Unemployment, mental health and expensive housing: Report outlines the biggest issues Kiwis face ahead of the election

Existing problems such as a lack of affordable housing and unemployment have been magnified by the COVID-19 crisis, a new report has found.

And these are manifesting in an increased need for mental health support, the Salvation Army's latest State of Our Communities report found.

The charity has produced the annual report since 2017, each year focusing on three different locales - this time it was Rotorua, Johnsonville and Queenstown - Rotorua chosen for having a significant  Māori population, Johnsonville for being "small and diverse" and Queenstown as a "tourism mecca with a large migrant worker population".

Disease modellers have singled out  Māori as being particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, with poverty and overcrowding likely to exacerbate the risks of the disease. Queenstown has also struggled, with tourism hit by the border closure and Auckland's return to alert level 3 in August.

In Rotorua, low wages and a lack of employment opportunities emerged as the biggest problems locals face.

"Our business lost a lot of work," said one local. "We are still trying to come back from that. After such a long time off, our teenage son decided school wasn't for him and didn't return. Mentally it took a toll because we stressed so much about our business and children and we are still trying to come back from that."

In Queenstown it was the cost of housing - not surprising, since it's the most expensive market in the country. But as a tourism destination, it also has a lot of lower-paid workers.

"Often Queenstown is seen as there being no need, people thinking everyone is 'rich'," said one local.

"I fear that mental health in particular is going to be a huge issue as, apart from [The Salvation Army] there is very little accessible social assistance and support."

Queenstown is one of the most expensive places to rent too, usually averaging around $750 a week. That dropped to $650 by April this year, with some landlords cutting their tenants a break. By August, with the wage subsidy and other Government initiatives helping to ease the pain, that was back up to $700. 

Across all three communities, the biggest issues were incomes, housing and mental health. Solutions suggested included "revitalising shopping centres, diversifying economic activity and increasing investment in health and social support services". 

The expected rise in unemployment was kept at bay in the most recent update, actually falling to 4 percent - but fewer people were seeking work during the lockdown, artificially suppressing the figure. The next update in November will come after most approved wage subsidies have expired, and is expected to be much higher.