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Everyone Is Deserving

We have to look after everybody now, as pointed out by TV presenter Hayley Holt on ‘Breakfast’. During the COVID crisis we were encouraged to show kindness to each other, yet where is our kindness to beneficiaries now.

Recently we found houses overnight for the homeless and fed everyone who needed food. Welfare advocates at Hutt Valley Benefit Education Services Trust (BEST) are again seeing people with no roof over their heads or living in inadequate housing that risks their health and means they are short of food every week. As one beneficiary told us, he had to save some money for luxuries, “like bread, milk, and noodles”.

During our first week back in our welfare advocacy office in Silverstream, within the Wellington region, every encounter with beneficiaries was an encounter with deprivation due to inadequate income, food insecurity, inadequate housing or insecure housing. During COVID19 it was accepted that homelessness and hunger was a Health and Safety Issue.

The risk that beneficiaries not eligible for the new COVID Income Relief Payment will go hungry or become homeless remains unacceptably high. Dividing beneficiaries into deserving and non-deserving groups, where one group is offered more favourable treatment, is a poor solution.

In order to help beneficiaries find suitable accommodation and have sufficient income for other essential costs, particularly food, we urgently need to raise benefit payments, increase the abatement threshold for which beneficiaries can earn income without their income being reduced and provide housing solutions that meet individual’s needs.

The issue of homelessness needs urgent intention, not piecemeal initiatives that compound the stress, strain and trauma of housing insecurity. We need to face the reality that most beneficiaries receive an income that it is far too low to find affordable accommodation. Asking beneficiaries to find their own suitable accommodation in the private rental market is often unrealistic and cruel. It has the effect of transferring responsibility onto the people least capable of finding a solution. We desperately need to address the key financial barrier that prevents beneficiaries from accessing suitable housing.

For example, three out of four rental properties in the Upper Hutt District were charging a weekly rent as of 1 May 2020 of at least $354, according to Rental Bond Data supplied by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Even this modest rental amount, would be more than the Jobseeker main benefit for a single person 25 years or older of $250.74 net per week or most of the payment for a couple ($401.20 net per week). Top-up payments such as Accommodation Supplement are not enough to make rents affordable and are not available to all.

High accommodation costs relative to low incomes cause food insecurity and other forms of material hardship. The strain on beneficiaries’ modest incomes is highlighted by the high number of applications granted for hardship assistance (over 25,000), relative to the number of persons receiving the main benefit (30,240 persons) in the Wellington region between January and March 2020.

Food insecurity has increased to the point that many beneficiaries are dependent on regular food donations from charities. This has negative consequences for both beneficiaries and charities providing this service. Access to adequate food should be seen as a right, rather than a privilege.

We consider that the options with the greatest potential to address the crisis in housing affordability and associated problems of a lack of income to meet other essential living costs like food, are methods that bridge the gap between what beneficiaries can afford to pay (e.g. 25% of income as paid by Kāinga Ora – Homes and Communities tenants) and the cost of housing charged by landlords. This could be done through raising main benefits, increasing the Accommodation Supplement and greater use of the Income Related Rent scheme. The highly bureaucratic process for social landlords to become approved ‘Community Housing Providers’ eligible for the Income Related rent payments to top up low-income clients’ own contributions towards housing costs, is likely to seriously hinder the ability to rapidly increase the number of affordable properties to low-income tenants.

Other options such as ‘head-leasing’ (where government secures long-term rental agreements with landlords directly and acts as an accommodation broker to fill properties) and restrictions on rent rises also have promise.

The Hutt Valley Benefit Education Services Trust (known as BEST) was established in 2002 with the aim of assisting, supporting and empowering Hutt Valley beneficiaries and low-income people with benefit information and advocacy.

BEST Advocates can be reached Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between 10am and 3pm at hvbest@xtra.co.nz, landline (04) 529 8108 and mobile 0284 246 295.

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