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KiwiBuild: a ‘community trainwreck’

A year after the coalition Government took office, its flagship housing plan KiwiBuild is barely off the ground. At this year’s Bruce Jesson Memorial lecture, Monte Cecilia Housing Trust’s Bernie Smith argued KiwiBuild’s flaws not only perpetuate housing unaffordability, but cause further intergenerational social problems.

Bernie Smith tells an interesting story.

After working in some of the most deprived communities in rural Australia and Papua New Guinea, Smith came back to New Zealand in 2016. At that point, homelessness and housing affordability were among the worst ever seen in the country.

Just over a year later, he watched Jacinda Ardern and her party enter into a coalition Government with New Zealand First and the Greens. Following through on their election promise, Ardern and her newly-minted Housing Minister Phil Twyford - a fellow Aucklander - announced their plan to ramp-up New Zealand’s much-depleted housing stock. By July 2019, KiwiBuild targets plan for 1000 new homes on the ground. After that, a target of 5000 new homes has been set for July 2020.

As chief executive of South Auckland based Monte Cecilia House Trust, Smith looked at the numbers eagerly. He hoped the Labour-led Government, and its promised influx of new homes would help the hundreds of homeless and precariously tenanted lower income families in Auckland.

After all, Ardern promised to address child poverty, he said in his address at the Bruce Jesson Memorial lecture at the University of Auckland this week. 

However, as more information emerged, Smith realised KiwiBuild wasn’t going to deliver what he and other Auckland community housing providers wanted for:

- 92,000 households living in unaffordable rental situations

- 36,000 households living in overcrowded conditions

- 20,300 homeless

Smith: “Over the 2017/18 financial year, Monte Cecilia - just one agency in Auckland - had 1349 children use or access its services, 50 percent of those children were under eight years old.

“Eighteen months ago we had three children who had just undergone cancer treatment, and a fourth child with brittle bone disease. The Ronald McDonald house was over-full and those children had no family home to go back to, so they came to Monte Cecilia.

“I would suggest ... this model will become a community trainwreck in three to five years."

“It’s no different this week or last week,” he said.

“KiwiBuild is great for middle class New Zealanders with higher household incomes. But ... KiwiBuild properties are not helpful to our working poor or to those in poverty because they’re totally out of reach and unaffordable."

Limited insight and planning has also raised major concerns for community housing providers, Smith said

“For instance, in Māngere - just one of many projects that the Government is working on at the moment - 2700 state homes are going to be demolished and 3000 state homes are going to be rebuilt, but in a third of the land area.

“The other two-thirds are going to be KiwiBuild and affordable.

“By my estimations, in 2700 homes there now, there’s probably 12,000 to 15,000 people in those homes. Multiply that to be 10,000 homes [on the site in total] and we’re looking at 25,000 to 30,000 people living on the same land mass.

“That’s 30,000 human beings of different cultures, different religions, differing values and life, living in the same space as 12,000 people used to.

“The Government says it's got it sorted. Housing New Zealand will be resourced to meet this intensification and for staff to deal with high and complex tenants who are allocated off the top 5 percent of the housing register - in other words, our community’s most vulnerable.

“I would suggest ... this model will become a community trainwreck in three to five years,” Smith told the lecture.

To demonstrate his point, he drew on his own experience at the Queensland government’s Housing and Public Works department.

Smith spent about seven years working in Cairns redoing the government’s “intensified” state housing model.

“Years after the intensification, the government spent millions on what they called ‘Community Renewal’,” he said.

“They demolished homes, they created open green spaces for community activities, they sold some of their state houses off to private homeowners, and pepper-potted in the community.

“They also remodelled the odd house to create a community property centre that also had government tenancy staff and government community development staff resident there five days a week.”

That worked for about a year or two, Smith said dryly.

However, once the playground equipment was damaged and repaired too often to justify ongoing maintenance, parks became drug exchange locations, and sex and other illegal activities meant they were no longer used by children.

“Private owners who bought into the suburb thinking they got a cheap house, and things could only get better, started fearing for their own safety and wanted the government to buy their house again.”

The final straw was the government’s eventual decline from funding projects in these communities because they showed “little in positive ongoing change”, Smith said. That has also happened repeatedly in New Zealand, he remarked.

Curiously, the global financial crisis emerged as a type of Hail Mary for these Cairns neighbourhoods. To try and stimulate the economy, the federal government gave billions of dollars towards building state social housing.

“In the city of Cairns, we built 282 new apartment units in small blocks across the city,” he said.

“They were 25 to 30 size blocks, as well as a handful of four and five bedroom homes.”

Smith also oversaw the tenanting process.

“I had three staff and we scanned 3500 state tenant households looking for people to put on the transfer list. I was looking for the best of the best. I wanted to reward our state housing tenants - those who particularly had tenants living beside them where they wrecked the house, broke the windows every five minutes.

“We looked at health needs, addictions, mental health, seniors, solo parents, families, ethnic groups. Then, apartment block by apartment block, depending on the building’s location and community acceptance and non-acceptance, I met with individual community housing providers and we decided which tenants would go into those properties.”

Solo parents were placed in apartment blocks with elderly residents who had no nearby families, he said. A woman with mental health needs who “created problems” after forgetting to take her medication might also be tenanted nearby.

The idea was to place households who would live together well in the same apartment blocks. For high-needs tenants, it created a safer living space and fostered a sense of community because tenants often came together to support one another, Smith said.

The method was labelled 'Matching for Success', and eventually received state-wide recognition for the stability it provided in social housing areas, he said proudly.

In addition to that, community housing providers were tasked with managing tenancies, rather than staff from the Queensland government equivalent of Housing New Zealand.

“There was recognition that their own tenancy managers, having 300 to 400 tenancies wouldn’t be doing anything any differently. Whereas, community housing provider tenancy managers had 80 to 120 tenancies and had much better engagement and connection with their tenants and with the social services sector.”

Those “social housing” households were still thriving at Smith’s last visit to Cairns a year ago, he said.

A long-term approach like ‘Matching for Success’, alongside a plan to increase housing stock was what was needed in New Zealand, Smith said.

“Our new Government has set some aspirational targets for new KiwiBuild housing, also in reducing poverty, rental law changes, healthy homes guarantee, regulation of property management, a tax working group, movement to a living wage."

While these goals were desirable, the lack of planning and “real consideration” around KiwiBuild has meant a year into the coalition Government, little has changed “on the ground”, Smith said

Previous local and international experience around poorly-planned housing intensification also indicated that in five to 10 years' time, severe unintended social and financial impacts were likely, he added.

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