State housing, or “social housing” more generally, is often in the news for one reason or another. Governments over the years have all had their own policies. In this post series, I won’t really be looking at the pros and cons (at least not much) – I’ll mainly be looking at some of the numbers.
Part 1: Social Housing Today
“State housing” is a term we hear a lot of. Over the years, the ‘state’, or government, has had a major role in housing. They’ve built homes, and continue to own a large number. Housing New Zealand owns or leases around 68,000 homes at present.
“Social housing” is a less common term. In New Zealand, the state has always been the dominant provider of social housing. Other providers exist, but maybe a bit below the radar. They’re nowhere near the size, and often focus on a particular region, or a particular community.
Who is involved in providing social housing?
- Central government (mainly Housing New Zealand)
- Local government (many councils are involved in social housing, often focusing on ‘pensioners’)
- Other social providers (Salvation Army, churches, Maori groups, and various other non-profits)
The National government wants these other providers to take a greater role, partly through selling them some existing state housing. It’s fair to say that the process hasn’t gone smoothly so far. The controversial bit is the implication that, as other social providers step up, the government will step back, so there’s no net gain. It’s not really clear how this will pan out.
So, the state owns (or leases) 68,000 homes. Councils own at least another 11,000, based on census information. The Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland councils have the largest portfolios. In fact, the other two councils have more social homes than Auckland (around 2,200 each vs our 1,450).
It’s harder to find statistics on ‘other social providers’, but they seem to provide around 5,000 homes.
By comparison, there are about 1.8 million dwellings (homes) in New Zealand, with about 1.7 million households. So there are probably around 5% of households who live in social housing nationwide. I’ll give a bit more context to that in later posts.
Partly because of the government’s desire to broaden the social housing sector, the distinctions between the providers above aren’t always clear cut. For example:
- The Tamaki Regeneration Company is a 59/41 partnership between the government and Auckland Council, and all the 2,800 Housing New Zealand homes in the area have now been transferred to it. The ‘regeneration’ will include a mix of state, other social and ‘market’ homes.
- Hobsonville Land Company is owned by Housing New Zealand and therefore the government, but it has its own structure. It isn’t providing for social housing in Hobsonville – and actually hasn’t built any homes itself – but does still have wider goals besides just maximising profits. The HLC is now also working on the redevelopment of state houses in Northcote, which will include social housing.
- The government wants to sell some of its Housing New Zealand homes to other social providers, but will still be involved to some extent, as well as providing a level of funding.
- Auckland Council’s pensioner housing (1,452 units) is being transferred into a joint venture with The Selwyn Foundation, since the housing wasn’t eligible for government funding support if it stayed under direct council ownership.
- Christchurch City Council is doing something similar, and other councils may well follow suit.
I’ll focus on quantitative issues in this post series, mainly looking at numbers of homes. My approach treats every home as equal, but of course they’re all different. A standalone house in Pukekohe is different to an apartment in Tamaki. A recently refurbished state house is different to one which is still waiting its turn, damp and cold. Knocking down a three-bedroom house and replacing it with three one-bedroom units means more homes, but not more bedrooms.
Qualitative issues are also important: social housing is about people, not buildings. I won’t look at these issues, it’s not an area I know much about, but here are some of the questions that people may have:
- Where existing homes are being redeveloped (e.g. Tamaki), are existing residents being treated fairly?
- Are the people with the greatest need for housing able to be identified and housed?
- Should people with less need be provided with social housing, or given some other kind of support, or left to fend for themselves?
- How much is the tenant paying to live in social housing? Is that amount fair?
- Are people getting the other (non-housing) support they need?
Some of these are operational issues – part of Housing NZ’s job is to make sure they identify the people with the greatest housing need. Some of these issues are strategic ones for social housing, and often they’re political issues too.
Some of these issues reflect what we as a society feel is ‘right’, and of course our value judgments can change over time. The quote below shows the shift in focus for state housing over the years:
“Under Labour [in the 1930s-1940s] state houses were advocated as an alternative form of tenure for all New Zealanders, under National [in the 1950s] state housing became a residual provision for those locked out of homeownership”.
It’s probably safe to say that ever since the 1950s (and certainly today), state housing has aimed to provide for the more vulnerable people in society, rather than a broad cross-section of New Zealanders. However, the government continues to have a role in many other housing incentives: Accommodation Supplements, Kiwisaver withdrawals and HomeStart subsidies, Welcome Home Loans etc.