Child Poverty and Housing: A Catholic View
An address delivered to the Auckland Justice and Peace Commission, 2 September 2015
We all know there is a housing crisis in Auckland at the present time. We need only look at some of the headlines that have appeared in our papers over the last few months.
Housing shortfall 25,000 by 2018
Damp house blamed – living conditions factor in toddler’s death
House prices ‘threat to stability’
Charity proposes motel for Auckland homeless
Is it goodbye to the backyard?
Inspections find boarding houses unsafe
House rage: we’re right to be angry
If I had a hammer – Nick Smith, Minister of Housing
Govt – NZ’s biggest slumlord
There are actually two crises. One is the Auckland housing ‘bubble’, which has been fuelled by speculation from both on- and offshore, and which affects house buyers. The second is the lack of adequate and affordable rental accommodation for those in our communities who have no options but to rent. My concern is mainly for the second group.
Our poor families are suffering, and I am suggesting that we take a few minutes to think about what the current housing crisis means for them.
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it. (Luke 19: 41)
Therefore I said, ‘Look away from me; let me weep bitter tears; do not try to comfort me for the destruction of my beloved people. (Isaiah 22:4)
From where I stand, I am witnessing the destruction of my beloved people. Hundreds, probably thousands, of our families are homeless. The fabric of their lives is being destroyed. I invite us to take the time to take note of this and to weep over it.
How I have wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. (Luke 13:34)
Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children. (Luke 23:28)
Daughters and sons of Auckland, let us weep now for our homeless families and their children.
I am going to talk now about one such family that I have wept for often. They are not unique. Rosie (not her real name) has four children. Our friends at Monte Cecilia Housing Trust asked us to look out for them when they moved to a state house in Wiri, from Monte Cecilia. For eight years, we walked alongside her and her children. She was very needy. She had a violent ex-partner who continued to visit and abuse her. Her education was limited, and she could not read or write English, but over time she built up supportive networks and became more confident. Her main concern was always the good of her children.
Then, in April 2014, she had to leave the state house that had provided security and certainty for herself and her children for nine years. She had been given a 90-day notice by Housing New Zealand because she had broken the rules. I do not condone what Rosie did, but think she and her family were treated harshly and unfairly. She had had an undeclared live-in partner for a year. She was honest with Housing New Zealand when confronted. However, she was judged, according to the ‘balance of probabilities’, as having had a partner in the house for five years. They would not listen. She left the house with four children, a partner, and little else other than a $60,000 Crown debt. Could you cope with that? Her partner worked, but had huge debts, and had contributed little to the family finances for the year that he had lived there.
Rosie and the family moved in with her sister, who was living with her partner and daughter in a small two-bedroom state house. One of Rosie’s children had been diagnosed at school as being at risk of contracting rheumatic fever. Nevertheless, they all slept in the small living room, on the floor, as there was ‘not enough room for mattresses’. It was May. The children said it was cold. The board was high, and did not include food. There were extra costs for power. Because the children wanted to continue to go to school in Wiri, Rosie brought them back daily. She paid about $100 a week for petrol to drive the old unregistered van, which had not had a WOF for years, to and from Wiri. Of course, they were absent from school often, but they couldn’t go to the local school as they would have to wear uniforms, which Rosie could not afford to buy.
After three months or so, Rosie and her sister had a row and the family had to move out. They found a cousin and stayed with that family in a large garage. It was closer to the school, but it was cold too. This lasted three months until, understandably, the family got tired of allowing six extra people to use the facilities and began to lock the door to the house. Rosie and the family moved back to her sister. They had to be careful. Housing New Zealand evicts both the overcrowding family and the tenant in such situations. One of Rosie’s children developed sores all over his body.
All the while, Rosie was looking for private rental. Her hopes were dashed as soon as the prospective landlord made a credit check. She owed $60,000. What chance did she have?
At last, one year later, Rosie found an agent willing to rent to her and the family. The total move in costs were almost $3,000, and the rent was $470 per week. Sisters of Mercy Wiri were able to help her with the move-in costs. She left her partner and applied for a sole parent benefit. So, in effect, the state is now paying the rent through the Accommodation Supplement and through Rosie’s benefit, which means Rosie now has less for other basic needs. But they have a house.
But who gets the money? She doesn’t. The house owner gets it. And it is being paid by the state, ostensibly for housing for the poor. But the house owner is the one benefitting from both the high rent and the capital gain, which, we are lead to believe, is increasing by the minute.
