Short days, long nights, cold winds, rain – a good time to settle into a comfortable home with a hearty meal and a reliable heat source. But many of us can’t.

Cold, substandard homes and meagre incomes are common in Hawke’s Bay. This year, a cool summer and rainy harvest season translated to less work for many people who rely on seasonal employment. And a consumer price index outstripped by the individual rises in council rates, energy, housing, health and food adds to the problem.

“Fifty percent of our population in the Hastings district lives in the three highest deciles of deprivation,” says Andrew Reyngoud, pastor of the Flaxmere Baptist Church. “One of the major drivers of our economy is low-cost labour, but labourers at that level find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. The increase in GST has affected them and so have the decline in the economy and a poor harvest season. Many people have no discretionary income, so they might be trying to decide whether to pay the power bill or buy food.”

Anita Murrell of the Citizens Advisory Bureau (CAB) in Hastings says the CAB is getting one inquiry a fortnight from someone who specifically needs housing. “We have had entire families sleeping in their cars, which is very sad with small children. There are no identified emergency shelters – and we get more emergency housing requests in the colder months. If they have $20, we might be able to find them a place for the night.”

The CAB volunteers, who staff the free service around the clock, can tell callers where and when to find the soup kitchens conducted by a number of churches in the area. Among them is a soup kitchen in Napier run for the past decade by a handful of volunteers from the former Vineyard Church. They see 30 to 50 people one night a week. A couple of single mothers are regulars, but most of them are men, five or six of whom are known to live on the street. “A lot of them are really poor,” says Valerie Foster, “and now that it’s winter, they’re sick.”

Soup kitchens rely on donations of food from local businesses and financial support by the churches. “We can feed everyone every week for about $60,” Foster says.

The CAB can also refer people to food banks for emergency packages, generally limited to two a year and accompanied by a requirement that the recipients go to Budget Advice Services.

The need is growing

“There are definitely more people coming in,” says Greta Wham, coordinator for the Budget Advice Service in Hastings. “Since July 1st we have seen 700 new clients. Most are on benefits but we are seeing a noticeable new trend: people who have lost their jobs. Our clients are across the spectrum of society. They could manage their commitments while working, but not on a benefit.”

Sometimes a family gets into financial trouble when one earner loses a job but another is still working. They do not qualify for a benefit, but can no longer meet their commitments.

Many of the service’s clients have huge power bills, Wham says. “These are due basically to the cost of electricity. Another problem is having enough food. People use their food dollars to pay for other things because it’s the only element in their expenses that they can control.”

The Budget Advisory Service at the Napier Family Centre currently has about a thousand clients who, combined, have about $8 million in consumer debt and another $6 million in mortgage debt.

“Nearly half that debt is to banks, retail loan companies and credit cards,” says Roydon Day, CEO of the centre. “Another 40% is government debts: court fines, advances from the government for services such as car repairs, dental work and housing bonds. These advances have to be repaid.”

“People can’t afford to run a car so transport is an issue,” says Kath Curran, who works with the Family Centre. “Coming up with the money for registration and fitness warrants is difficult and petrol prices are higher. We have more people cycling in for services.”

Weekly Napier soup kitchen

The Family Centre is seeing more young people now, too. The numbers in the 18-25 years of age group are similar to the numbers in the 46-65 group. Two-thirds of the centre’s clients are female and 90% of their clients rent – and rents have increased significantly in recent years, Day says.

A review of housing needs in the region, conducted at the request of Te Taiwhenua O Heretaunga, indicates a growing reliance of Mãori on rental housing. The organisation unsuccessfully sought additions specifically targeted at increasing affordable housing in the Hastings District Council (HDC) draft Long Term Plan 2012-2022.

Alayna Watene of Te Taiwhenua points out that, based on the region’s median annual income and median house price, 72% of that income would go to servicing a mortgage. “We have a huge population of Joe Average that can’t afford housing. Council needs to acknowledge there’s a gap in affordable housing and include the issue in the city’s long-range plan.”

The availability of affordable, good quality homes of suitable size is of particular importance to the Bay’s growing Mãori and Pacific populations. Te Taiwhenua’s recent housing needs assessment projects that, by 2031, nearly 50% of children age 0-14 years will be Mãori.

Hastings Councillor Henare O’Keefe is tackling the housing issue through the Te Aranga Marae in Flaxmere, which has formed a new company with the goal of purchasing the 317 Housing New Zealand Corporation (HNZC) homes in the suburb. “We want to create a pathway that will enable people to purchase their own homes, “ O’Keefe says.

It hasn’t been easy. In mid-2011 Te Aranga Marae and HNZC discussed the purchase and HNZC says the homes were not for sale. Te Puni Kokiri (TPK, the Ministry for Mãori Development) stopped the marae’s funding, which hampered the marae’s ability to continue with the project. In March 2012 the marae was advised by the Ministry for Housing to wait for the Social Housing Unit to develop criteria for transfers/sales to non-government social housing providers. In April 2012, TPK approved funding for a nine-month project to enable the marae to develop their business case. In June 2012 HNZC advised the marae that HNZC was in due diligence with an unknown party that had been interested in purchasing Flaxmere’s HNZC homes for some time and, no, they didn’t mean Te Aranga Marae.

Housing NZ stuff up?

In the meantime, HNZC is in the throes of “transforming” itself to create a “fairer, more efficient and responsive service.” One of its intentions is to develop affordable housing through joint ventures with third parties such as social agencies, housing associations or iwi. (See Home and Housed: A Vision for Social Housing in New Zealand.) The Department of Building and Housing has been charged with developing affordable housing with third-party providers and the new Social Housing Unit “allocates funding and facilitates partnerships to increase the supply of social affordable housing” in NZ.

The HNZC policy changes will include moving people out of state housing and into other arrangements more quickly. HNZC has 3,123 properties in Hawke’s Bay and, as of this May, 122 applications on its waiting list. Of these, 11 are priority A, the highest, and 60 are priority B. The remainder trail after. This year’s statistics cannot be compared with last year’s because of changes in the eligibility criteria.

“Housing NZ has severely chopped their waiting list by changing the eligibility criteria so that only those with high and complex needs are now eligible for state housing,” says Napier Councilor Maxine Boag of the Napier South Ward, which includes Maraenui. “This is a huge change in policy and has left many people, who a year ago would have been eligible for state housing, forced into private rentals with no income-related rent.

“They have closed down offices and people have to make their approaches to HNZC through an 0800 number, which has caused huge delays and poses real difficulty for people with ‘high and complex needs,’ who may have difficulty in expressing themselves, particularly on the telephone, and for people for whom English is their second language,” Boag says. “We are in an economic downturn, and now is not the time to reduce social services and force people into homes they can’t afford. Combine poverty and overcrowding and you get TB, infectious diseases, family violence, truancy, crime.”

In the meantime, local agencies, churches and volunteers will continue to try to meet the growing need for help with advice, assistance negotiating government services, food banks and soup kitchens, and by offering low-cost or no-cost goods through op shops and donations. Unofficially, some of them occasionally provide emergency housing.

Says Pastor Reyngoud, “I have the distinct impression it’s going to be a long, cold winter and in a couple of months things will really start to bite.”

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