Effective accountability needed to remedy housing failure

Effective accountability needed to remedy housing failure

December 19, 2021

By Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt

More and more people in New Zealand do not know where they will be sleeping. For those that do, it’s increasingly normal for their houses to be cold, damp, and unhealthy. They get sick. Their children get sick. 

They can’t move elsewhere because it’s too expensive. Their income is insecure and stagnant compared to the rising cost of their rent. They can’t save. They live week to week, dreading an unexpected bill. They don’t feel they can challenge their landlords.  

If they show up to an auction they watch bids climb hundreds of thousands above the rated value of the property. No bank will lend them that much. Minimum deposits are five times what they make in a year and rising. 

This is a human rights crisis. The United Nations (UN) agrees. New Zealanders are entitled to a decent home. Not a mansion, not even a free-standing house – just a warm, dry and safe place at a price that permits them a dignified life.  

Last week the Human Rights Commission published the first report in its Housing Inquiry. It concludes that successive governments have breached their legally binding international agreements.  

The Commission looked at what international peers – Canada, Scotland, Ireland, and England – are doing as well as our domestic policy settings and existing accountability mechanisms. 

Our review confirmed there are critical gaps in our country’s housing system. In Aotearoa, there are no effective and accessible accountability arrangements in relation to the right to a decent home. The closest we have is in Tenancy Services and the Tenancy Tribunal. Despite significant promise, data shows that about 80% of the cases taken to the Tribunal are brought by landlords, most often in relation to rent arrears and termination of tenancy.  

Enormous challenge of implementing housing policy  

The Commission commends the Government’s housing package, announced earlier this year, including the $3.8 billion Housing Acceleration Fund. We also warmly welcome recent policy announcements, including MAIHI Ka Ora and the Government Policy Statement on Housing and Urban Development. The enormous challenge is their effective implementation.  

These and other promising initiatives need to be supported and reinforced by effective accountability and participation in the housing system. 

When we say “effective”, we mean it. There must be formal arrangements to support housing policies, including an Act of Parliament, an independent accountability mechanism, a dedicated advisory and advocacy group, and reasonable standards that ensure all housing meets decent benchmarks.  

Above all, accountability for housing must be comprehensive and constructive. It’s not enough just to keep an eye on what’s happening. There must be independent review of whether New Zealand’s housing system measures up to minimum standards. Where it falls short local and central government must take remedial action. We also need formalised inputs from experts, reliable evidence, and public participation. 

Everyone is affected by the housing crisis 

The system under its current settings cannot go on. Everybody in Aotearoa is affected. Even if you personally have secure housing, you probably know someone who doesn’t: colleagues, friends, people in our community, and a whole generation of children. The divide is fuelling resentment along intergenerational and inter-cultural lines. Social cohesion depends upon decent housing for all. 

Among the most affected are Māori, many of whom face disproportionate exclusion from secure housing. This is too often a legacy of the seizure and purchase of land by the Crown during colonisation, described by the UN as a long shadow that hangs over Aotearoa, in breach of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. 

Frequently, the voices and concerns of the most vulnerable are the ones that go unheard, despite successive governments’ commitments made under specific human rights treaties: tangata whenua, children, disabled people, Pacific peoples, older people and ethnic communities.  

Right to a decent home is binding  

The Commission looked at 650 questions from a Select Committee to Kāinga Ora and the Ministry of Social Development. Not one made explicit mention of the human right to a decent home, a remarkable failure of our democratic process. Many people have no idea they have such a right. That must change. It is a binding human right grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi. It should be treated with the same gravity we attach to other human rights.  

We recognise that the Government is trying. To hold up our end the Commission will continue its work on housing through this Inquiry. We are using publicly available data to track progress (or lack) in housing, starting with affordability and moving to habitability, accessibility, security of tenure and cultural adequacy. 

New Zealanders need the knowledge and power to hold governments to account. The Commission’s first report states its recommendations for how to get there.