Lack of affordable housing strains family budgets

There was a raft of support measures aimed primarily at families in the 2023 budget.

These included extending 20 hours of early childhood education to cover two-year-olds and expanding the eligibility criteria for childcare assistance, introducing free public transport for children under 13 and permanent half-price fares for under 25s, and introducing Kiwisaver contributions for paid parental leave.

But is this enough and is it what families, struggling with cost of living pressures, need?

Mahurangi Matters spoke to some of the area’s social service providers about what they see as some of the priorities going into this year’s election …

Women’s Centre Rodney

Women’s Centre Rodney manager Jo Nicholson says families are struggling with higher food prices and she would like to see more discussion around making healthy food cheaper and more accessible, particularly fruit and vegetables.

“Rental housing is another challenging area. It’s very difficult to find good rentals and housing stock hasn’t kept up with the population growth,” Nicholson says. “More affordable housing is needed. It is really difficult for vulnerable families to find good quality housing and remain in the area with their support network.

“Some housing is also hard to access if it is off the public transport routes.”

Nicholson says the rapid growth in the area – now and in the future – is stretching resources and things such as healthcare, education, transport and electricity costs need to be continually reviewed for accessibility and equity.

“The district has been perceived as a small affluent country town but is now a growing part of Auckland with a diverse community and ranging needs, often without the funded services to support those needs.

“We would hope any government keeps pace with our changing community and recognises that the answers lie within the community and give them a voice in defining services.

“Demand for our service seems to be steadily increasing and we are constantly adapting to meet the needs and to effectively allocate stretched resources. Families who have not previously experienced hardship are now struggling and having to reach out for the first time.”

Te Whai Community Trust

Mangawhai’s rapidly expanding population is bringing with it an increase in social problems, according to Te Whai Community Trust general manager Kiri Eriwata.

She says top of her election wish list would be a high school for the town, as well as increased funding for youth workers and counsellors.

“We have an interesting social ecosystem here, in that all the youth have to go out of town to go to school, so they don’t have a very good sense of place for them here,” she says.

“What’s desperately needed is a high school, but the Ministry of Education has said there’ll be nothing until other schools are full.

“Most of our youth go to Otamatea High School and three massively full bus-loads go every day, but we know they don’t feel a huge sense of place here or at school.

“There are not a lot of activities in Mangawhai if you don’t skate or surf; there are little pockets here and there, but we really need a good working group where the community gets together to organise a programme for youth activity.”

Eriwata says she’d like to see a community centre that includes a youth centre, with a youth coordinator and youth workers, to give young people a sense of place in the community and where they could co-design what they wanted.

Te Whai has put together a survey asking local youth what they would like to see for them in the town, which will be distributed in early September.

Eriwata says the trust is currently overwhelmed by the high demand for counselling, with only limited funds available throughout Kaipara.

“We haven’t been able to get government funding for youth work or counselling, but I’m hoping that when Stats NZ figures from the census come out, the government will be able to see how much of an explosion in population there has been here, and there’s more to come from Mangawhai Central.”

On the plus side, Te Whai Trust has recently received funding to become a Heartland Services site, a national programme to provide easier connection for rural communities and whanau to government departments, agencies and services.

Eriwata says this means that instead of having to get to Whangarei, people will be able to make appointments in Mangawhai, whether it’s to see IRD, WINZ or any other government department to tax and budgeting advice or help with filling out forms.

She says it’s a big thing for the trust, which is constantly having to look for new funding to cover an ever-increasing range of services now being requested.

“We’re trying not to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff,” she says. “But the population explosion is happening now and we are building the plane while we’re flying it.”

Homebuilders Family Support

The issues that Homebuilders Family Support would most like political candidates and parties to focus on, often interconnected, are the obvious ones – housing, education, the cost of living and climate change.

Affordable and healthy homes tops the list, says coordinator Quentin Jukes, adding that for many people approaching Homebuilders, whether they’re paying rent or a mortgage, “it just gets worse and worse”.

“People will pretty much always pay their accommodation costs first, so what gets cut back? Food, healthcare, clothing, activities for the kids – all stuff that really shouldn’t be cut.”

Every week the organisation deals with families needing emergency or transitional housing, yet there are no known plans in the coming years to build any new social housing between Albany and Whangārei, he says.

As a result, people in that position must often relocate to transitional housing in west or south Auckland, with all the disruption that entails for the family, including children who have to leave their schools, friends and sport teams. Jukes says it can be totally devastating.

“The only trend we’ve seen is things are getting worse, and no real solutions are being offered by decision-makers.”

Homebuilders has for years worked to push for more social housing in the area, and has met with senior people in both major parties when in government.

“I think both major parties are aware of the issues,” Quentin says. “I don’t think it’s about a lack of awareness. I think it’s about priorities, how things are framed up, how they see what matters in society.

“If housing is seen primarily as about an investment, that’s how it’s dealt with. If housing is seen primarily as ensuring that people have warm, healthy homes, it’s a different plan.”

Education is another pressing issue Homebuilders would like to see parties tackle, and Quentin says that with the surge in anxiety and depression levels in recent years, increasing funding for school counsellors would be a real start.

“Like so many structures, they are stretched. Identifying problems early, being able to respond early just gets harder and harder, and so the problems don’t get dealt with.”

Meanwhile there is no end in sight when it comes to the broader cost of living crisis.

“It’s not like people are giving us the message ‘just hang in there because in three months it will all come right’. If anything, things just look more bleak and dire.”

And on the “blunt reality of climate change”, Quentin says concerns relate to how we deal with the underlying issue but also to how we become more resilient as communities, and how that’s resourced.

Warkworth Christian Foodlink

Requests for assistance from the Warkworth Christian Foodlink have soared, and team members would like to see political parties taking active steps to address the deepening cost of living, housing and other interrelated crises.

Compared to an average of 10 food parcels distributed a week pre-covid, the weekly average is now 29, and 18 parcels a day is not unheard of, staff say.

The service distributed 147 parcels in June (serving 585 people) compared to 115 parcels (386 people) in June last year and 46 parcels (148 people) in June 2021.

Rosanna Ball, a counsellor with the Mahu Vision Community Trust, which manages the foodbank service, says housing – lack of affordability for first-home buyers, rising rents and lack of social housing – is one of the greatest needs.

“If the food bank wasn’t here, it would be a massive disaster.”

She and trust colleagues Arney Bingham and Moevasa Taboru offer other suggestions, including more support for schools to feed needy students, and changes to migration policies to make them easier to understand and navigate.

Adding a personal view, Rosanna also calls for an amnesty for overstayers, saying their children especially were being penalised by being denied schooling, setting them up for a life of failure.

With the number of clients growing, team members feel the pressure of juggling, says Moevasa.

Asked if the situation was approaching a crisis point, Rosanna agrees.

“For us we’re so busy doing the work we haven’t stopped to think how much it has worsened.”