New Zealand's housing problem 'human rights crisis of significant proportions' - United Nations expert

An expert from the United Nations has labelled New Zealand's housing situation a "human rights crisis of significant proportions" that the Government isn't doing enough to address.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to housing Leilani Farha has released a statement at the end of her visit to New Zealand saying a "more ambitious, innovative and courageous approach" is necessary to solving the housing problem.

She said the "human rights crisis" has impacted the most marginalised - including Maori, Pasifika, those from the LGBT community, immigrants, single parents and people with disabilities - the greatest. 

"When one in every hundred people is homeless, half of whom are under 25 years; when thousands are living in vehicles or house in motels provided by the State; when houses are in such disrepair that they cause otherwise preventable illness and disease; and when middle-income earners are finding it difficult to afford and access and rent home, the result is not just a housing crisis, it is a human rights crisis of significant proportions," she wrote. 

"These conditions indicate not only violations of the right to housing, but also the right to health, security and life."

Farha said at the root of the issue was a speculative housing market that had been supported by successive Governments. She said homeownership had been promoted as a form of investment. 

It was only recently that the provision of social housing restarted and more adequate tenant protection was introduced. However, the Government can still do more, Farha said, such as imposing a Capital Gains Tax which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has ruled out under her leadership. One was considered last year, but was ruled out after governing parties were unable to come to a consensus.

Rent freezes, innovative uses of rental homes and tighter regulation of short term rental platforms was also suggested by Farha.

"A human rights crisis demands a human rights response. The Government must recognise in national law that housing is a fundamental human right requiring legal protection.

"In my view, New Zealand must also adopt a comprehensive rights-based housing strategy that focuses on structural changes and that sets short and long term targets and establishes monitoring and accountability mechanisms." 

She welcomed the Waitangi Tribunal undertaking a housing inquiry, which she hopes is informed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That provides a right for indigenous people to be involved in housing programmes affecting them.

"It is time to bring human rights home so that all people in New Zealand can enjoy the right to housing."

How New Zealand responded

The Human Rights Commissioner said he welcomes Farha's findings and says it affirms what most New Zealanders already know.

"Much more needs to be done to address the housing crisis," Paul Hunt said in a statement.

"The crisis encompasses homeownership, market renting, state housing and homelessness, as well as the punishing impact of substandard housing, especially on those most at risk of vulnerability. These conditions indicate violations of the right to health, security and life as well as the right to housing."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the Government is working hard to solve the housing crisis, but it's not easy work.

"I do think housing is a basic human right, and we inherited a crisis we are working hard to reverse," she said on Friday.

"We are building more houses than any Government since the 1970s."

Her comments follow the floundering of Kiwibuild, a policy introduced in 2018 which promised to build 100,000 houses by 2028. 

In January 2019 Housing Minister Phil Twyford admitted the Government could only build 300 of the 1000 homes it promised by 1 July 2019.

In September the scheme was reset and all targets were abandoned.

Ardern says there is more work to be done.

"We have done everything from closing tax loopholes to banning overseas buyers to rebuilding our state housing stock and a number of other projects, but we have a lot to do."

She said if Simon Bridges became Prime Minister, the housing market would suffer. 

"The leader of the opposition would reverse all this taking us back to the crisis we inherited."