Staff at the Ministry for Social Development have seen their workloads double as more and more people register for social housing. 

Documents released under the OIA show MSD case managers’ workload has effectively doubled since September under increasing pressure to manage the needs of our most vulnerable.

A report given to Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni and Housing Minister Phil Twyford identified massive demand pressures at the agency, which led to 96 frontline case managers being retained beyond the time when their positions were due to be disestablished. 

MSD was due to axe 47 case managers and 49 emergency housing case managers when funding for their roles ended in June. This would have reduced the total number of case managers to just 50, down from 136 positions. 

But increased demand led to the funding for the 96 additional staff being rolled over in the 2018 Budget, which included $7.5 million in funding each year for the next four years for frontline housing staff. 

Housing in crisis

The current housing crisis has been felt acutely by New Zealand’s poorest. 

There are now 66,235 households in public housing across New Zealand, with nearly 10,000 more on the list.

While the number of people receiving a benefit has fallen in the last two years, the number receiving housing assistance has increased dramatically under both the previous National-led government and the current coalition Government. 

The briefing urged Ministers Twyford and Sepuloni to note the “increased pressures” faced by MSD’s social housing team. It told the ministers that the housing register had increased by 26 percent between December 2017 and April 2018.

The situation has continued to worsen. In April there were 9927 applications from a mixture of individuals and families for social housing. That increased to 9536 outstanding applications for social housing as of September.

The figures are even more alarming in historical context. The social housing register has nearly doubled in size over the time of the coalition from 5844 places in September 2017. 

Even that figure was a dramatic increase on the normal length of the wait list. In June 2015 there were just 3352 cases on the list, roughly a third as many as today. 

The Salvation Army’s Major Pam Waugh told Newsroom 90 percent of her organisation’s transitional housing was occupied. Last year the Salvation Army housed 2022 people. 

Funding struggles to keep pace with demand 

As the housing crisis deepened in 2016, the ministry went to the former government for two years of additional funding to deal with the spike in demand for emergency housing. 

At that point, the register stood at just 4602 applications. 

Then-Housing Minister Paula Bennett approved $10.4 million for frontline MSD staff dedicated to people on the register or needing housing. 

But the report to Twyford and Sepuloni noted MSD gravely underestimated demand.  

“Funding was sought for two years on the basis that the need for additional emergency housing resources would gradually reduce over time,” the briefing said.

“We now know that the original assumptions were incorrect,” it said. 

In fact, while the number of cases on the housing register doubled, the funding given to frontline staff has stayed the same.

In 2018, MSD bid for further funding, but was only partially successful, securing $7.5m in annual funding for frontline services. 

The OIA notes this is only enough funding to maintain the existing level of staffing, despite the number of people on the register more than doubling since the time the funding was initially allocated. 

No end in sight 

National claims the ballooning numbers on the register are a result of the Government pausing tenancy reviews on current public housing tenants.

Associate Housing spokesperson Simon O’Conner told Newsroom the ballooning housing register was a result or relaxing conditions on housing tenants.

“Housing Minister Phil Twyford has continued to relax the tenancy agreements for Housing New Zealand tenants, and he now has the highest waiting list for a state home ever,” O’Conner.

“The Minister also canned tenancy reviews which were a practical and effective solution that made sure tenants were in a home fit for purpose,” he said” 

Tenancy reviews could result in a tenant being moved on if they no longer qualified for their state house. 

But the Government rejects this. 

Housing Minister Phil Twyford told Newsroom that an average of 50 tenants a quarter would have been moved on as a result of tenancy reviews. 

“Reviewable tenancies were paused this year so our Government could ensure the most vulnerable state housing tenants did not have to go through this stressful process,” Twyford said. 

“This has had a negligible effect on the waiting list,” he said. 

Twyford also cautioned that the problem could get worse before it got better. 

“We have warned since the beginning of the year that the public housing waiting list will grow as more of the so-called ‘hidden homeless’ – those in overcrowded and substandard accommodation – come forward,” he said. 

But the housing crisis appears to be worsening at a greater pace than the Government’s ability to address it. 

The latest Public Housing Quarterly Report showed the public housing register increase by 10 percent over the September quarter, in spite of the Government finding places for 1660 individuals and households who were able to move off the register. 

The Government hopes to make some headway in the housing crisis through a massive state house building programme that plans to deliver 6400 houses built over the next four years, partly funded by a programme that allows Housing NZ to borrow $2.9 billion. 

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