After the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church was destroyed in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, the parishioners had a choice. Their 1881 place of worship was gone, and they could either rebuild something that matched what they had lost, or they could build back better.

They chose better. Pastor Chris Chamberlain told the Community Housing Aotearoa conference his parishioners were “radical”. “As soon as we started to talk about housing they said, ‘we need to do this’.”

Twelve years on, all that remains of the original structure are the earthquake-battered front pillars, and an exquisite cloud of kauri filaments hewn from salvaged timber trusses, which have been lasered with the names of hundreds of parishioners.

Names lasered into the kauri pieces.  Photo: Rebecca Macfie

Build around a rectangular courtyard are a modern place of worship, a café, offices for a range of NGOs, and 11 rental apartments where, pre-quake, there was a car park. Seven of the apartments are homes to families who have come off the social housing waiting list, paying no more than 25 percent of their incomes in rent, with the landlord topped up by the government’s income-related rent subsidy. Two are rent-by-the-room places for students and young adults, and two are affordable rentals for families housed by the church.

Within the complex is the office of Visionwest, the community housing provider (colloquially known as a CHiP) that looks after the social housing tenancies on behalf of the church. Community development workers employed by the church and Visionwest live just across the road.

The final part of the development – the fourth side of the quadrangle – is still to come. Design hasn’t started yet, but the hope is to provide communal spaces and affordable rental apartments designed for elderly residents.

There are feijoa and apple trees, and a patch of bare ground where tenants will soon share a vegetable garden.

All up, the development has cost $15 million, a third of which was covered by insurance, $1 million from fundraising, and the rest by debt.

One of the social housing units at Oxford Tce. Photo: Rebecca Macfie

It’s a mixed community, designed from scratch, and is an exemplar of the kind of innovation of which the community housing sector is capable. But despite successes like Oxford Terrace, the CHiP sector is deeply frustrated at funding and policy settings that it says are holding it back from contributing much more to solving New Zealand’s housing catastrophe.

That sense of frustration was bluntly stated from the podium of the three-day community housing conference, held in the restored Christchurch Town Hall. “Despite the work that CHiPs are doing…we aren’t taken seriously as major actors,” said Jill Hawkey, executive director of the Christchurch Methodist Mission, which owns or leases 150 social housing units in the city, and has six more projects in the wings.

“There is so much more we could be doing. [Let’s] start by getting children out of motels. We know from the earthquakes that a child’s learning goes back six months every time they have to move schools. What would it take to provide security and stability for those tamariki to thrive?

“There needs to be genuine collaboration with local and central government, where we sit at the table together, analysing the current situation, looking at what’s coming toward us and how we can use our combined resources for the wellbeing of all.”

According to Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (MHUD) data, CHiPs have added almost twice as much capacity to the social housing stock as Kāinga Ora in the past six years, although the picture is nuanced. CHiPs contributed a net increase of 7,455 houses to the social housing pool between June 2017 and March this year, although only 1,941 of those were new builds, 4,566 were “re-directs” (existing houses made available for social housing) and 948 have been leased from Kāinga Ora (including 900 state houses in West Porirua leased to Ngati Toa).

While Kāinga Ora has been building more new state houses than in decades – 7,876 since 2017 – it has also demolished, sold or ended leases on 5,220. It has also purchased 1,836, bringing the net contribution of the state’s social housing provider to 4,463.

So the CHiP sector can legitimately claim that it has proved its ability to scale up and provide homes for the homeless and the poor. And yet, as Alison Cadman of Wellington’s Dwell Housing Trust told the conference, “ we are still talking about the role of the community housing sector…[and] what our role should be. We are doing it, and we need to be doing more of it.”

This month Dwell opened a 19-house development in Kilbirnie – a $14 million project delivered “on budget and on time and with a backdrop of Covid”, said Cadman. But she said a lack of long-term policy and funding stability has been a theme in Dwell’s 40 years as a provider of social housing.

“Each of our developments have been with a different government agency and a different funding scheme, and for an organisation like ours that takes enormous time and energy, and is incredibly inefficient.”

The latest Budget, which added funding for 3000 new social housing spaces, does nothing to address that need for long term planning. The primary mechanism by which CHiPs finance new social housing supply is to qualify for long-term (up to 25 years) income-related rent subsidy places from MHUD. This provides cashflow against which to raise bank finance, usually secured against land or other assets owned by the CHiP.

The Government’s social housing plan up to 2024 allowed for 6000 new places, but before this year’s Budget it’s understood virtually all of those had been allocated. Consequently, new projects were on hold.

The additional 3000 (which could be allocated to either CHiPs or Kāinga Ora) provides some relief out until mid-2025 – but no one knows what will happen after that, because there is no long-term plan.

And in the meantime, the housing catastrophe continues, and the level of need continues to dwarf the level of investment.

The social housing waiting list is sitting stubbornly at around 24,000 households (and there are grave doubts in the CHiP sector whether that figure is a true reflection of the need, given only those with imminent risk of homelessess get onto the list).

