Pulling levers, not pulling people down

When it comes to our homelessness crisis, you can come up with constructive ideas or, it seems, you can blame those living in their cars for bringing it on themselves

Solutions. At least the immediate and practical ones. They've been pretty thin on the ground in the Auckland housing debate, especially when it comes to the social housing crisis. But today another couple of suggestions caught my eye.

National has a line -- presumably focus group tested -- that both its housing ministers are using a lot at the moment regarding both the middle-class house price "challenge" and the social and affordable housing crisis (and yes, even Paula Bennett has acknowledged living in a car is a crisis for the families involved). The line is "we're pulling every lever".

It suggests vigorous action and thoroughness. Nick Smith and Paula Bennett use it a lot. To ram home the message that they haven't been blind-sided by the homelessness issue that has sparked such public concern in the past five weeks both those ministers -- joined by Bill English -- insist they've known about it for more than a year. 

To add to that, I'm reliably informed, John Key when he speaks to sympathetic audiences has begun stressing that 'homelessness is nothing new'. It's all a way of suggesting that the government have the issue under control, aren't asleep at the wheel and, heck, it's all a media beat-up.

The problem with that is two-fold. First, EVERY social agency you talk to will say this isn't 'homelessness as usual'. In the past year something new has happened; we've reached a tipping point in the lack of houses continuum that means rental prices are rising rapidly and people are falling out the bottom of the housing market. I've still seen no evidence the government appreciated the urgency and extent of the problem until the past five weeks.

Second, if it did know, that makes its response -- or lack thereof -- even worse. Because surely then it would have done more than the $41m emergency housing package created for Budget 2016, which we now know was simply filling in housing holes created in previous years. If it appreciated we had tipped into new territory, it would have funded for the future as well as caught up the past. And it wouldn't have thrown out its panicked policies -- flying squads, $5000 to leave Auckland, block-booking motels.

But the question remains, is National in fact "pulling every lever". I've written a bit recently about some of the other policy actions it could be taken, such as negative gearing, investor restriction, direct house building and so on.  

On The Nation today Auckland Deputy mayor Penny Hulse threw her weight behind one we've proposed here on Pundit: Putting a 'use it or lose it' clause into any deals to develop Crown land.

And Paul Majurey, the chair of the Tamaki Collective (that's the group of all Auckland's iwi), added another new one. He pointed to the land on Moire Rd, Massey that was released yesterday by the Crown. There, 196 homes are to be built by Fletcher Residential on land that used to be the Ministry of Education's. 

Of the homes built, 20 percent are to be deemed "affordable". But as Majurey says, if this is an emergency, why not 50 or 60 percent? He wants to see more affordable houses required on any developments of Crown land.  

That's another lever the government is not pulling.

Why? Ideology. For all the rhetoric, when National says "we're pulling every lever", it's saying "we're pulling every lever that we feel comfortable pulling". Which is the right of every government.

But we need to be honest about this. If the government really saw this as an emergency -- and this is why its refusal to use the word 'crisis' matters -- if it really wanted above all to just put a roof over people's heads, there is so much more that could be done.

One person who is being honest about their ideology is former ACT MP Rodney Hide. In a remarkably heartless and ill-informed discussion on NBR radio, the man whose ideology helped drive the sell-off of council houses, boost property prices and transfer wealth from the public to the private, says New Zealand doesn't really have a homelessness problem. Rather, it's just the media and politicians "blowing things up into crises".

Hide goes on to say the media is "making up stories", accuses journalists of just turning up to political stunts and even homeless people preferring vans over houses. To listen to him, all the homeless are people who have been evicted for some unquestionable reason and have brought it on themselves by doing drugs, having babies and not getting jobs.

Now I've got no problem with an informed advocacy of personal responsibility. But this is a commitment to narrow ideology in the face of an avalanche of facts to the contrary.

Hide has cherry-picked a few stories of homeless people who have been evicted or made bad choices to suit his purposes. He uses these few cases to imply they are indicative of every case. He can therefore wash his hands of other people's misery, blame the media and blame the victims. So much easier.

Of course it's rich for a man famous for his yellow jacket and bubble car to mock political stunts and the media's reportage of them (journalists have always covered stunts, including many of Hide's). But, speaking as a journalist in several stories on the subject, including the one that sparked this debate, it's downright insulting to say the media is "making up stories". 

It's also patronising in the extreme to suggest he knows better than the dozens of social workers, social agency leaders and other experts in the field who have without exception (and as noted earlier) said this is a new sort of crisis.

The suffering of those in cars and garages is real and is not just about bad life choices. Of course, some stem from that. There's a whole other argument about how good a choice you can expect from someone who's living in a car, but undoubtedly some people need to own how they ended up in this mess.

But many, many more have done plenty right and still ended up homeless. Consider the family who moved for work (as Hide would urge them to) only to find even with full pay they couldn't afford the rent. 

And the bigger point... Is he really saying that the heart of our homeless crisis is a lack of personal responsibility, rather than a failed housing market, a lack of building and investment in affordable housing, bad planning laws, greedy investors, a stinting on infrastructure, and all the other things we know lie behind Auckland's housing woes?

Is he really saying there's not a fundamental lack of houses and if these people just made good choices, they'd be able to afford a happy home? If so, he's not only callous he's deluded.

What we need now is not victim blaming, it's the sort of solutions people like Penny Hulse and Paul Majurey are trying to get debated. What we need is not pulling people down. but more lever pulling to get more houses built, and quick.