The “housing continuum” has become an important idea in NZ policy. Here’s the image used by Auckland Council in their Auckland Plan 2050, and Community Housing Aotearoa has written a good summary of what it all means:
Emergency housing: The only short-term housing category, defined as stays of up to 12 weeks but often intended to be much shorter than that. Emergency housing is for people who (quoting C.H.A.) “have nowhere else to stay or are unable to remain in their usual place of residence”, e.g. those who were formerly homeless, or who are escaping domestic violence. There can also be a need for short-term housing after events like natural disasters: the government set up three temporary housing villages after the Christchurch earthquakes. There are more than 2,000 emergency housing places.
Social housing: in NZ, this is mainly provided by the government through Kāinga Ora (formerly Housing New Zealand). There are also a number of Community Housing Providers such as the Salvation Army, who are part-funded by the government to provide social housing. There are more than 80,000 social homes.
Assisted rental: rents which are set at below-market levels or are subsidised by the government’s Accommodation Supplement. This supplement is paid to more than 290,000 people across New Zealand although researchers like the Child Poverty Action Group argue that it is badly designed, fails to meet its intended goals and needs a major overhaul. I suspect most economists would agree with this, and Treasury says it’s “not fit for purpose”. Still, it’s estimated that 25-30% of renting households receive the supplement, or around 150,000 in total.
Assisted ownership: support for people to buy a home. This is often targeted based on household income or other criteria, and subsidies could include rent to buy, affordable equity and shared ownership – none of which are widely used in NZ, although organisations like NZ Housing Foundation do exist: they’ve supported more than 800 families to become homeowners in the last 20 years.
Private rental: there are over 570,000 renting households according to Stats NZ estimates, the majority of which (400,000+) don’t receive any Accommodation Supplement.
Private ownership: there are over 1.15 million households who own their own home, 64% of all households in NZ.
So that’s a quick summary of the housing continuum as it’s understood in New Zealand. Some categories are much bigger than others and some are tiny (emergency housing, assisted ownership). The numbers in each category could be changed by the whims of government policy – e.g. they could change the Accommodation Supplement criteria, launch an assisted ownership scheme or sell off state homes – but there’s an underlying idea that some people or households need greater housing support, some might need only a little, and some don’t need any. The support is largely coming from government, whether they’re directly providing the housing or funding others to do it, and this effectively forms part of our welfare system.*
There are different versions of the continuum overseas; I like this one from the US which puts private rentals and ownership on the same level; renting should be as good an option as owning your home, even if we haven’t had it that way in New Zealand.
Different countries may decide on different support structures, or differing levels of involvement. Our 80,000-odd social homes might sound like a lot, but relative to our population it’s less than we had in the 1990s – is that a good or a bad thing? And for a completely different scale, in Sweden 15% of people live in state-owned housing.
As we’ve seen from the numbers above, “assisted ownership” is not big in NZ, but there’s broad support from the community housing sector for it to be expanded. The “Kiwibuy” website was set up by Community Housing Aotearoa, the Housing Foundation (as mentioned above, they’re the biggest organisation in this space), Habitat for Humanity (also involved) and Salvation Army. And a post I wrote in 2018 quoted from the head of Monte Cecilia Housing Trust that “KiwiBuild is great for middle class New Zealanders with higher household incomes [but] we are missing the middle part of the housing continuum – affordable rentals and affordable home shared-equity ownership packages”.
The ‘housing continuum’ is just one framework for looking at housing issues, and despite wide adoption in NZ it does need critical review too. One challenge came from the Kāinga Strategic Action Plan programme (developed by Māori; more on that in another post), which put things in more binary terms between housing which is safe, secure and empowering, and that which is not:
The left hand side meets the NZ definition of ‘homelessness’, whereas the right hand side provides safe and secure experiences. A large number of NZ households fall in between; this model is an intentional challenge to the continuum that implies an easy progression and gradations between levels. “The gap in the middle is intentional and represents – in Auckland – both an income and opportunity gap between those in safe and secure housing and those not”.
They also argue that “the linear progression presented in the use of arrows in other models is an inherent part of the financial continuum model and adds an unrealistic and insensitive compulsion to ‘move along the line’ which leads to financial nirvana… [the continuum is] laden with tenure and this leads to stratification based on wealth or income, which is unreasonable and fails to reflect or promote the true social function of housing”.
Perhaps the key critique of the housing continuum is that it’s a very top-down view, for a government (or councils, or community housing providers) who are trying to understand where to allocate support. It’s useful for that, but doesn’t give much understanding of the needs and wants of the people, families and communities being supported. We might not all want to ‘climb the housing ladder’ or even buy our first home, but we all want a safe and secure place to live.
* The word “welfare” shouldn’t carry any stigma in 2020: we all end up on NZ Superannuation at some point and most of us receive benefits at other times in our lives, including the unprecedented situation recently where most workers (indirectly) received the Covid wage subsidy.