In the hierarchy of human needs, a place to live is right up there. A country as focused on the well-being of its residents as New Zealand should put a high priority on housing for everyone. So how’s it going in Hawke’s Bay in the current global economic downturn?

First, if you don’t have a house of your own, have little money and no accommodating friends or relatives, the common choice is to rent, either alone or with flatmates to make the rental more affordable. Or, you can  live in the back blocks, if you have lots of money for petrol. If you have a family, you might get help from the government, depending on your income and your assets. For example, a family of four with $30,000 income (a bit above the Hawke’s Bay median) and a $250/week rent might receive $92 in housing support plus $72 in childcare assistance, leaving them about $492 per week for all other expenses (see Housing Support box).

They can get by, but probably won’t be contributing to Kiwisaver. Nor will they come up with a down payment for their own home any time soon.

According to the Real Estate Institute, this August the median sell price for a home in Hawke’s Bay was $265,000. The price varies by location. For example, the median sell price in Napier City in August was $283,000 and in Hastings it was $249,000.  Based on the mid-September property listings, lower priced homes tend to be in city suburbs such as Flaxmere and Pirimai and in towns like Waipawa. Where do you work?

In the face of the current economic upheaval, it’s not surprising that home sales and prices have dropped. In August 2007, 258 homes were sold in Hawkes Bay. This August the number was 177 and the median sell price had dropped $10,000. Even with prices down, the prospect of owning a home becomes more remote as credit gets tighter.

What would happen to our family if they needed to find cheaper housing? They could apply to Housing New Zealand (HNZ) for assistance. HNZ owns or manages 3,097 housing units in Napier and Hastings, leasing them out based on availability and need.  People who can’t get or stay in housing they can afford are given priority, maybe at the top of a waiting list. At the end of October, with all available units occupied, there were still 14 applicants in Napier and Hastings with “severe and persistent housing needs” and 133 with “significant and persistent” needs. As well as renting its own units, HNZ helps people buy a home by offering home loans and ownership services.

What HNZ does not do is respond to emergencies. The agency is hampered by pre-approved budgets and the time it takes to build homes or buy properties. It has no emergency provisions. And there are no night shelters in the Bay.

In fact, the only emergency accommodations in Hawke’s Bay are women’s refuges. If you’re a guy, you’re out on the streets. Fortunately, the Bay’s climate is generally mild, so you can sleep outside or, if you have one, in your car, the popular option with itinerant seasonal workers. Yes, there are homeless people in the Bay; how many depends on your definition of “homeless.”

Kate  Amore, a registrar at Hawke’s Bay Hospital who is studying homelessness in New
Zealand for her PH.D. in  Public Health estimates that based on population, there could be 20,000 homeless people in New Zealand, maybe about 100 in Hawke’s Bay.

“Primary” homeless people are those sleeping rough in empty buildings, on beaches, under the Ngaruroro Bridge or the Surf Lifesaving building on Marine Parade. “Secondary” homeless are those homeless, often families, who have found refuge with family or friends, an increasingly common situation according to HNZ. “Tertiary” homeless live in boarding houses and similar facilities from which they can be evicted at will.

One definition describes as homeless those who do not have their own kitchen and bathroom, which would surprise the long-term residents of a place like Hinepare on Napier Hill. These definitions also encompass the people living in caravans and tents at local campgrounds and holiday parks.

Homeless people tend to be throwaway or runaway kids, women escaping dangerous domestic situations, people with mental illnesses, and a rare few who prefer life on the road. The break-up of relationships can leave people stranded.

“There are lots of pathways into homelessness,” says Kate Amore, “The core of it all is poverty and the lack of affordable housing.”

Again, it’s the unfortunate and the people at lower income levels who teeter on the brink – and there are indeed some serious gaps in the safety net.

Housing Support

You can figure out about how much you might receive by going to the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) – in person or on the Internet, if you have access to a computer. Here is the web address: http://www.workingforfamilies.govt.nz/calculator/

Using the MSD accommodation calculator, a Hawke’s Bay family with three or more dependent children, a weekly income before tax of $580 (half the Bay’s working-age people had an annual income of  $22,600 or less; our “test” family is earning $30,160), cash assets of $500 and a weekly rental of $250 might qualify for a government subsidy of $92 per week. They also might qualify for $3.51 per hour for each child under 14 years of age in approved childcare or even for 20 hours of free child care per week. If these parents both work and have two children in approved childcare 20 hours a week, they might receive $70.20 per week to subsidize their childcare. So their total financial assistance per week could be $162.20. Supposing they have found approved childcare for $3.51 per hour – is that likely? —  they will have $492.20 left after they pay their weekly rental to cover the costs of income taxes, food, petrol, utilities, possibly health care, car repairs and payments, clothing, etc.

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