A little help goes a long way. Except for this time.

How little can the Government get away with when addressing the current housing crisis in New Zealand?

The Government’s pre-Budget announcement of allocating $41 million to emergency housing provision continues its familiar tactic of doing very little about the growing housing crisis while pretending to care. This also continues the long-standing practice of using pre-Budget announcements to overstate the importance of quite minor policy initiatives.

The $41 million itself is spread over four years, and then is really only $30 million because $11 million of it is to pay for special needs grants which would most likely have been paid out anyway.

This $30 million will be used to fund up to 3000 emergency housing places per year with up to 800 at any one time. In other words it really just funds 750 places on a continual basis.

But the use of the word 'places' is misleading. ‘Place’ might imply a place for a homeless family to stay. It later became apparent by ‘place’ what was actually meant was ‘bed’. This suggests that even if we allow for some doubling up in sleeping arrangements, the big pre-Budget announcement really only amounts to around 850 homeless people being provided with emergency accommodation.  

In further media scrutiny of the announcement, it also became apparent that the 750 emergency accommodation beds being funded probably already exist in the thin network of emergency housing providers. This $30 million four-year budget is mainly to support existing emergency housing providers, although they are not guaranteed anything because they are required to go through an RFP process commencing in September 2016.

The handful of non-government emergency housing providers in Auckland – such as Monte Cecilia, de Paul House and Vision West – have done a great job in providing emergency housing for hundreds of families over the last two decades. For most of this time they have done so with inadequate and unreliable funding. The Budget announcement of an additional $30 million may help them consolidate and even perhaps expand their services so is welcome relief for organisations which have been under considerable financial pressure.

However this response to the growing shortage of affordable rental housing is like building an emergency department at a hospital and not worrying about wards to treat patients once their initial assessment and treatment is carried out.  For certain, the families with kids living in cars as we saw on TV3’s The Nation are in crisis and deserve immediate assistance with their housing problem. But just treating the crisis and not the contributing problem or need will quickly lead to this emergency accommodation being clogged up with people who are still effectively homeless.

Ministry of Social Development (MSD) kindly provide us with detailed information on how many people are on waiting lists for a state house or other social housing unit. Recently the Ministry has done an extraordinary job making it harder to get on the waiting list so that only the most urgent get admitted. Perhaps this is so the waiting list does not look too long.

But strangely the Ministry does not report how many people are actually being housed and how long they waited to be housed. We are not being told of the 18 month wait for a state house promised by the Ministry to a mother of three children, one of whom had lung disease and was spending weeks at a time in Starship Hospital.

This means that there is no guarantee that these waiting lists are not being manipulated in the way that elective surgical waiting lists are in order to keep the numbers down.

In March 2016 the Ministry reported 2188 households with an urgent need for housing. Given the way in which such urgency is now judged, these households are living in dire circumstances which are an immediate risk to their health and safety. These are the people who live in cars or tents or draughty cold garages and should at least be provided with emergency accommodation.

While there is no published information on how many people make up these 2188 households from the data available it appears that they require around 4300 bedrooms. In other words five times more than the beds which are soon to be funded through the Government’s new emergency housing budget. This is of course why Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett will not guarantee emergency housing to every homeless family.

For the Government to do nothing in response to an increasingly visible problem of street homelessness would appear heartless. The Government does not want to create this impression amongst its supporters in well-housed middle New Zealand.  But dealing with the now chronic shortage of affordable housing in Auckland – and in many other cities – will require big budgets, time and a philosophical shift from Government. This seems unlikely to come from a Government which has cut taxes, run deficits and is now offering further tax cuts as its political vision for the next election.

It is far easier to throw a few crumbs at the problem and carry on blaming Auckland Council for the housing crisis.