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Open home at empty houses

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by Ian Apperley
The Mana Newtown Housing Group held an “Open Home” today at 26 Strathmore Avenue, one of the apparently abandoned and empty State Houses in the Eastern Suburbs. It was a bid to highlight what they see as continued pressure by government on our most vulnerable.

The group held the open home to protest at the poor management and sale of State housing. It says that rather than taking a $186million dividend from Housing New Zealand and proposing to sell off job lots of State homes, the Government should be repairing and upgrading its housing stock to cope with the national housing crisis.

According to them, on last census night 13,000 people were homeless and 6000 were sleeping rough.

In Wellington City, despite the upgrade of Council housing, the total number of Council housing units has decreased. In addition, Housing New Zealand has sold or demolished at least two major blocks of units in the last three years.

Instead of trying to solve the housing crisis the Government is selling off its deteriorating housing stock like a bad landlord, says spokesperson Warwick Taylor.

Warwick Taylor is a tall, well-presented gentlemen leading the protest. He is playing the part of the real estate agent today and he thrusts a mock flyer into my hands. “LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION,” it reads “Highly sought after within reach of the Airport and the heart of the New Zealand film industry, employer of many people frequently requiring medium to long term accommodation.”

In allusion to the current government plans of selling off the management of State Houses to private organisations, the flyer goes on to say “Dear Mr Private Enterprise, charge any rent you like, WINZ will subsidise, so you can squeeze the tenant out of ever cent and thy dare not complain because there’s plenty more would be grateful for a bit of tin to keep the rain off. Never mind the people, here’s the Rock Star economy.”

Warwick looks at me through his glasses, “The only difference between you and people who need a state house is a brown envelope from your employer.”

We put calls into the Wellington City Council and Housing New Zealand the Friday before the protest. Councillors Paul Eagle, who is in charge of Social Housing, and Sarah Free, one of the Eastern Ward councillors, both showed up to support the group. They agree that Council housing is under pressure with earthquake strengthening, upgrades, and repairs sometimes meaning refurbishment means a smaller footprint.

Sarah Free moved from Kilbirnie into Strathmore with her family in the last month.

Housing New Zealand promised to call us back, but didn’t, instead they sent two security guards to look after the house. The guards look slightly embarrassed to be there and given it is their community as well, a certain irony lends itself to the situation.

“I think they were worried we were actually going to sell it” chuckled one of the protesters.

Across the road we are told (but have not been able to confirm) that Housing New Zealand is in the process of upgrading a similar series of apartments for tenants. Others are not so sure.

“They sold off another large block of apartments across from the school just up the road,” someone tells me, “to Scots College. No one knows how such a rich school managed to get their hands on it, but it is another eight less houses in the area.”

Housing came up as a key issue at Hui held at Scots College last week on Strathmore issues. Some of the locals who attended, while impressed that the Council and agencies had shown up, didn’t believe that much would come of it.

“Why did they hold it at Scots College?” asked one. “That’s the last place that people want to go when we have a community hall out here.”

“Not that it really matters” another said, joining the conversation, “we had a Hui two and half years ago and nothing has changed since the promises made then; last week was just the same issues being raised again and a lot of government workers slapping themselves on the back for setting up the event. There were more government people there than locals and no one was told until twenty four hours before when they decided to drop flyers.”

The Wellington City Council is in the process of upgrading its houses and apartments across the Peninsula. Miramar has been completed and Kilbirnie is underway. We know that Housing New Zealand worked with a local community provider to build eight new units. And units is where it is at. Gone are the days of housing that can take a decent size family.

The protesters are a gentle and friendly bunch. You can see that they care and you can see that they have done it hard in this Rock Star economy of ours. They tell me that rents have increased while conditions in state housing have taken a decline with poorly maintained, cold, and old housing.

They are worried that the Wellington City Council has forgotten the Eastern Suburbs and were pleased that two councillors had come to listen to their concerns. There is a concern that the council has become less socially focused and more focused on economic issues, which don’t appear to be delivering for the more vulnerable.

We asked Housing New Zealand for comment, we were not the only ones, and at the time of writing they have chosen not to get back to us. We wanted to hear their side of the story and understand what the strategy is for Eastern Suburbs housing.

Sadly the security guards didn’t know, offering me a shy “no comment”.