Social housing conundrum

Affordable housing has become something of a catch cry in the past few years as soaring house prices in Auckland, in particular, and Canterbury have meant pain for some first home buyers.

The Government has made attempts to increase supply but its hands have been tied through dealing with local authorities well versed in the art of red tape and regulation.

Private sector property investors have been left in dismay about the lack of progress in the opening up of new land for housing.

So it was of interest Prime Minister John Key yesterday used his first State of the Nation address this year to talk about the Government's social housing reform.

The main criticism has come from those not drilling into the detail of his comprehensive speech which outlined not only what the Government was planning to do, but what it already was doing.

Of note was the suggestion up to 2000 state houses, now referred to as social housing, would be sold off to providers of social housing. That could include community housing providers, some long established, who already own about 5000 houses.

Mr Key appointed three ministers with responsibilities for housing, including Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith who recently launched a major rethink of the Resource Management Act which is said to be responsible for much of New Zealand's elevated housing costs.

Finance Minister Bill English, one of the Government's ''dry'' MPs, is responsible for Housing New Zealand and will have no ideological problem in the selling off of the corporation's stock.

And Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett has made it clear she wants people to better themselves, and if that means people being regarded as no longer needing a state provided house, they will be out into the private sector rental market - albeit with some help from the taxpayer in rental or or other subsidies.

Mr Key has been very careful to avoid the mention of the private sector buying up state homes, referring to prospective buyers as social housing providers.

New Zealand is not alone in moving towards having non governmental organisations involved in social housing, alongside a government. Mr Key says it is a better way of doing things. Australia and the United Kingdom operate similar models.

The reshaping of social housing needs to be considered alongside measures already being undertaken by the Government.

Some of those measures have taken a while to show any results and the Government was fortunate people took a wider view of the economy at last year's election than concentrating on affordable housing.

Residential construction is increasing, with the number of building consents issued last year the highest since 2008. But costs for building are not declining because of a shortage of suitable land, something the Government is slowly addressing through special housing areas.

The HomeStart programme aims to have 90,000 people in their first home over the next five years. The Government also aims to increase funding for social housing subsidies from about 62,000 places now to about 65,000 places by 2017 18.

Mr Key does not have the luxury of time to put into place the social housing changes. He needs to be clear about who is buying the social housing, and if it is private sector providers, he should say so _ in plain English.

It is all very well talking about social housing being in the wrong place, the wrong configuration and the wrong size for today's families.

But unless families in need are found suitable accommodation, Opposition politicians will have ready made material available to call the Government to account.

Mr Key will be aware of this but no amount of pushing by the Prime Minister can make things happen quickly if regulations are in the way.

Changing the name of state housing to social housing will do nothing to appease the critics of any privatisation of what many see as a core government function _ providing a home to the needy.

There is inherently nothing wrong with private enterprise supplying social housing, as long as rules are followed. Mr Key has a tight timetable to implement the plan and ensure social housing does not turn into a social disaster.


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