OPINION:

For some younger New Zealanders, all they’ll ever associate with housing in this country is “crisis”.

Just as it’s going to take years to legislate and build our way out of the current situation, it took a while to get here.

Commentators often point to a 2007 speech made by then Opposition leader John Key publicly acknowledging a “housing affordability crisis”.Unfortunately, his subsequent Governmentwent on to deny its existence for years to come.

Since then, it’s been a rather hopeless run of navigating options that barely touch the drivers of the housing and accommodation shortage. Now, at least, we’re all on the same page – including on emergency housing.

The current approach of using motels and boarding hostels for individuals and families waiting for more permanent housing options seems to have near-unanimous agreement that it simply isn’t working. For months, those in emergency housing, moteliers themselves and social service providers have highlighted poor and dysfunctional living conditions. Tied to this is cost – emergency and transitional housing bills amount to about $1 million a day for the Government.

More recently, the opening of the transtasman bubble has prompted fresh discussions on the wider impacts of the current setup. In Rotorua, which has seen an influx of people in emergency housing staying in motels in the past year, questions inevitably lead back to what can practically be done to manage current needs. Further, now New Zealand is anticipating a more regular tourist market, how do we make room for that demand and emergency housing needs? Those questions also sit alongside concerns from some locals of the long-term impacts of using motels as emergency housing. Many believe incidents of crime in the area are linked to the use of Rotorua motels as emergency housing, however this has been rejected by authorities – which say it’s a “perception” rather than reality.

Overall, it’s a conversation which reflects the difficulties of attempting to manage a problem which crosses the realms of welfare, housing, employment, poverty – and years of bad planning and poor investment in these areas. Certainly, everyone involved, including those pushing for targeted crime statistics in emergency housing motel areas, has stated repeatedly people in emergency housing need help and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

Moteliers, some of whom admit they are simply not equipped to provide appropriate support in some emergency housing situations, also seem torn as to what the right way forward is. Without business from MSD during Covid, many may not have stayed afloat. Stories of those in emergency housing also show how complex the problem is. A woman identified as Teresa staying at Oakwood Manor motel lodge in Auckland spoke to TVNZ about her living situation last month. Prior to the interview, a camera showed the condition of one of the Oakwood Manor rooms, which cost about $1700 per week. It was cramped, had minimal kitchen facilities and a blocked toilet that overflowed when the bathroom in the next room was used.

Teresa’s assessment of her situation: “I have lived here for two months … and before that I was living on the street.” When asked about the $1700 weekly cost and state of facilities, her answer demonstrated why even substandard motels are considered viable accommodation options.

“I felt like I was blessed and I’m grateful and I’m happy and I’m no longer on the street, and I can clean my body.”

The sentiment is emblematic of the wider cycle of emergency housing/motel dependency we’re stuck in. Absolutely – top priority should be given to securing basic accommodation for those like Teresa. Also relevant is the fact that motels currently have that space in a housing market which isn’t offering a lot to anyone that’s not a homeowner. Not to mention, the secure income motels get via emergency housing arrangements.

It’s why the Government must step up and fix its own broken system. It’s been a year of increasing dependency on motels and boarding hostels, and even basic temporary checks like contracts with motel owners requiring maintenance of facilities are missing. A hard reality check around the short-, medium- and long-term options for emergency housing is needed. Critical to that must be an assessment of what the Government needs to do to ensure those options result in safe, clean and dignified accommodation spaces. At the very least, it should turn up whether its current $1m daily expenditure in the area is good value for money.

I suspect, with minimal computation, it’ll show otherwise.

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