Getting to the bottom of the nation’s housing problem – Lance Thomas

seller transfers key to the house in hands of buyer

Rev Lance Thomas has been minister at Rotorua District Presbyterian Church (RDPC) until his recent retirement. RDPC has a range of one, two and three bedroom homes and offers these at affordable rentals, including some that are made available to people who would struggle to get rental accommodation.

Would you write an opinion piece on the housing crisis for the Candour election series? That sounds like fun – forget the facts it’s only an opinion piece, I think. I am reminded of the great line from the movie “Inside Out”, where one of the workers on the train of thought in the brain confesses that they have mixed up the boxes containing facts and opinions: “Don’t worry,” says the supervisor. “That happens all the time.”

If you want the facts, the Church Leaders’ Statement on Housing (May 2017) is worth a read. You could also try the New Zealand Herald, which occasionally lets an article with genuine facts sneak through.

In my opinion we confuse the issues of rough sleepers and homelessness. One opinion in a recent news article claims that rough sleeping is, for many, a lifestyle choice. It’s pouring with rain as I write this. It’s cold and the wind is ripping through. If rough sleeping is a choice, I am not sure it’s a first choice. But, it is probably correct to say that rough sleeping is more complex than just a housing issue. However, three families living in a house designed for one family, people living in garages, mattresses on the floor, cold and damp accommodation – these things are housing issues.

Population or poverty problem?

We don’t have enough houses, which is a population problem, but more importantly we don’t have enough affordable houses, which is a poverty problem. Freeing up more land and building more houses may address part of the problem, bBut more land for medium priced housing won’t address the affordability challenge at the very large bottom end.

Philosophical problem?

In my opinion this is a philosophical issue. Those of us with a good deal of grey hair can just remember a group of people called civil servants. There was a lot of us baby boomers around then. But we all seemed to have homes, many of them provided by the civil service, often connected to our fathers’ jobs.

Civil servants got rebranded as public servants. Then, in time, government servants, which were followed by government departments and then government enterprises, many of whom now must return a financial dividend to the Government.

We now have the absurd situation were the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) is somehow responsible for solving this affordable housing problem. The starting challenge is affordable land. On the next floor up in the government hierarchy sits the Housing Corporation (now known as Housing New Zealand). The Housing Corporation has houses and land it can make available to MSD associated groups, but must consider their financial bottom line in allocating this housing. This means that the MSD must compete in the commercial market against all other interested parties. The civil or public interest is addressed only if the Government interests are served and protected first, at least until the next election.

Theological problem?

In my opinion this is also a theological issue. Who is the “we” that are responsible for this issue of affordable, quality housing? Is this the time each of us look toward which party has the best promises, or is it a time when questions about social need to be on each and every person’s agenda?

How can the Church help?

In my observation, the community is often willing to get behind the church if the church will take a lead. The Church has land, much of it not needed for its original purpose. Could we even consider taking a proactive positive lead in this issue? That might be risky. We might be parting with some of the security of our future for the opportunity to take a relevant lead today.

But then I remember that the Church is not in the risk-taking business. We don’t have housing hui, we have risk avoidance seminars. Leaders are asked to make lists of possible risks, there is no space for possible opportunities.

That’s a bit sad, but then that is only my opinion.

Blog Moderator’s note: Read more about parishes involved in social housing in the Spring edition of Spanz, including Wadestown Presbyterian and Rotorua District Presbyterian Church.

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