We have proven to ourselves, and to the world, that we are very good at handling emergencies when we all pull together for a common cause. An example is our covid-19 response which has been one of the most effective in the world.
We also know that when we don’t pull together for the common good emergencies can become catastrophic for the most vulnerable in the community. We learned that in the mid-1980s when an economic downturn hit business and employment very hard. Jobs were lost, private enterprise was severely mauled and big corporates closed down to survival mode. Making matters worse were banks and other lending institutions who, instead of pulling their belts in a notch with everyone else and helping the nation weather the storm, charged in like starving hyenas on a wounded buffalo increasing interest rates almost weekly to unsurvivable levels.
We now have two new closely linked emergencies for many people simply because one section of the community is taking advantage of the situation to make obscene profits from the unavoidable hardship of others.
First we have a housing emergency which is not created solely by an actual shortage of houses but more by investors who own dozens of houses, keeping them off the affordable market. House prices have subsequently gone through the roof and landlords charge what they like for rents. A basic house in a provincial town can now attract rents of $750 a week or more.
Last year, as part of our covid-19 response a rent freeze was imposed but that was lifted in late September and rents around the country went up like a cork out of bottle.
Some rents have gone up by 40 per cent leaving tenants with insufficient funds for the basic necessities let alone saving for a house deposit. They can’t move to cheaper accommodation as there is none and they can’t afford to buy so the usual movement of renters into their own homes has stalled leaving even fewer houses on the rental or affordable markets. As a result there is now real poverty among families with two full time working parents. This is not a poor budgeting but a shortage of income over essential expenditure on rent.
What landlords are doing is not illegal. They are taking advantage of a largely unregulated market but it is close to being immoral with the nation in such dire straits. The emergency they are helping to create has led to a second and equally serious emergency for the families of children preparing for the 2021 school year. Towards the end of the 2020 school year teachers were already reporting students falling asleep in class as they had such little food and were exhausted. Some children were so embarrassed about being hungry or not having proper uniforms, shoes or stationery they are simply stayed away from school. Others are deprived of proper sleep living in overcrowded homes or are unable to keep uniforms clean as the family budget does not stretch to laundry powder often enough.
The problem has flowed onto teachers who are so dedicated to the students in their care that they are spending their own time and money providing the clothes and food for the children so they can teach them.
These are not exaggerations but the realities of life for a growing number of working families as discovered by Stuff journalists Kirtsy Lawrence, Dileepa Fonseka and Kate Newton. We haven’t seen what they found in this country since the tragic days of the 1930s in the Great Depression. We even have employers claiming, with a straight face, that they cannot afford to pay the minimum living wage without going broke. That same spurious argument was offered in the 1830s when William Wilberforce was battling slavery. It is a ridiculous now as it was then. Any business which relies for financial survival on an underpaid work force is not a viable enterprise.
Sadly those in the best position to address the problem of homelessness are either in denial about the issue or so removed from the reality of poverty that they have no concept of what it is like to go without.
In a country as wealthy as New Zealand, which produces enough food for an estimated 34 million people who don’t live here and has almost enough houses for everyone it is simply inexcusable to have hungry children homeless families caught in the rent trap.
It is simply wrong for any government to do so little to reign the brutality of unmitigated market forces with something as essential as housing. Having the political courage to that or something similar would be the difference between being part of the problem or part of the solution. Clearly the status quo is not an option.