagers have had their lives changed by this approach according to SHA communications director Kerry Coughlin, with a large number heading to universities rather than dropping out of school.
Established in 1939, the SHA built the first racially integrated public housing in the United States but these days offers a wide portfolio of wellbeing services across their 3500 units.
Coughlin says the authority checks the criminal history of all applicants and immediately rejects any with a recurring meth habit or convicted sex offenders.
The checks enable them to ensure they are placing people in the best community and ensures residents’ safety.
On site, staff monitor tenants 24 hours a day and often instigate projects within the community.
Coughlin is succinct on summing up how the New Zealand system could operate.
“The whole idea is to get to know residents and not leave residents on their own to get into mischief.”
– Additional reporting by Steven Walton