Election 2020

Greens turn focus to housing crisis

In its third major policy announcement, the Green Party has revealed a suite of plans to subsidise community-provided rental housing and boost the state housing build programme, Marc Daalder reports

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic meltdown, New Zealand's housing crisis has continued unabated.

House prices are still surging and the availability of housing is still dropping, defying predictions of a Covid-19-related decline in the cost of housing. According to data from realestate.co.nz, there were 11 percent fewer homes on the market in July than there were a year ago while the average asking price was up 12.9 percent over the same period.

"We all deserve to live in a warm, dry, and affordable home. Whether you rent or own, good housing is a baseline for a good life," Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said on Sunday, as she announced the party's third major policy: Homes for All.

"Many people – who are working as hard as they can - are struggling to pay the rent. People who used to dream of home ownership have now written it off as an unachievable goal. Precarious tenancies and unfair rules mean people who rent are at constant risk of upheaval. And people cannot put down roots, or feel secure in where they live."

The Green Party policy package hopes to address that, with a promise of more state housing, subsidised community-led housing developments and stricter regulations to ensure rental housing is warm, safe and dry.

Greens tout achievements

While the coalition Government's flagship housing policy, KiwiBuild, is unlikely to live up to the lofty promises made at the start of the term of 100,000 new houses in a decade, the Greens say they have still accomplished a lot on the issue.

For them, the major achievements are the Healthy Homes Standard, which requires landlords to meet upgraded insulation and ventilation regulations, and the Warmer Kiwi Homes programme, which subsidises the cost of ceiling and underfloor insulation and heating for private homeowners.

The latter policy also received a second wind of funding in Budget 2020, allowing it to finance the retrofitting of another 9,000 properties.

But Davidson also touted smaller policy achievements that, in concert, have moved the country away from housing speculation and towards a world where safe housing is recognised as a human right, she said.

"With the Green Party’s support, this Government has delivered more social housing than any previous government since the 1970s - and requiring all new builds to be at least Home Star 6 rated for energy efficiency," she said.

The updates to the Residential Tenancies Act, passed under urgency this week, modernise New Zealand's rental laws and remove the possibility of no-cause evictions. The extension of the bright line test means that properties sold within five years of purchase are now taxable. And letting fees, which property managers charged new tenants at the start of a new lease, are now banned.

A turbocharged state build programme

Still, there is more work to be done, Davidson said.

"But we know we must think ahead, and act now, to address our housing woes," she said.

"Right now, there are over 18,000 households waiting for a home."

The first part of the Greens' housing policy platform is a pledge to totally clear that social housing waitlist in five years. This would be done through increasing Kāinga Ora's borrowing limit - which was already more than doubled in January - from $7.1 billion to $12 billion over the next five years, to allow the agency to borrow more money to build more state housing.

This would supercharge the Crown build programme, the Greens say, to the point where it would be able to construct 5,000 new state houses a year.

The Greens also say they will push to keep the same amount of public land available for housing over their prospective second term in government. In other words, the funds from any Kāinga Ora land sold off would be reinvested in purchasing an equal amount of land elsewhere - with the exception of where land is returned to Māori under the Right of First Refusal.

New homes built with the borrowed cash would also be required to keep to increasing standards of energy efficiency over time and suitable state homes would be equipped with solar panels.

Community-led development

Private, community-led housing development would also be encouraged by the Greens.

This includes papakāinga housing - community housing blocs built on Māori land. A specialist cross-agency Māori Housing Development Unit would be created, which would "bring together the policy capability and stakeholder relationships of the Māori Housing Network [within the Ministry for Māori Development] with the development capacity of Kāinga Ora, to provide practical support to whānau and hapū seeking to develop their whenua".

The new unit would initiate an overhaul of Māori housing finance programmes, beginning with the Kāinga Whenua loan scheme, which subsidises build and purchase costs for Māori with a right to live on multiple-owned whenua.

Other forms of community housing would receive attention as well. Specific rules and regulations for co-housing would be developed and enshrined in law, potentially through a National Policy Statement on collective housing models, the Greens say. First-home buyers would also be able to withdraw from their KiwiSavers to buy in to a co-housing development, something which existing rules prohibit.

Community projects to build affordable rental housing would also receive perks. This would mainly come in the form of a Crown underwrite for community housing providers, iwi and hapū and membership-based housing associations, meaning the government would assume liability for any properties that are not rented.

Underwrites are already part of the KiwiBuild programme and have recently been expanded to cover "at-risk or stalled" developments. This proposed expansion would involve $250 million for community non-profit rental homes - "providing an initial boost to get this sector up and running, and allowing for capital to be cycled through for further developments".

In addition to an influx of affordable rental housing, the Greens hope to address renters' concerns through the creation of a rental Warrant of Fitness. Based on the Healthy Homes Standard. This new regulation would extend a requirement to have main living areas able to be heated to 18 degrees to bedrooms as well. Moreover, it would add an enforcement mechanism to the standard, allowing all rental properties to be assessed for compliance.

Landlords and property managers would also have to be licensed under the Green Party housing programme. Landlords would have a simple registration process with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development at an expected fee of $50 a year which would fund the rental WOF enforcement and the administration of the licensing system. Meanwhile, property managers would be required to obtain a license under the same methods as real estate agents.

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