A split has emerged between Labour and the Greens over an emergency housing policy both parties supported at the beginning of the year

Social Welfare Minister Carmel Sepuloni has hit back at a Green Party U-turn over a rental charge for emergency housing tenants, criticising them for airing their criticisms in the media rather than with her directly.

However social housing advocates say a major change in the way emergency housing operates means the policy is more unfair than when it was first floated – and should be reconsidered.

Sepuloni has signalled the Government intends to bring in a 25 percent income-related rent charge for emergency housing (motels that people are housed in on a temporary basis until transitional or social housing places can be found) on October 19 – two days after the election. 

It would mean people in motels – who can legally be forced to leave with almost no notice because it is classed as ’emergency housing’ – would pay the same level of rent as people in social housing where tenants are fully covered by the Residential Tenancies Act.

The charge was announced in February, but its implementation was put on hold due to Covid-19.

Both the Greens and Labour supported it at the time, however Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson told Stuff her party now no longer supported it:

“In light of the recent level 3 period in Auckland, the plan to charge people for emergency accommodation should be deferred indefinitely, to avoid the risk that anyone is in inadequate accommodation in the event of another lockdown.”

A spokeswoman for Davidson told Newsroom the party initially supported the policy as part of a wider package to reduce homelessness. 

Sepuloni said the $300m homelessness plan to prevent homelessness – or make it “rare, brief and non-recurring” – went through Cabinet where it was supported by both NZ First and the Greens.

“I’ve only just heard of the Greens’ opposition to this policy through the media – there has been no other communication from the Greens to me or my office expressing concerns.

“This isn’t a punitive measure. It’s about fairness across the housing pipeline and ensuring that emergency housing is able to be accessed by those who need it.

“Our initial delay of implementing this policy was due to MSD’s inability to roll out this policy due to the urgent COVID-related initiatives that they were asked to implement, not because it wasn’t the fair thing to do.”

Unfair law change?

Tenants in social housing pay income related rents, but they’re also classified as tenants under the law.

Critics argue emergency housing doesn’t carry the same rights social housing does – a situation set in stone by a law change last month. 

The Residential Tenancies Amendment Act 2020 was criticised as being one of the most anti-landlord pieces of legislation ever passed, but one of its most-ignored provisions was that it also stripped people in emergency and transitional housing of tenancy rights. 

“The problem is you’re not in a permanent, stable place. You might be there a few days, or this week, and then you’re meant to move somewhere else. 

Community Housing Aotearoa CEO Scott Figenshow said under the previous law the status of emergency housing tenants was “murky”.

However, if people were kept in emergency housing for a long period of time the understanding was they could have eventually acquired the rights of tenants.

“If you ended up in the place [for a long period of time] you then became covered by the protections of the Act.”

When the law was changed in August the new act made it clear people in emergency and transitional housing would never acquire tenancy rights – no matter how long they were kept there.

“We’ve now taken a whole group of highly vulnerable people and actually confirmed that they’re not protected – even if they ended up staying there for a year,” Figenshow said.

He said the community housing sector previously supported income related rents for emergency housing tenants in an environment where people were being kept in emergency housing for shorter periods of time.

However wait times to get into more permanent social housing had worsened – thanks to a social housing waitlist which was longer than when the policy was first announced.

“Back in the early days, pre-Covid, we were supportive of this idea of charging people 25 percent of their income and agree with that statement that Ministers and the Ministry have put out that ‘well this is simply asking people to pay on the same basis as if they were in a permanent home’.

“The problem is you’re not in a permanent, stable place. You might be there a few days, or this week, and then you’re meant to move somewhere else.

“All those other things that should come with that place just don’t exist.”

Carmel Sepuloni says the Greens never came to her with their concerns. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Mangere East Family Services social worker Alastair Russell said it was unfair to charge emergency housing tenants the same level of rent people in Kāinga Ora social housing tenancies paid.

There were a lot of conditions people in emergency housing had no choice but to sign-up to.

A family who rented a house at an income-related rent from Kāinga Ora would have no restrictions on the amount of alcohol they could consume on their property or how many visitors they could have over.

However, a family placed in an emergency housing motel – because there were no Kāinga Ora properties available – wouldn’t be allowed to have any visitors and could be kicked out at almost no notice if they did.

“If you don’t have the same rights as a Housing New Zealand [Kāinga Ora] tenant who is paying an income-related rent then why are you paying the same rent as that person?” Russell said.

Not enough houses

Sepuloni also pushed back at claims there was not enough social housing being built. 

She said the Government had already announced plans to build 8,000 more public housing places by 2024 in this year’s Budget on top of 6400 homes it announced in its 2018 Budget.

Figenshow said the problem was those numbers just weren’t large enough and successive governments had simply under-built for the need that existed.

“In this most recent budget there was allocation for 8000 additional public housing places. At that time, our press release when the Budget came out was that was half of what was needed.

“So then go back…and the Budget announcement was for 6400 places over four years….go back into the National government where we had periods of time where there was no new allocation.

“For us, the fact that we have this rising register now and willingness to spend all this money on emergency and transitional housing now is directly related to the fact we didn’t spend it successively over the last decade.”

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