And then there is what CHA chief executive Paul Gilberd calls the “humanitarian crisis” of thousands of people living in motels for months, because there is nowhere else for them to go. While the total number of households in so-called “emergency” accommodation has dropped from 6,225 in November 2021 to 3,969 in April this year, stays have been getting longer, now averaging around six months. Included in those households are 3,393 children.

Even in Christchurch, which is deemed not to be a “hotspot” of housing need and where entire new suburbs are springing up on the city fringes, 321 families are living in motels.

Since September 2017, $1.3 billion has been funnelled into the pockets of motel proprietors to provide shelter for homeless families and individuals. But as Hawkey points out, the true cost is inestimable. Education is disrupted, kids are getting sick from living in cramped and inadequate rooms, there is nowhere for them to play, there is no stability from week to week, and family stress and uncertainty is acute.

Veteran housing researcher Ian Mitchell called for a “bipartisan recognition of the scale of the issue and potential solutions” – while in the very same breath conceding that “it won’t happen”.

Indeed, it seems more likely that the ChiP sector itself will become a political plaything in the run-up to the election. National’s housing spokesman Chris Bishop and social housing spokesman Tama Potaka told the conference they intended to focus on expanding the ChiPs. “We value the community housing providers,” said Bishop. “We know you are more nimble, more agile, and generally provide much better care for the people you look after than the government providers do. We want to see the community housing sector grow.”

Potaka said ChiPs should be “disproportionately favoured or funded” through the income-related rent subsidy. He accused Kāinga Ora of underperforming, and said the Labour government was “obsessed with expanding KO [Kainga Ora] at the expense of the community sector. The balance is wrong.”

Housing minister Megan Woods said National’s attacks on the efficiency of Kāinga Ora and talk of getting “out of the way” and letting the community sector provide social housing made her “afraid”.

“Between 2008 and 2017 there was a government intent on selling off state housing,” said Wood. “The National Party will tell you that this is okay because it doesn’t matter who owns the houses and they were sold to community providers.” In fact, she said, there were 1500 fewer social houses across both the state and community sector in 2017 than there had been at the start of the John Key government in 2008.

Although Woods has been frequently accused in private by CHiP leaders of a rigid belief that it is the state’s job to provide social housing, and of minimising the contribution of the community sector, she told the conference there was “no dichotomy” and that a “partnership” between state and community providers was needed.

The only speck of bipartisan consensus was in the use of words like “crisis” and “disaster” by Woods and Bishop to describe the housing situation, and acknowledgement from both that the roots go back decades. “Housing in New Zealand has been a public policy disaster for at least the last 30 years,” said Bishop, thus implicating his own party as well as Labour in the current emergency.

The evidence suggests they are right. As housing researcher Kay Saville-Smith told the conference, the housing system is “struggling to move on from a national experiment” administered in the early 1990s. That was when government support was removed for first home ownership (in the form of large-scale concessionary mortgage lending), which led to a collapse in the construction of modest bottom-quartile homes; and the provision of affordable housing for low-income households became a social welfare matter through the accommodation supplement.

Home ownership has steadily declined since, the amount of housing stock held by the private rental market has increased from 14 percent in 1986 to 27 percent in 2018, and the annual cost of the accommodation supplement has spiralled. Saville-Smith and Mitchell have worked out that despite the huge cost of the accommodation supplement, it makes very little impact on overall housing stress (defined as housing costs of more than 30 percent of income).

“For about $2 billion a year it took only about 13,000 households out of housing stress,” she said. “That’s a hell of a lot of money to be paying out for very little return.”

The changes initiated 30 years ago hit Māori particularly hard. Just as they were starting to close the gap in home ownership rates with Pākeha, state support for first time buyers was pulled away. Researcher Charles Waldegrave has analysed this in detail for the Waitangi Tribunal’s inquiry into Māori housing, finding that the state was providing 86 percent of Māori mortgages in the 1980s, fuelling strong growth in home ownership to reach 57.4 percent in 1991.

Since the withdrawal of state mortgage lending and the $2.4 billion privatisation of those loans, Māori home ownership rates fell by 25 percent between 1991 and 2013, and the gap between Māori and Pākeha rates widened. Pasifika home ownership rates were also hit hard. With home ownership diminishing, so too did the opportunity to build an asset base through housing, and the opportunity for housing security and stability.

It will be of little comfort to those crammed into motels or over-crowded houses, or spending years on the social housing waiting list, that Saville-Smith believes the crisis has passed the “tipping point”. “Don’t expect it to suddenly turn around,” she told the conference.

Pastor Chris Chamberlain of Oxford Terrace Baptist Church did have a suggestion for politicians contemplating the crisis, however.

“Politicians of the left – get reacquainted with your origins, which are radical. Be radical about this issue. Politicans of the right – find your heart. Go to Bryndwyr and stand on the footpath in front of the house John Key grew up in and ask why he got it and some others don’t get it.”

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