THE opening of seven brand new two-bedroom state-of-the-art Housing New Zealand homes in Maraenui yesterday should be a symbol for a new footprint for state houses which will eventually extend into the rest of the suburb.
Sadly, however, this is not the case. Surrounded by dozens of empty, run-down, boarded-up, abandoned state houses, this new development is, in my opinion, simply deceptive window-dressing for this government's social housing policies which are designed to place fewer and fewer people into fewer and fewer state houses.
The harsh reality which many low-income families now face is that the new criteria brought in in July 2011 means they are ineligible for state houses, so the waiting lists have shrunk. Because of this, the boarded-up houses across Maraenui, emptied by the new criteria and earthquake-prone regulations, are unlikely to be rebuilt as state houses.
Nobody really knows what will happen to this rundown stock, as the Minister for Housing has not released a plan for their future, and the report on earthquake-prone houses that we were told we would get last year has never materialised.
Meantime, the empty houses continue to make the streets less safe and attractive, encourage antisocial behaviour, and give further testimony to the break-up of a close-knit, supportive community.
Much has been said by central government about the need to limit state housing to "those most in need" as justification for reducing state house eligibility. The minister talks about people living in state houses while collecting six-figure salaries and driving a BMW, but this is a red herring which hides the reality of many people's lives where poverty forces them into overcrowded private rentals when they are denied a state house.
For example, if two or more families are living in one crowded property, then they are not eligible under the new criteria because they have "a roof over their heads".
I know of one family where a grandmother, living in a one-bedroom house, had to share with her daughter and three children, because under the new criteria the daughter was not a priority. It took almost three months for the daughter to be housed.
Housing New Zealand doesn't do transfers for tenants now either. If your circumstances change and you move from another town where you had a state house, or you need to move for safety reasons, then you first have to give your notice and reapply under the new criteria - which may see you looking for less affordable private rental.
Even more sinister is the new regulation under which all existing Housing New Zealand tenants are to be re-assessed by the Ministry of Social Development, from July onwards, and given only three-year reviewable tenancies. This will frighten many elderly people and those with young children, who will have no security of tenure and could be moved out of their neighbourhood. Vulnerable people, including children, need to feel secure, and this change will have the opposite effect.
The minister glibly talks about encouraging social housing providers to step up and provide affordable rental housing, but apart from the city council, already doing what we can with our 300-plus council flats, we have none here at present in Napier. The only other contender, the mental health provider WIT (Whatever It Takes) has been unable to secure a suitable site here and is building in Hastings.
So many low-income families denied state housing are forced into more expensive private rentals with landlords who can cherry-pick tenants to avoid any of the problems which may come with people struggling to survive.
At a time when over one quarter of our nation's children are living in real poverty, let's not be blinded by the seven flash new state houses in Maraenui.
Just look behind that attractive façade, at the scores of abandoned state houses that have sat empty for over two years in Maraenui and now stand as a reminder of a Government intent on dismantling the state housing legacy which has made a significant difference in improving the wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of our society.
# Maxine Boag is a Napier City Councillor for the Nelson Park ward.