Phil Heatley wields his magic wand

National is quietly dripfeeding dangerous new housing policies to an unsuspecting public and hopes no-one will notice

Over the past couple of weeks, major announcements on housing policy have trickled out in a way perhaps deliberately calculated to minimise challenge and debate.

A short summary of what’s been happening in the state housing area since the Budget includes:

  • Housing New Zealand (HNZ) will invest a paltry $28.5 million in capital expenditure for state houses over the coming year, focused on Auckland and Hawkes Bay.
  • The Housing Innovation Fund (HIF) of $20m will be collapsed into a new third sector housing fund of $45m.
  • This $45m will also include $5m seized from the Rural Housing Programme, and $5m already allocated to an existing Tamaki project. The Rural Housing Programme will no longer exist.
  • Housing policy functions will be transferred from HNZ to the Department of Building and Housing. A new Social Housing Unit will also be set up within Building and Housing.
  • From this Friday July 1, HNZ will stop accepting people with ‘low or moderate’ needs on to its waiting list. If National wins the election, the nearly 5000 households currently in these categories will be taken off the HNZ lists altogether.
  • Also from July 1, all new state tenants will go on to three year reviewable tenancies, and if National gets back in, this will apply to all state tenancies. When people are deemed capable of paying commercial rents, they will be moved out of state housing and expected to sink or swim in the private market.

Almost any social service agency can tell stories at the moment of desperate need, of families barely surviving in various forms of substandard, overcrowded and unhealthy accommodation – and of individuals who are left to fend for themselves on the street. For example, see this May 2011 story from Hamilton.

Our Housing Minister comes from Northland, a region which has some of the highest rates of substandard and unmet housing need in the country.

Yet Mr Heatley appears to have no scruples about fronting policies which will, at best, provide infinitesimal assistance when in fact substantial help is required, and at worst will make the lot of many low income people even tougher than it is already.

In closing down the Rural Housing Programme he will be stranding many people in his own region who live in broken down, unhealthy accommodation with no hope of ever being able to pay for the repairs they so badly need.

The new social housing fund robs Peter to play Paul, with no guarantee that even a single one of the rural families who were expecting RHP assistance will ever get a house out of the replacement programme.

Third sector providers will with the best will in the world only be able to achieve so much with the limited funds on offer.

My fear is that those who do take up the new funding and various other assets on offer may find that they’re not only expected to somehow heavily subsidise new housing from increasingly stretched philanthropic and volunteer resources, but that they will also become totally colonised by the state, expected to conform with Government policies regardless of their organisation’s original value base.

The transfer of housing policy advice from HNZC to the Department of Building and Housing is similarly risky.

I believe there are strong parallels here to Labour’s trashing of the Community Employment Group back in 2005. Huge amounts of knowledge, experience and community connections will be lost, as what housing policy capacity remains finds itself trapped inside a Government department best known for dealing – not particularly well – with the effects of the ongoing leaky homes crisis.

I cringe thinking of what Building and Housing will make, literally, of its new responsibilities.

When it comes to the new policies in relation to access to state housing, Mr Heatley seems to think that by magically waving a wand and disposing of half the current waiting list, people will no longer need housing assistance.

Such a phenomenal feat of prestidigitation may trick those who believe Phil when he implied on Q & A yesterday that people on $200,000 a year would have no trouble getting on to a state house waiting list.

But they won’t fool anyone who is aware of the reality. As Labour’s housing spokesperson Moana Mackey says, even now, "National’s inappropriately named ‘Options and Advice’ service is already being used to turn people away and send them out to the private sector before they are able to have a needs assessment", with the waiting list dropping by nearly 3000 as a result.

National’s new policies on housing are a case of smoke and mirrors.

Mr Heatley will be hoping to keep potential church and community sector critics happy with the modest increase in third sector housing funds, some of it ripped from the very people these providers aim to help.

He will be counting on his own support base believing the fiction that it’s no problem for people on $200,000 a year to access state housing waiting lists, even as low paid workers and beneficiaries are being turned away daily.

In the face of such wizardry, I hope we’ll see a lot more exposure of the realities of this country’s housing crisis in the months leading up to the general election.

We cannot afford to let any of National’s new housing policies, or the assumptions on which they’re based, be magicked away by Mr Heatley’s attempted wizardry.