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Housing watchdog needed for accountability and overview - agencies

The Greys Ave state housing high rise
A housing watchdog could hold the government to account and provide a wide overview on problems facing the construction sector as well as public, private and social housing, agencies say. Photo: RNZ / Eva Corlett

Making housing a fundamental human right would help crack down on a range of factors contributing to the fact decent housing is not available to all in New Zealand, advocates and advisors say.

The Chief Human Rights Commissioner has called for the creation of a housing watchdog after releasing a final report from a two-year housing inquiry.

It found housing affordability had dropped significantly during the last three decades, many houses were not healthy or safe and there were major breaches of human rights in the emergency housing system.

Commissioner Paul Hunt said the government must uphold international commitments New Zealand had made on housing, should move to formally make access to decent housing a human right, and should use all resources available to alleviate the housing crisis.

Human Rights Commission housing inquiry manager Vee Blackwood told First Up the problems had been growing unchecked for too long, and meaningful changes must happen immediately to begin to address the growing and widespread problems.

"Housing for too long in this country has been treated as a commodity, not as a fundamental human right that allows people to live in dignity," Blackwood said.

"This is a housing and human rights crisis that has been the result of 30 or 40 years of government inaction - successive governments failing to act quickly enough. We know it won't be easy, it won't be a speedy turn around, it will take time but ... we need to commit to it now and we need to move with every resource that we've got to hand."

The inquiry found many homes, particularly rentals, risked making people sick.

In 2021 the government introduced Healthy Homes Standards, requiring rental homes to have adequate insulation and heating. Blackwood said that was a good start but there was not enough accountability to ensure the standards were actually met.

"The government's own review found that over half of rental properties are not complying with Healthy Homes standards.

"Without effective accountability in the housing system, that is just going to continue. That's why we are calling for independent accountability bodies - a watchdog ... to make sure that whatever's committed to is actually delivered."

"The best thing that they can do is recognise that housing is a human right and treat housing as a human right - and that means that all government housing policies, strategies, initiatives need to have the destination where everyone can enjoy a decent home as the end goal, and evaluating their strategies, their policies, to say: 'Is this actually going to achieve a decent home for everyone'?"

In December, the Human Rights Commission issued a damning report into emergency housing, saying it was often not clean, dry, safe and secure.

Families take what can with them to emergency housing in a motel at $190 per night
A family's belongings in an emergency housing facility. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

"We found that the emergency housing system is not fit for serving the needs of the people that it is intended to assist. Too many people are being put in emergency housing that does not meet basic decency standards," Blackwood said.

Both emergency and transitional housing were not covered by the Residential Tenancies Act protections and the emergency housing programme did not include accountability arrangements grounded in Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Blackwood said as well as the international human rights obligations New Zealand had signed up to, governments were also accountable to obligations set down in Te Tiriti.

"What a lot of advocates have told us is that what's good for Māori is good for everyone. So when we increase our capacity for for-Māori by-Māori initiatives in housing, that can actually have positive effects for everyone in the country."

A significant pinch point in housing availability was from constraints on the private construction sector and infrastructure issues, a youth homelessness social agency said.

The Manaaki Rangatahi Collective worked with the Human Rights Commission on the report. Its advisor Jackie Paul told Morning Report a wide view of both the problems and what was working, could help.

"There's a need for various types of solutions across the system, including public housing ... both government and the private sector have a role but historically haven't been able to deliver and meet the needs of our communities across Aotearoa," Paul said.

"[It's] really important for people to realise that Kāinga Ora or the government do not directly build public homes in a technical context - so a lot of the homes that are being built are out of the private sector - and there are various constraints around the construction industry and being able to produce at a fast pace, large scale."

A group of homeless people sheltering under the verandah of the earthquake-prone Richmond Cottage in New Plymouth.
Homeless young people in New Plymouth Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Some good work had already begun on supporting housing initiatives in Māori communities, to enable houses to be built on Māori whenua, she said.

An independent body created to hold the government to account on housing could create change in legislation, policy and the systems connected to the issue.

"The government and the private sector and Māori in collaboration need to figure out how to be more co-ordinated across the system to be able to work out how to work at a faster pace and larger scale" Paul said.

Providing better resources for the social agencies and services working at a community level was also an effective way to make change, she said.

A watchdog could monitor the government's work: "enabling mechanisms to hold the crown to account and enabling pathways for community to ensure that their voices are heard as well," Paul said. So "collectives like Manaaki Rangatahi can go directly to [it] - to address some of these issues that they're facing on the ground".