Housing crisis: low-income left exposed

Garages, shared housing, tiny homes… the list of ways to afford housing in Aotearoa goes on.

Housing is one of the biggest issues facing whānau through the country today – with both cost and availability being a huge barrier for people.

Health is also an important consideration, with many renters reportedly getting sick because of the condition of their rental properties.

Nelson Budget Service financial mentor Lisa Dyer says there is not enough rental housing to meet demand in their region.

While there are social housing options available, this often means the close-knit environment and people living in scarcity means people may have items stolen or be exposed to relationship violence.

Single people, elderly and people with addictions and mental health issues often live-in unsuitable conditions because of the lack of available small, clean and dry homes with reasonable rents.

“Many people are struggling to find anywhere to rent, let alone it being both a suitable and an affordable place to live,” says Lisa.

“The low availability of housing has driven up the cost of rentals. For those that are able to get into a rental, there is often enormous financial pressure.

“The cost of housing is completely out of proportion with people’s income. Many of our clients are spending up to 80 percent of their weekly income on rent, leaving very little for other essential living costs.”

The government’s poverty indicators suggest to avoid poverty, people should not be spending more than 30 percent of their disposable income on rent. 

Lisa says low-income and larger whānau are at particular risk of not being able to find a suitable home, with many in transitional housing like as motel units.

This can cause significant stress and anxiety for people who do not have the certainty of a place to live.

“The high cost of housing is causing poverty for many whānau and individuals. Both globally and in Aotearoa, research shows the negative effect poverty has on people’s physical, mental and emotional health.

“Without having the security of somewhere to live, people are living in crisis mode,” she says.

While there are many factors at play, Lisa says there are some things we could do as a nation to make a change.

A significant amount of new houses needs to be built to help combat the supply and demand issue, and more investment can be made in state housing.

There could also be changes to legislation around rentals, land-banking, empty houses and investment in the housing market.

There is also a need to start looking at other types of housing and living concepts. For example, the three-bedroom home on a section is probably becoming outdated for some whānau.

Nelson City Council is also working locally to combat this issue with a proposal for medium rise apartments in the town – which the service says is encouraging to see.

“It is a complex issue, but I’m sure it is one that can be solved if it collectively becomes our top priority,” says Lisa.

“If we can agree nationally that this problem is an unacceptable situation, and be willing to make the sacrifices needed, we can fix the housing crisis.”

Renting system broken

Other organisations say the renting system is ‘broken’ on a national scale.

Renters United is an advocacy group that organises renters and campaigns to make renting in Aotearoa New Zealand better for everyone.

National membership secretary Geordie Rogers says decent housing is a basic human right and our broken renting system as a barrier to realising this right for all.

“More than a quarter of New Zealanders are in rental homes. While renting used to be a student right of passage for some it is now a way of life for many. Issues that someone might be able to live with for a few years now plague their lives,” he says.

“Damp houses lead to serious medical conditions, insecure tenures lead to children having to move schools multiple times in their childhoods, uncontrolled rental prices displace people from their communities.

“Having a warm, dry, affordable place to live is a human right. Improving housing, and improving renting, really will benefit everyone in Aotearoa.”

In 2017, the organisation worked with ActionStation to collect hundreds of renters’ stories as part of  The People’s Review of Renting. They key themes were:

  • quality of housing affects quality of life
  • limited options make people feel desperate
  • people are struggling to create a stable home
  • people feel powerless to challenge landlords

Since then, with exception to some minor changes made to the Residential Tenancies Act, Geordie says the situation has continued.

“We’ve seen with COVID-19 that a lot of renters also work in lower wage jobs, the ones on the frontline like our supermarket attendants, our nurses and our border security staff.”

They are also echoing the call to build more houses.

“In the current system the only way out of this problem in the long term is to build more houses,” he says.

“In the meantime, there are a range of practical steps that we can take to make renting better.

“We can change the system that we operate in, laws are meant to be modified and refined to match the climate they are enforced in.”

Manawatū Tenants’ Union is a community organisation advocating for tenants at the individual and social level based in the Manawatū.

Coordinator Ben Schmidt says the housing crisis in the region and nationally continues to worsen and urgent action is needed by the government.

“We are often contacted by tenants with a range of issues, from poor quality housing, facing termination of tenancies and evictions, excessive rent increases, and much more,” he says.

“Of particular concern is the number of rent increases we are seeing that are blatantly excessive and unaffordable; often of over $100 per week, but which are within market rent and therefore lawful.”

Ben says tenants are on low or fixed incomes so excessive and extortionate rent increases directly increase financial hardship and can force people into further insecure and inadequate housing.

“Tenants are among the most vulnerable in our society.”

He says Māori and Pasifika in particular are more likely to be renting, people in the rainbow community are more likely to have their tenancies ended, many disabled people are forced to live in inadequate housing, elderly renters are increasing, and across the board it is people on benefits or in casual, part time, and insecure work hit the hardest.

“At the end of the day, this needs legislative change to improve renters rights so that all people have a secure and affordable place to all home,” says Ben.

“To do this, we need people and organisations, like FinCap, to organise together towards change for renters. A key part of this is advocating with local MP’s and Ministers about what you are seeing, and what needs to be done.”

FinCap agrees with the advocates in this space and is looking to support their efforts where we have the capacity.

If you are you anyone you know is needs more support, you can contact Nelson Budget Service on 03 546 9021 or our MoneyTalks helpline team on 0800 123 345.