Housing is a fundamental human right

New Zealanders are waking up to the reality of our housing crisis: A market that's failing to protect the rights and health of our own people.
Published on
May 18, 2017

Our eyes are being opened to extreme situations like pregnant women close to giving birth, living in the insecurity and discomfort of Auckland's streets, and children becoming desperately ill because of rotten rental housing. 

The main conclusion we can draw from the increasing stream of media headlines and public discussion, is that our government has failed to use law and regulation to ensure affordable and adequate housing for all of New Zealand's population.   

With outgoings for rental housing costs at a historic high, families up and down the country are struggling to provide even minimum shelter to their children. 

Demand outstrips supply, driving prices through the roof and despite a 24 per cent price rise in housing in the past year, the accommodation supplement remains static. 

Hardly surprising then, that half of families receiving the accommodation supplement are spending half of their weekly income just on housing.  

Damp houses are a 'government failure'

When parents are unable to house their children in warm, dry and safe homes, the failure is not just a market failure: it is a government failure. Housing is a fundamental human right, designed to ensure safety, security and dignity. 

Rents should not be so excessive that they compromise people's right to food. Likewise, when housing is of such poor quality that it makes children sick, it breaches their right to the highest attainable standard of health. 

Health data tells the story of a nation failing to protect the human rights of children. Whenever our nation fails to ensure the basic health and security of citizens, there are high social and economic costs.

Doctors report children 'blue from lack of oxygen'

Doctors report children arriving at hospital with respiratory illness, unable to breath and blue from lack of oxygen, recovering and then having to return to the same cold, damp mouldy conditions that made them ill in the first place.

The cycle of chronic illness means children miss out on early childhood education or school, interrupting parents' ability to work, and bringing high costs to our health system.

Every year, 40,000 children are admitted to hospital from conditions linked to socio-economic status, much of it housing related. 

Warm homes can save millions of dollars

This is why the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has said hundreds of millions of dollars can be saved from ensuring safe, warm, dry homes. 

The economic return is clear - and the Government has done well to retrofit around 50,000 state houses with insulation; invest in Warm Up NZ grants; and more recently announce new measures to improve the insulation in private rental properties. 

However, these are small steps in the direction of bringing our housing stock up to scratch and do nothing to address the issue of housing supply. Half of the children living in poverty, are in private rental accommodation where, it seems, local and central government haven't adequately enforced regulations.

Families are living in overcrowded conditions with collapsing, mouldy walls and inadequate heating. The newly-announced requirement for rental properties to be insulated by 2019 stipulates they only have to meet a 1978 standard.

Housing is a fundamental human right, designed to ensure safety, security and dignity. Rents should not be so excessive that they compromise people's right to food.

And the Government has shied away from introducing a comprehensive Warrant of Fitness for housing.

Like the insulation requirements, the Government has also taken the "do minimum" approach to taxing capital gains on house sales. 

With investors making 41 per cent of house purchases in Auckland in June, and home ownership at a 64 year low, it is impossible for most families to get anywhere near owning a home in the city - reinforcing the need for a radical improvement in the Government's management of rental housing and the market that delivers it.  

Four and a half thousand families currently sit on the priority waiting list with Housing NZ, at a time when the Government is preparing to pass on the ownership and management of some of its housing stock to community social housing providers.

This change has been sold to us as an effort to improve the management of social housing, and it may well achieve that objective.

Community organisations can do great, integrated work in support of families but only if they are resourced to do so. 

Comprehensive plan to tackle housing needed

The sale of these state houses coincides with Housing NZ having to pay a dividend of more than $100m to the Government. 

That's a large sum of money, which would go a long way towards maintaining houses, or building new ones, had it been reinvested in the same way that social housing providers do internationally.   

National disquiet around housing will continue to grow unless the Government develops a comprehensive, hands-on, approach.

It has to include building more houses and investing in good quality social housing; legislating for secure tenure and tenant protection; a review and update of the accommodation supplement; providing grants for property owners to insulate and bring their properties up to an adequate standard; and regulating the quality of houses with a decent WOF scheme that is enforced.   

This is a smart government, enjoying strong public support, but it must act more decisively in the interests of children and families if it wants to achieve a brighter future, with healthy, productive and included citizens. 

Housing is the foundation for it all.

This piece was originally published on Stuff