Winter came suddenly and quite severely to Auckland this year after an unusually long and warm summer, and the Government was caught on the hop by the plight of homeless people. The numbers sleeping in the open during summer had been just the visible sign of a looming crisis. Once the weather turned, reports of overcrowded homes and families living in cars demanded an urgent response. Charities and marae, notably Te Puea Memorial Marae at Mangere, stepped up more effectively than the Government did.
While Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett took some quick decisions to lease motels for emergency shelter and offer a grant to leave Auckland, it took until last week to get a more complete plan from Cabinet. The package announced on Monday consists of a $100 million loan to Housing NZ to buy or build more emergency houses, a $20m fund at the disposal of Bennett and Finance Minister Bill English, $71m annually in additional community housing subsidies and $102m for emergency housing providers.
All together it is expected to raise the number of places available for temporary housing from 800 at present to 2200, which should be enough to house the 1500 people registered with the Ministry of Social Development to be in urgent need of a roof over their heads. That number is not large when set beside the estimates of 200,000 children or more living below the poverty line. Clearly the accommodation supplement to their benefits is enabling the vast majority of these households to afford rent, though they might be struggling to afford other things. The homeless are the truly desperate and there are not so many of them that the problem cannot be solved quickly.
The minister plans to buy two or three motel blocks in Auckland and lease more if necessary. She may have modular homes built for vacant sites around Auckland. These will be stop-gaps until Housing NZ and the community providers can expand their portfolios of suitable places.
The Government has not given up the idea of selling state houses to private providers of "social housing", though it no longer talks of creating a competitive market for its grants. Housing NZ will be expected to fully service this $100 million loan from the Government's rental subsidies and the corporation is expected to sell the properties purchased with this money on the open market or to community providers "once properties are no longer required". Why would community providers want them in that happy event?
Until a $41 million item appeared in this year's Budget, the Government had not directly funded emergency housing. This was a social need that had been left to city councils and charities. But house prices throughout Auckland and some other centres will have risen beyond the means of traditional funders as well as adding to the demand for their services.
This package marks the Government's acceptance that it must ensure every New Zealander has adequate shelter. If it has acted too late to help enough of the homeless last winter, it might help more through the next.