The housing crisis reaches Dunedin

You only have to look along Dunedin's main street to see how the poor and vulnerable are struggling with exploding rents and housing costs, Chris Ford writes.

Recently, Dunedin’s daily newspaper the Otago Daily Times has been celebrating the first substantial rise in the city’s population – as recorded by Statistics New Zealand – to 130,000. This is very welcome news as the region has had a stagnant population for nearly three decades now. Yet, the downsides of this can be seen on the main street of Dunedin with the growing number of beggars, albeit a small but increasingly regular number of them. 

At the outset, I do acknowledge the fact that not all beggars are homeless and nor are all homeless people beggars. Yet, the pinch brought on by uncontrolled rising rents and housing costs is being felt by many of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable as much as in other parts of New Zealand.  

I would like to share a few stories which illustrate this point perfectly. 

The first is around my regular interactions with a male beggar. I have forgotten his name but I always make an effort to talk to him and offer him some money on a regular basis. He is an older chap who has a small grey beard and wears a worn-out jacket while sitting on the hard, cobbled, red paving that traces a straight path down the city’s main thoroughfare, George St.

He has done this almost weekly for about two years now. During a recent chat, I asked him what mainly drove him to beg. He put it to me simply that his rent had gone up steeply and he couldn’t afford food. I asked him if he had a public or private rental. He answered “private”.

Then I had a face to the many stories I’d been hearing and reading about for almost a year or more which confirmed that the housing crisis had well and truly reached Dunedin. 

The second is the sighting of another regular beggar in Princes Street (the other half of Dunedin’s main street) on Christmas Eve. I was with family members on an outing and while driving past, I saw another regular beggar whom I had given to in the past holding up a sign saying ‘Sorry! Homeless, Hungry, Need to Eat!’ This man’s plight simply reinforced that, housing-wise, things are getting really bad in Dunedin.

Realistically, though, Dunedin social agencies have told local media that the average profile of a homeless person in the city is similar to that found in other parts of New Zealand. They tend to be poorer working individuals or families who, facing rising rents or the end of their tenancies, can’t find another suitable and/or affordable place to live. They end up couch-surfing or living with family members/friends or, at worst, in hotels and motels with the support of Work and Income. It is this group that constitutes the vast majority of the invisible but yet growing number of Dunedin’s homeless. 

A rising tsunami sweeps south

On a personal note, I never thought that homelessness and begging would reach the streets of Dunedin to the extent that it has. I first witnessed the new wave of street homelessness, begging and destitution when I regularly visited Wellington about five years ago. Even at that stage, I didn’t see any begging on Dunedin’s streets.  

However, in about 2014, I started noticing a slow increase in Dunedin’s CBD of people who were prepared to sacrifice their dignity to scrape a few measly dollars from compassionate passers-by. Subsequently, I also began hearing the first anecdotal reports about housing shortages and significant rent rises in the city. By 2017, the rising tsunami of homelessness and poverty that had begun in Auckland had definitely swept its way south as I attended (in my capacity as a non-government organisation employee) a meeting on homelessness in the city. 

At the same time, city property values had begun to soar to record levels with an estimated 10 percent increase recorded in the 2017-18 year due to the rise in population amongst other factors. This price movement inevitably favoured many home owners while locking out increasing numbers of home buyers in a region which had previously been one of the most affordable for housing in Aotearoa. Furthermore, this prompted a rising number of local landlords to significantly up their rents too. 

I’m pleased to report, though, that there are some positive developments on the horizon.

In response to these issues, the Dunedin City Council (DCC) established a Mayor’s Taskforce for Housing early last year to give advice to the council on what could be done to address the city’s urgent accommodation needs. Chaired by Green Party councillor Aaron Hawkins, the group reported last November that Ōtepoti would need at least 650 more social and community housing units just to meet current demand.

This estimate was a long way off from a 2012 DCC report that had projected the need for an additional 1000 housing units by 2031. The taskforce report shows how much the DCC’s (and Statistics New Zealand’s) 2012 projections for population growth had been surpassed in the last five years alone.  

I’d like to see Housing Minister Phil Twyford double the number of state homes planned from the nearly 6500 recently announced, with a greater number of those flowing to Dunedin and the wider Otago region.

Besides, nearly 40 years of significant under-investment in social housing construction had begun to catch up with both local and central government everywhere, a trend exacerbated by successive National Governments seeking to privatise the public housing estate by stealth. In a city like Dunedin, which has a significant number of low-income earners residing within its boundaries, such policies have increasingly reduced the options for people in this group who have increasingly needed to find somewhere else to live as the city has grown. 

The DCC taskforce recommended in order to meet these urgent housing needs, plus the projected number of Dunedin Hospital rebuild workers who will start arriving in 2019/2020, that both central government and the DCC should collaborate by dipping into their pockets to invest in a much-needed social house-building programme, amongst other measures. The housing construction and other initiatives should, the report said, form part of a Dunedin Housing Action Plan. 

Personally, I hope that Government does come to the party by allocating more state housing builds to Dunedin. It should also support the DCC’s social house building plans through a significant cash injection, via Housing New Zealand and the Crown accounts, to top up ratepayer contributions.

Moreover, I’d like to see Housing Minister Phil Twyford double the number of state homes (or public houses as they’re now called) planned from the nearly 6500 recently announced with a greater number of those flowing to Dunedin and the wider Otago region. I’d also like to see private property developers allocate some of their builds to council, community and public housing projects (such as KiwiBuild) so that a mix of accessible, affordable state, private and community-sector owned homes are distributed evenly throughout our communities. 

Most importantly, I’d like to see the Government institute a nationwide, two-year rent freeze to ensure that poorer and middle-income tenants can catch their breath after what have seemed like never-ending rent increases. At the same time, central government should use the opportunity to reform the accommodation supplement which has acted as a de-facto income subsidy for landlords since the early 1990s and substantially increases core benefit levels. 

I believe that all of these moves, taken together, can make a significant difference to the lives of not only Dunedin’s homeless but to the tens of thousands of people who continue to face housing stress in Aotearoa. Only then will we begin to see the number of homeless people and beggars on our streets come down.

The best time to start that is this year, 2019, as the need for many is here now – as it is for my beggar acquaintance on George St. 

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