I chair the CEO and Sector Leaders Forum for Community Housing providers. I have had serious conversations with providers from across this country on how shallow the debate has been on housing. Bernard Hickey, of Newsroom, is promoting housing being lifted from shallow political debate, just like the Reserve Bank has been, and to identify it as an Infrastructure investment, and that it is so essential that it needs to be above politics.
I thought it would be useful to consider how we have got to some of the current dilemmas we are facing. I will start with health this week.
In 1990 I was on the Canterbury Area Health Board. As a Board we had been carefully assembled by the then Minister of Health, Helen Clark. Some of the Board were elected at large and 4 positions were appointed by the Minister. She had supplied us with Health Goals which were all important, and all measurable.
As part of this reforming Board we were led into supporting the concept of “de-institutionalisation” by the head of Secondary Care, Dr Les Ding. Les was an inspiring and compassionate psychiatrist. He cared deeply for the 1200 patients his team supported at Sunnyside Hospital.
We prepared carefully for the process of de-institutionalisation. The money not being spent in the hospital was budgeted to be spent on services in the community where the people, who had been in the institution, would be able to be supported to live as normal a life as was possible in their community of choice.
The process was adopted and then implemented. Sunnyside Hospital went from 1200 patients to 120. Community support structures were at the same time being planned and implemented.
Then, on the night of the Mother of all Budgets in 1991, I, and all the other members of the Area Health Board, received a knock on our front door. We had been sacked. Ruth Richardson knew how to do it better than to have us mere members of the public running the hospitals of NZ.
A number of projects, which I had personally been shepherding through at Board level, were shelved immediately, including an affordable GP service for the poor who were often blocking up emergency services. That was the first to go.
My profession, accountancy, saw the community support structures as unnecessary and the funding set aside for community support structures was seen as “savings” and these were abandoned. The community was expected to cope with these, often unwell, people. They have ever since.
Enter the Community Housing providers, Local Government, Community Agencies, Churches and people of well-being in our communities. I want to go back to a graph, which I have printed on an earlier occasion. It shows at the very time when community housing, desperately needed by this vulnerable group, should have had major investment of funding, instead it was removed. Not just by the National Party but also continued by the Labour Party.
Here’s the graph. Have a close look at it. Think about the housing which had been built by Local Government and Community agencies up until this time mostly through Government funding. Housing which nowadays needs to be replaced and still isn’t:
Local Government and the Community Housing providers have struggled since this time. The people they house are right across the community range. People who have been poor all their lives who deserve good housing as they age. People who have had low paid jobs and have never been able to own their own home. People whose lives are ravaged by drugs or alcohol. People who have their own demons and who families find hard to live with and manage. People who have had a scourge of unemployment which removed their confidence and they often have developed seriously difficult views of life which are hard to manage.
Those housed by the Community Housing sector and Local Government are a cocktail of all those I described in the last paragraph. This sector has struggled to cope with underinvestment by Central Government, by both political parties. Housing stock has deteriorated over the years and new stock has been slow to arrive due to the lack of capital.
The test of a decent society is how its most vulnerable citizens are treated.
I became involved with the Community Housing sector after I finished as Mayor. I am constantly inspired by the amazing people who work in the sector. They go way beyond the normal expectations of what work really is. They get hammered from every direction, by tenants, by members of the public, and especially by the media. Many tenants love their homes and they look after them. Many aren’t capable of this at all. The staff in the sector demonstrate what the love economy is all about.
One of our members of the CEO Forum for Community Housing providers leads the Haumaru Housing Trust which manages the Auckland City Council housing stock. We have been supporting this brilliant and caring woman, and her staff as they were mercilessly torn apart by the NZ Herald last year.
A woman had died in one of their units. She was not discovered for a number of days and the media went into overdrive to demonstrate what an insensitive lot were running this housing stock. This woman had been visited by one of the housing staff not long before she died. However, that wasn’t good enough. In the best click-bait manner, the Herald, in a spasm of moral indignation, dug into the issue to demonstrate what thoughtless, bad, people were running this unit.
The Mayor and Councillors then waded in and made things worse.
The issue is that the community housing sector has covered up the issue of a lack of love from Central Government for decades. I say lack of love deliberately. Many of the tenants in Community Housing are challenging. The housing stock is aging and there is little, if any, new money pouring in to repair and replace it. The sector is struggling. Good people manage it and they care deeply about the people to whom they supply a home. Each night 25,000 people put their heads on a pillow in a building supplied by the Community Housing sector.
The sector is cannon fodder for the media who are not asking the right question. That question is how did we get to this position and how can we get out of it. Bernard Hickey is absolutely correct. Community Housing is part of an infrastructure debate and we need to raise it above sectarian politics. The Government has started on the journey of rectification of the issue and all power to them.