Rosemary Mcleod: 'Housing crisis' a relative term

By Rosemary McLeod

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Who decides one in 100 New Zealanders are impacted by our housing crisis? Photo / Thinkstock
Who decides one in 100 New Zealanders are impacted by our housing crisis? Photo / Thinkstock

One of my pet irritants is academic research that claims to "prove" something that isn't actually true, but fits with current obsessions.

It used to be child abuse. A toxic claim about the rate of child abuse in this country proved, after universal panic, to be false.

The new panic is the housing crisis, but does it really affect one in every 100 New Zealanders, as a study by the University of Otago, Wellington, claimed last week? Well, no.

Using the Ministry of Social Development's figure of 4585 registered in need of social housing, it is more like one in 1000.

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We need to know about the terms of reference, too, before we accept research of this kind.

An example: the Otago University figures include people "living with family and friends". I am not willing to accept that those people don't have a roof over their heads, because they plainly do.

Would they prefer a place of their own? Probably. But they can't afford it. Should I get excited about that? Not really.

Researcher Dr Kate Amore expanded on the figure of one in 100 saying, "If the homeless population were a hundred people, 70 are staying with extended family or friends in severely crowded houses, 20 are in a motel, boarding house or camping ground, and 10 are living on the street, in cars, or in other improvised dwellings. They all urgently need affordable housing."

Hang on, the 10 living in the streets are truly in dire straits, while 90 of her 100 are coping, even if they'd prefer - and no doubt deserve - something more permanent.

Everyone needs affordable housing, and would like to choose where they live, but housing was never cheap, not even in the days of state and council housing for life.

It isn't cheap to build and maintain, especially with all the new regulations, and it isn't cheap to live in. And, when property values rise, the rich get richer by speculating in real estate. They farm the poor.

The situation isn't helped by state house tenants, and other people in low-rent housing, who turn their homes into P labs.

They add to the problem by denying other tenants the chance to move into the housing they leave behind.

In March this year, 400 state houses were reportedly contaminated with P, because P, like speculating in real estate, is profitable. Maybe both should be illegal.

I'd like to know how the judgment call was made on overcrowding for this research, because that is a subjective measure.

An example: as a child, I lived with my grandmother, mother, uncle, and at times three boarders in a small two-bedroom house with a one-bedroom sleepout attached. There was one bathroom and one outside toilet, and all the heating and cooking was provided by a coal range.

The theoretical sitting room was a bedroom, and there was a small sun porch off my grandmother's bedroom where my uncle slept.

Was this a calamity? No. Many people lived like that. The difference was the very rich had yet to turn into the vulgar show-offs so many are today.

Of course, people ought to live in safety, warmth and comfort, but I begin to waver over whether all social problems are automatically the Government's problem to solve.

It seems to me that family and friends are a natural first source of help in times of trouble, and it's a bit odd to think you'd head first to the Government to solve personal problems.

My mother would rather not have lived with her mother, and vice versa, but flats were scarce in our small town, and anyway she couldn't afford not to.

My grandmother's values were such that she took her in, as many people from minority cultures in this country would today.

But I'm not sure that such values to do with family are still common among Pakeha. Why?

I am sorry for women left alone and homeless with dependent children, but increasingly annoyed nobody tracks the fathers of the children down to see how they are living, and ask why everyone else should pay for their offspring. While suffering mothers and children pose for the cameras, how come nobody ever asks such obvious questions?

- Rosemary Mcleod is a journalist and author.

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