I remember the event but can’t quite remember where it took place. I remember the atmosphere – a sense of relief and excitement that at last there was a plan to address New Zealand’s increasing housing problems. And I remember that the then Minister of Housing was at the event, to launch Building the Future – New Zealand’s Housing Strategy. I’m not too worried about not remembering all the details of the event as it was ten years ago.
The strategy had been developed in consultation with more than 500 people who attended consultation meetings, hui and fono from Whangarei to Dunedin, and a further 200-odd individuals and organisations who made written submissions. The strategy created a sense of momentum and a shared direction.
Ten years later, and housing is, once again, a government priority. Housing affordability and the reform of social housing featured prominently in the Prime Minister’s 2015 State of the Nation speech. The current Cabinet has three Ministers responsible for housing – showing an unprecedented level of interest in this one area.
There’s a wide recognition that housing affordability is a significant and growing issue for NZ. The role of social housing in the equation has finally been recognised. Two key pieces of work initiated by the current government have formed the basis for their current policy work. In 2010 the government established the Housing Shareholders Advisory Group (HSAG). The group was set up by the Ministers of Finance and Housing to provide independent advice to the Government on the effective and efficient delivery of social housing to those most in need. The second was the inquiry into housing affordability by the Productivity Commission in 2012. While neither of the reports were strategies, they had recommendations for government.
Like the 2005 NZ Housing Strategy, the 2010 HSAG report and the 2012 Productivity Commission report both included a goal to grow the community housing sector and diversify the provision of social housing. The government has committed to growing the sector but there hasn’t been a clear long-term plan to support this.
The growth of the community housing sector is of great interest to me personally as I have worked for a community housing organisation since 2003. In 2013 I was granted a Winston Churchill Fellowship to travel to Australia and the UK to look at the growth of not-for-profit community housing organisations. In recent decades the growth in the provision of social and affordable housing by community organisations has significantly changed the landscape of social housing in most OECD countries. The scaling-up of these organisations – through government financial investment, the transfer of stock, and other initiatives – has proved to be a highly successful method of increasing the quality and supply of social and affordable housing. These countries have embraced the added value of the community housing and the benefits of growing it. Change has been happening in New Zealand for many years, but it has been much slower than in other comparable countries.
One of the conclusions of my study was that where growth had been most successful, it was as the result of a planned and cohesive approach from governments and/or local authorities. One of many examples is the New South Wales (NSW) state government’s Planning for the Future, New Directions for Community Housing in NSW. Developed in 2007, the strategy and government’s aim was ‘to grow community housing from 13,000 to 30,000 homes over the next 10 years.’ By 2013 they had almost reached that goal.
In New Zealand state housing is the Crown’s second largest social asset valued at around $15 billion. Despite the significance and size of this asset there is no requirement for a strategic plan at the national level or any planning processes for this asset.
How does this compare with the planning for other government assets or agencies? The Crown’s largest social asset is state highways. There is a variety of long-term planning requirements at the national, regional and local levels for transportation. New Zealand Transport Agency has a 15 year whole-of-government and integrated planning models. The contrast between the planning for roading and housing is significant. Yet both roading and housing should be regarded as vital infrastructure for New Zealand.
So why is it important to have a strategy or a long-term strategic direction? Strategies create the framework that guides how all the partners will tackle the challenges and issues within the local and national housing systems. Strategies are needed to outline and achieve objectives and to set targets. The complexity of housing is another reason why a strategic and well thought through approach is needed.
Those of us who have worked in community housing for many years have seen objectives for our sector drift and change from one report, to new policy announcements, to a new pilot, to another report, and so on…. Without a long-term consistent policy direction we are doomed to the stop-start lack of progress we have suffered for the last ten years; all the while our housing issues increase. Without a strategic plan, and by not implementing the strategies we have developed, time and opportunities and resources are wasted.
Importantly, too, strategy have visions – statements that outline what we want to achieve. In 2005 the NZ Housing Strategy vision was All New Zealanders have access to affordable, sustainable, good quality housing appropriate to their needs. What’s our current vision for housing in NZ?
Community Housing Aotearoa (CHA) is the umbrella organisation for the community housing sector. Recognising the need to outline a plan and a way forward it has taken matters into its own hands and proposed a draft plan, Our Place – All New Zealanders Well-Housed. CHA also knows that the solution to some of our most complex problems is not simply building houses: ‘it is about creating communities that prosper with affordable and quality homes. Housing is the centre of the jigsaw. If we can fix this, it may also fix a host of other social issues’. CHA outlines a bold vision of community housing organisations providing homes for 50,000 more people in five years and the community housing sector becoming the same size as Housing New Zealand in that time.
What happened to the 2005 Building the Future strategy? We had a strategy, everyone got excited – but it went nowhere. In the 10 years since, housing affordability has only worsened. While much current focus is on the skyrocketing cost of purchasing houses in Auckland, weekly rentals across New Zealand have also risen faster than incomes. Benefits have not risen at all in this time. The average weekly rent for a three bedroom private house increased from $280 in 2005 to $359 in 2013 – a 28% increase. The average weekly rent for a three bedroom private house in Auckland increased from $440 in 2005 to $570 in 2013 – a 29% increase.
Where would NZ’s housing issues be now, had the 2005 strategy been implemented? We can only wonder. New Zealand needs a long-term strategic approach to housing, with cross-party consensus to achieve its objectives. The benefits of long-term planning is evident in other sectors and overseas. In the absence of government leadership, the community housing sector is taking the initiative by developing a document that belongs to the sector rather than a specific government. I hope in ten years’ time Our Place isn’t forgotten – instead, it’s remembered as the foundation of a shared long-term vision and plan.