How New Zealand's much-admired COVID-19 response supported a housing crisis

  16 April 2021    Read: 1935
How New Zealand

For many, life in New Zealand's capital Wellington is largely back to normal. Its windswept streets are crowded with maskless shoppers and office workers, bars are packed and the economy is humming along.

In the distinctive "Beehive" parliament building, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her government have garnered lavish global praise for controlling the COVID-19 pandemic where many other leaders failed.

But across town, staff at the Wellington City Mission are struggling to cope with soaring homelessness and inequality as the pandemic - and the government's response - inflames what was already among the world's least affordable housing markets.

"This is a crisis," says Murray Edridge, the head of the Anglican Church-affiliated charitable trust. "Inequality was always growing, but COVID-19 is the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back."

The number of people seeking emergency housing in the city of 211,000 has tripled in the last 12 months, as rents hit record highs and the pandemic disproportionately impacted lower earning jobs.

Around the country, motels and other temporary boarding facilities converted to emergency housing are increasingly crammed with desperate families seeking shelter, with about 4,000 children now in such state accommodation.

"Most of the cases that come to my desk are situations that will break our hearts," said City Mission's Edridge. "I met someone with two kids this summer who was in emergency housing for 15 months."

Karen Hocking, General Manager for Housing at the Ministry of Social Development acknowledged motels are not ideal housing, especially for children.

"Families facing homelessness are in a vulnerable position and we aim to find them accommodation quickly. After a family’s urgent need for accommodation has been taken care of, we look for more suitable options as they become available," Hocking said.

Others are struggling too. Shaun lost his job as a farm worker four months ago and moved to Wellington looking for a fresh start.

The 27-year-old is still unemployed and living on the streets due to unaffordable rents and long waits for emergency housing.

"It's all just about housing here. No one will employ me while I live on the streets, but I can't get a home," he said, asking Reuters not to use his last name.



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