There has been a steady fall in the number of state houses since the change of government at the end of 2008, both in absolute numbers and in relation to our rapidly growing population. Like state schools, the state housing stock is a critical part of our social infrastructure. State houses have been generally well built all around the country, with few of the leaky building problems bedevilling private housing .
From the state houses built first by the Liberal Government in the early twentieth century and the first Labour Government from the 1930s, they were better designed for our climate, facing north to catch the sun and achieving higher building standards for private builders to emulate. As important as the quality of the stand-alone houses and later the European-style apartments built by local councils, they were also built along with public amenities – parks, walkways, community halls, shopping centres and public transport routes. State houses and council apartments were built to create stable communities where children could walk or cycle to local schools and older people could age in familiar places. Households were expected to pay income-related rents, usually no more than 25% of household income.
But there has always been some political tension around the sustainability of state housing. Rents the Liberal Government set were too high. Despite partnerships with private companies, the Labour Government could not meet the post-war pent-up demand and a pool of people remained in sub-standard housing. National governments’ so-called ‘right-to-buy’ policies pleased sitting tenants, but reduced the stock and ran down the capacity of the government’s housing agency to maintain and renew its stock. Until recently the current Government has squeezed Housing New Zealand assets and made it a net contributor to the government finances.
Fudging their responsibility for those on low incomes, the Government now talks about ‘social housing’, which includes households receiving the accommodation supplement, available to those on low incomes, who cannot afford private rents or a mortgage. But households in council houses are not eligible for income-related rents or accommodation supplement and only recently have new households in community housing become eligible for income-related rents.
Growing wealth and inequality over the last decades means home ownership is impossible if you’re on a low income in the growing cities, so what choices do you have? If you have health or social needs you could apply for state, council or community housing, where housing quality meets basic standards or better, but waiting lists are growing and security of tenure is diminishing. In private rentals, the house does not currently even have to meet minimal standards. There is no inspection requirement tied to the accommodation supplement and security of tenure for the medium term is non-existent. Growing numbers of working families with children are living in insecure, substandard, overcrowded housing or cars, with sad flow on effects for health, happiness and educational opportunities.
Social housing should mean that the government, representing all members of society, owns or subsidises the building of sufficient good quality rental houses for those on low incomes. Social investment should prioritise the right to be securely housed, rather than a right to buy state houses.