World News

As Housing Prices Soar, New Zealand Tackles a Surge in Homelessness

Posted June 22, 2018 7:01 p.m. EDT

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — New Zealand is known to many outsiders as a beautiful, affluent country, the place where the “Lord of the Rings” movies were made. But Joseph Takairangi and thousands of others know it better for the expensive housing that lies far out of their reach.

On a recent cool night in a misty rain, Takairangi and some of his friends were looking for somewhere to spend the night. They had decamped to a parking lot after being ejected from a stretch of takeaway food shops in Henderson, an Auckland suburb.

Soon, a speaker mounted on a wall above them crackled: “Move along, please, guys.”

New Zealand has the highest homelessness rate among the wealthy nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Yale University study found last year, though it noted that definitions of homelessness vary by country. Social workers here say the country’s homeless — 1 percent of the population, according to a comprehensive study from a New Zealand university — increasingly include people with jobs.

“We need a no-fuss system to get people into houses,” said Takairangi, 36. “There’s too much fuss.”

Along with those like Takairangi who sleep on the streets, New Zealand’s homeless include people living in cars, those in precarious or overcrowded living arrangements and families who are in short-term emergency shelter — often cramped motel rooms or trailer parks — while they wait for public housing to become available.

Housing Minister Phil Twyford said that since a “meltdown” in New Zealand’s housing market after the 2008 global financial crisis, prices in some parts of the country had doubled, rising well above where they had been before the crisis.

Auckland, the country’s largest city, consistently ranks among the 10 least affordable housing markets in Demographia International’s annual global survey, which measures house prices against income.

Homelessness is the worst symptom of “a highly dysfunctional housing market,” Twyford said. He said the housing affordability problem was the worst it had been since the Great Depression.

Shamubeel Eaqub, an Auckland-based housing economist with Sense Partners, a consultancy, said that for several decades New Zealand had not been building enough homes, and that it was now half a million units short of what its population of 4.5 million needs.

He said the government moved away from providing public housing after a sweeping shift toward free-market-based policies in the 1980s. Even after qualifying for it, thousands of people still must wait for public housing, sometimes for months or years.

“Those houses are in very short supply, and the poor and vulnerable people end up missing out,” Eaqub said. “When you’re the housing of last resort and you can’t accommodate them, where do they go?”

Twyford’s center-left Labour party, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, came to power in October in part on a promise of tackling homelessness and high-priced housing.

This month the government announced it would form a new Housing and Urban Development Ministry to help deliver on that promise. It has pledged to build more public and low-cost housing, create new emergency residences, care for the long-term homeless, cut red tape around land use, offer incentives for new building and give tenants more rights. Eaqub said those were the right promises to make, but that it remained to be seen whether any measures implemented would be urgent or ambitious enough to make a dent in the problem.

The main opposition party, the center-right National Party, says the government is overreaching and should do more to empower the private sector and nongovernmental organizations to step in.

In South Auckland, one of the country’s most deprived urban areas, one group is harnessing cultural values to address the problem.

In mid-2016, moved by reports that South Auckland families were living in their cars, Martha Ewe’s grandmother recruited her into efforts being made by local Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, to give them somewhere to stay.

Along with her family and others in the local Maori community, Ewe, then an assistant manager at a Subway sandwich shop, started to house, feed and clothe homeless people, funded by private donations.

Their effort is based at Te Puea Marae, a complex of traditional buildings that serves as an ancestral home for affiliated Maori people, as well as a community center used for funerals and public meetings.

Now in its third year, the operation in South Auckland has been recognized as a full-time provider of emergency housing for homeless families with children, and it gets government funding to care for its clients and help them find homes.

Ewe, known as Moko, now works as the marae’s housing coordinator. “We get things done on the ground,” she said. “If I have to work into midnight in order to get my families into a house, I will do that.”

One client, for whom Te Puea requested anonymity, arrived six weeks ago at the marae with her three children, including a newborn, after being evicted from her home and living in a motel for three weeks. Searching for a new home by bus with children in tow had proved fruitless, with prospective landlords telling her that her finances were inadequate.

After the family arrived at Te Puea, the staff placed them in one of the compound’s cabins, lined up public housing and helped the children’s father find a more lucrative job. When they left the marae this month, the cabin was already earmarked for a family on a waiting list who would move in within days.

“We do follow our tikanga, our culture and values, for how the marae is run,” Ewe said. “We have families that say, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I’d still be sitting in my motel room waiting for a miracle to happen.'”

On the other side of Auckland, in Henderson, homeless people applauded Te Puea’s work but said their own options seemed as limited as ever. Some said they had dealt with housing charities that promised help but didn’t deliver. Some were teenagers who had run away from foster care and were wary of seeking public assistance for fear of being sent back.

But the most common complaint was that a confusing government bureaucracy had brought no obvious results and discouraged them from pursuing more help. They said they sometimes waited weeks for appointments, and many did not know what assistance they were entitled to. With winter closing in, Takairangi was losing hope of finding housing and talked about looking for work instead. His last legitimate job did not pay enough, he said, so he quit to deal drugs 3 1/2 years ago. Takairangi said he became homeless when he stopped selling drugs.

“I want to get me a car, so I can live in that for a while,” he said.

People who work to provide emergency accommodation for homeless people said they stood little chance of finding stable public housing unless social workers advocated on their behalf.

Jan Rutledge, who runs De Paul House, an emergency shelter on Auckland’s North Shore, said her clients had to navigate two government agencies to secure a more permanent place.

“Being told they’re on the housing wait list gives them an assurance they shouldn’t be feeling,” she said. Some people who try to navigate the system on their own are eventually dropped from waiting lists. Rutledge said there had been more demand this winter for the 23 units at De Paul House than she had ever seen. The shelter, in a northern part of the city known for its wealth, houses about 100 people at a time, more than half of them children.

While many people living on the streets face a complex web of problems, including mental illness and drug use, Rutledge said that increasingly, the homeless families she dealt with had at least one parent who worked.

She welcomed the new government’s proposals to bolster public housing, but said her clients were still in for a rocky ride.

“It’s going to take a lot of time to rectify,” Rutledge said. “Two or three years, maybe longer.”