Variations of this all-too-common story occur many, many times across our city daily. Parents and children overcrowding with family, families living in cars and garages, families hugely indebted and unable to enter the private rental market, families threatened with eviction, or families paying well over 25% of their incomes as rent. And why is this happening? It is not the result of a natural disaster, like an earthquake or a tsunami. No. This crisis and the resulting hardship for so many of our families is the outcome of policies that have arisen, not as a result of research or proven methods but from an ideology that credits the market with an absolute autonomy.
And the market is not solving the problem for the thousands of homeless families in New Zealand. ‘Auckland’s housing shortage just gets deeper and deeper, and the Government response is to continue to rely on market forces and a reduction in regulatory restraints’ (Alan Johnson, A Mountain All Can Climb, p.85, Salvation Army, 2015).
In the past two years, Pope Francis has spoken clearly through two documents, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) and Laudato Si’ (On Care of our Common Home), mapping out an alternative way to that dictated by the market, using the principles of Catholic social teaching. These principles, if put into practice, offer our poor families real hope. This evening, I am highlighting just three of these principles. They are the common good, human dignity, and a preferential option for the poor.
Of the market, Pope Francis says, ‘We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth” (Evangelii Gaudium, para 204). And of the common good, ‘The common good is “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment”’ (Laudato Si’, para 156).
Current housing policy does not promote the common good. Rosie and her family were hardly living fulfilled lives. And while our poor families are suffering, others are benefitting. We hear it often – the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Market ideology may produce winners and a rock-star economy, but it also produces losers. A recent Listener editorial, when talking about workplace health and safety legislation stated, ‘National would have made a better impression had it shown of its own volition that it governs for all New Zealanders, and not just for sectional interests’ (New Zealand Listener 29 August–4 September 2015). Current housing policy strongly favours some to the detriment of others.
The poor are suffering, and some home owners are becoming millionaires! ‘Trickle down’ is a sick joke. Wealth is not trickling down. Resources are being squeezed from those who have little, and appropriated by those who have more – legally, of course. And it is not the politics of envy either.
Many people who have invested in housing lived in a time when there was free education, full employment, affordable housing, and are currently receiving public superannuation. They are now benefitting from housing policy as well. Prospective house buyers and the poor are paying for it, through high rents and maybe through their student loans or GST. Wealth is being transferred across generations through housing. Ideology dictates that the government does not involve itself in building houses for the poor, but pays people to invest in such housing.
Pope Francis is very clear. ‘We have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality’ (Evangelii Gaudium, para 53), and, ‘Some people continue to defend trickle down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world’ (Evangelii Gaudium, para 54).
He continues the discussion about the common good by relating it to human dignity. ‘Underlying the principle of the common good is respect for the human person as such’ (Laudato Si’, para 157).
Just last week I heard German chancellor Angela Merkel quoted. ‘There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people,’ she said, standing in front of placards accusing her of being the people’s traitor.
‘There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due.’
Angela Merkel, the strong and tough leader of a very successful country, was defending the rights of refugees. She obviously respects the refugees who were then flooding into Germany. Germany takes over 800,000 refugees a year. That is about 40 times the rate at which we do. How we need a leader with the values of Angela Merkel here in New Zealand, to increase our rate of taking refugees, yes, but more especially to recognise the human dignity of our own families, those in need and those experiencing housing difficulties.
The New Zealand government is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which promotes adequate housing as a human right. ‘Lack of housing is a grave problem in many parts of the world, both in rural areas and in large cities, since state budgets cover only a small portion of the demand. Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families’ (Laudato Si’, para 152).
While housing policy is central, we all have a part to play. Listen to Pope Francis: ‘Society as a whole, and the state in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good’ (Laudato Si’, para 157). He goes on to talk about ‘a summons to solidarity and preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters’ (Laudato Si’, para 158). And quotes St John Chrysostom: ‘Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs’ (Evangelii Gaudium, para 57).
How would it look here in Aotearoa New Zealand if this right to adequate housing was being recognised as a priority by our current government? The lives of many of our families would be very different.
In the light of this, we might ask ourselves the question, ‘How far am I prepared to go?’ For how long am I prepared to continue to tolerate the unjust laws and premises on which our country is built? What is my role in this? Is my standard of living killing the poor? Do I really need that new house? To upgrade? And what if my investment for the future was in something more ethical and productive?
All difficult questions. So here is a simpler suggestion. This evening I have quoted Francis often. I am now suggesting that each one of us here tonight invests in copies of these two books, studies them and puts into practice even a small part of what they contain. Then we would at least be on the way to providing – in part, anyway – a more hopeful and fulfilling future for the poor and vulnerable and, indeed, for us all.
Sisters of Mercy Wiri