Evictions should be banned if they could result in homelessness, a UN special housing representative said today.
Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, has been in New Zealand on the invitation of the current and previous governments. Over the past 10 days she has met with government ministers and officials, mayors and councils, iwi, economists, community housing advocates and others in the sector.
Announcing the results of her trip today, she said it was clear there was a housing crisis in New Zealand. She said was struck by how unanimously supported that idea is.
"Every government official I met at central and local level agrees."
But, she suggested, we're looking at it wrong.
"What's happening here is not actually a housing crisis. What you have happening here is a human rights crisis."
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Seeing housing as a human right is Farha's core recommendation. She suggested New Zealand should develop a "human-rights-based national housing policy" and enshrine the policy in legislation.
"Calling housing a human right gets us right back to the fundamentals of people," she said.
"And it makes governments more accountable. So they step up their game, because others are watching."
Housing minister Megan Woods has partially endorsed the report. She says the Government will "closely consider the Special Rapporteur's report and recommendations".
"Clearly housing is a basic right. In regard to whether it should be considered a human right, the Government is willing to investigate this further through a Government Policy Statement, which is currently in development."
She added that the Government is "working to reverse the housing crisis after a decade of inaction". The measures she pointed to included "the biggest housing build programme since the 1970s", the additional of 1000 more transitional housing places this year, "banning offshore speculators" and new programmes to "support more New Zealanders into home ownership".
Chief human rights commissioner Paul Hunt has also welcomed the report.
"Ms Farha's preliminary findings clearly affirm what many of us already know in New Zealand; much more needs to be done to address the housing crisis," he said in response.
"Our housing crisis is also a human rights crisis of significant proportions. The crisis encompasses homeownership, market renting, state housing and homelessness, as well as the punishing impact of substandard housing, especially on those most at risk of vulnerability. As Ms Farha has found, these conditions indicate violations of the right to health, security and life as well as the right to housing."
Asked if she thought there should be a capital gains tax, Farha said she knew there were a lot of people "playing" in the property sector.
"So you have to say, 'Okay, you want to play in residential real estate? You have to realise it's a human right.'"
She added: "At the root of the crisis is a speculative housing market that has been supported by successive governments, who have promoted homeownership as an investment, while until recently discontinuing the provision of social housing and providing inadequate tenant protection."
Was New Zealand comfortable, she asked, with "the idea that people engaged in residential real estate are administering the right to housing"?
Farha said many groups were discriminated against in the provision of adequate housing, especially Māori and Pasifika, and people who are already homeless. But in her view the people are most discriminated against are the disabled.
"I have heard stories of people in wheelchairs with no access to bathrooms. I met a man who said he needed help just to get in and out of his house."
The suggestion evictions should be "completely prohibited" if they might result in homelessness is contained in her report.
"Evictions from primary residences should only be ordered after all alternatives have been explored jointly with the affected persons," the report says.
"If evictions cannot be avoided, alternative affordable housing should be provided as proximate as possible to the place of residence."
Community Housing Aotearoa, which hosted Leilani Farha on part of her trip, has welcomed the report.
"Ms Farha has observed a housing market in which the social housing of function is no longer the dominant force," chief executive Scott Figenshow said.
"Homelessness is a prima facie breach of the human right to housing, and under international law it must be addressed as an urgent priority."
The report also praised the Housing First programme, which has been adopted in Auckland, Hamilton and some other cities. Housing First offers a home to the chronically homeless and provides "wraparound" health and other services to help them stay there. Farha said it should become a nationwide programme.
Her report also recommends the national policy should include "a legal obligation of the State to provide suitable and accessible emergency housing to individuals and families at risk or in a situation of homelessness".
Discussing the report, she proposed a rent freeze, saying New Zealand needed a "more gutsy" response to the crisis than it had produced so far. And she thought there should be an audit of empty and abandoned homes.
She wondered why the Government was paying up to $4000 a week for short-term motel accommodation when it could be converted to long-term housing.
"It's what they're doing in Finland."
She also suggested the introduction of inclusionary zoning, organised "at the national level". This would require all new residential construction projects to include a set percentage of social, housing, affordable housing and homes for large families.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has responded, saying the Government has been working "from the moment we took office" to end the housing crisis.
"We have done everything from closing tax loopholes to banning overseas buyers in our residential market to rebuilding our state housing stock," Ardern said.
"I'm proud of that record but in 24 months we've still got a long way to go."