Phil Twyford was forced to face up to the increasing waitlist for social housing this week. Thomas Coughlan reports.

The Government’s record on housing was called into question this week as Housing Minister Phil Twyford appeared before select committee to answer questions related to his departments’ Budget bids. 

The appearance came at an awkward time for the Minister as figures showed record numbers of households waiting for social housing. Twyford told the select committee there were 8108 households eligible and waiting for social housing with a further 8119 on the transfer list.

Twyford faced excoriating criticism from the Opposition that this was a result of a “pause” of tenancy reviews.

Prior to the pause, state housing tenants faced tenancy reviews to ensure they were still eligible for state housing. Twyford told the committee he didn’t want to see tenants moved on for earning just a dollar above the qualifying threshold. 

“The most beneficent thing public housing offers is security of tenure,” he said, while noting that he did not believe tenants should have a house for life. 

Exemptions to periodic tenancy reviews currently exist, but they are limited to people 75 and older, people whose house is modified for their needs such as wheelchair access; households working with a children’s team in the Ministry for Children Oranga Tamariki; and those with an agreed lifetime tenure with Housing New Zealand.

National’s Simon O’Connor asked Twyford whether the increase in households requiring state housing under his watch could be put down to the suspension of the tenancy reviews. 

“People are staying in houses that they shouldn’t be in or don’t need to be in,” O’Connor said. 

But Twyford said the effects of the pause were much smaller. 

“It’s tens of people if you extrapolated the previous rate of people exiting the system,” he said. 

A representative from Housing New Zealand said that exact figures on tenancy reviews were unavailable as the review was ongoing. 

National’s Housing Spokesperson Judith Collins also rounded on Twyford, accusing him of putting certain “anti-social” state housing tenants ahead of other households. Her office later put out a press release saying Twyford gave meth users “free rein in HNZ homes”.

“Housing Minister Phil Twyford and Housing NZ Chief Executive Andrew McKenzie this week confirmed that illegal drug users will be allowed to stay in social housing and their law-abiding neighbours won’t be able to do anything about it,” Collins said. 

“In fact, Mr McKenzie says law-abiding Housing NZ tenants could be the ones to be uprooted while their anti-social neighbours get to stay,” she said. 

Collins later used a question in the house to press Twyford on whether future KiwiBuild buyers occupying a house beside a Housing NZ tenant could be assured that the tenant would be evicted for any antisocial behaviour.

Twyford shot back that the Government would not engage in “vile demonising” of state housing tenants.

Terse exchanges

These are just some of a series of terse exchanges that punctuated a busy day in the housing portfolio. 

At one point, Gareth Hughes, the chair of the Social Services and Community select committee was forced to call the members to order.

“If we can stay civil, respectful, not interrupt we’re going to do the public a better service if we can hear what’s being said,” he said, though his call for calm did not last long.

Not many, if any

The committee then broached the thorny issue of how many houses the Minister had built during his tenure to date. This has been an issue of some conjecture given the lead time between planning, construction, and completion. 

Andrew McKenzie, CEO of Housing NZ told the committee that 600 had been built, with 1300 due to be completed by the end of the year. However, it was conceded that many of these had been started earlier.

Collins maintains that the only social houses built under this Government were those already begun by National. 

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