Housing Minister Phil Twyford needs to move out of Opposition mode and start making inroads to the problem he has long called a "crisis". He used the term again yesterday when publishing the report he commissioned soon after taking up the housing portfolio.

The report, a "stocktake" of the problem, tells him, he says, "the housing crisis is deeper and more entrenched than previously revealed". The basis for that conclusion is an estimate by emergency housing providers that they are turning away as many as nine out of every 10 homeless people who seek their help.

"Homelessness" is an elusive term. In last years' election campaign, Twyford constantly alluded to "40,000 homeless" and always in the next sentence he would mention people living on the streets and in cars. But they are probably a few hundred at most. The majority of the "homeless" are living in transient, overcrowded or substandard accommodation.

At its peak, in May last year, the Ministry of Social Development gave out 4300 emergency housing special needs grants. That gives a better idea of the scale of the urgent need.


The report does not in fact throw much more light on the various elements of the housing shortage that have been documented and discussed for a long time. That is not to say the problem is well understood.

Large gaps in our knowledge remain, particularly to do with the number of houses that may be standing empty in places such as Auckland, held for their investment value by owners who do not need rental income and do not want the hassle and damage tenant's may cause. The stocktake does not include that aspect of the problem though it does note that returns on rental property have declined even as rents have risen in recent years.

It tells us we are "quickly becoming a society divided by ownership of housing and its related wealth" and it believes "tax policy settings have exacerbated this division". It blames much of the housing shortage on a decline in state housing since the 1980s, noting that the proportion of tenants renting privately rose from 60 per cent to 83 per cent between 1991 and 2013.

Much of the information in the "stocktake" is based on the 2013 census, which probably understated most problems by now. The surge in immigration that increased the demand for housing to present levels was just beginning in 2013. The results of this year's census could be present a grimmer picture.

This is not the "up-to-date picture" the minister promised when the work was commissioned from two academics and a social policy advocate. Twyford looked forward to "opening the books", believing the previous Government had been hiding the worst data.

Well, if this is the "books" it is a familiar story. The public knew how much house prices have raced ahead of income increases in recent decades. It knew home ownership rates have fallen to their lowest level in 60 years.

The report says, "there are no short-term fixes". The public probably knew that too. It is time to see some action.