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Focus on housing squeeze, not refugees - Whanganui mayor


Robin Martin, Taranaki Whanganui reporter

A Whanganui migrant advocate has criticised an iwi leader for saying the city should house Māori before it takes on refugees - but others say he has a point about the city's housing crisis.

Whanganui was chosen as a refugee resettlement destination in February. About 30 refugees - or three to five families - are due to to arrive from April next year. Up to 110 refugees are expected every year thereafter.

Whanganui Tupoho iwi leader Ken Mair disrupted an Immigration New Zealand meeting in the city earlier this week.

Ken Mair

Ken Mair says iwi have not been properly consulted on the resettlement programme. Photo: RNZ / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

Mr Mair said iwi had not been properly consulted on the resettlement programme and local Māori who were suffering poor housing and ill health should be the district's first priority.

Multicultural Council of Rangitikei and Wanganui president Pushpa Prasad said Māori should work on helping themselves get out of poverty rather than worrying about a small number of refugees.

"We are chucking money in a leaky bucket or in a bottomless pit," she said. "Never mind how much you dump in there it still won't be enough unless people stand up by themselves and go and start fixing things for themselves or looking after themselves."

Ms Prasad, who moved to New Zealand from Fiji about 30 years ago and lives in Whanganui, said the city was putting in the work and would be prepared to accept refugees next year - housing crisis or not.

"I think they are ready. I don't see any reason why they shouldn't, they cannot be. You know housing shortages and all these issues are all over the country, everywhere. If we make a little bit of room for people who need support and help I don't think we are going to lose too much."

According to Real Estate Institute figures median house prices in Whanganui are at a record $295,000 - 25 percent higher than a year earlier.

Landlords Link managing director Tracey Onishenko said rents had shot up off the back of investor interest in the city.

"Rents have skyrocketed. I do think some of them are over the top for what you are getting. I mean the average three-bedroom home would be about ... $350 to $370 [a week] so that's a lot of money for a lot of people."

Ms Onishenko thought Mr Mair had a point.

"I think he does because at the end of the day we're going to be worried about the refugees coming here and if they are not going to have paid employment they're going to find it hard to live. Where are they going to live?

"There are people here that are employed, they're struggling and they're getting probably okay money and they're struggling to secure a house."

There are 529 state houses in Whanganui. According to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development in March 96 applicants were waiting on the housing register. In the same month it paid out about $9000 in emergency housing grants to 16 applicants.

Focus on housing squeeze, not refugees - mayor

Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall said the city's housing crisis needed to be addressed and refugees were not the cause.

Mr McDouall told Morning Report people were moving to the city from other parts of New Zealand and the houses they bought were often former rental properties, so there was a squeeze on rental accommodation.

"So now you're getting maybe our more vulnerable population struggling, certainly our younger people struggling, to find accommodation.

"What Ken [Mair] is saying is absolutely valid. There is a real problem here, and part of the cause is under investment in housing by the previous government," he said.

"We've got a housing issue right now" - Mayor Hamish McDouall duration 4:50
from Morning Report

Click a link to play audio (or right-click to download) in either
MP3 format or in OGG format.

"We've got a housing issue right now ... and not a single refugee has arrived. We're not anticipating to get even a small number until next year."

Wanganui Budget Advisory Service manager Sandy Fage said there was no doubt the city was in the midst of a housing crisis.

"We have clients that are living in sheds, garages, a couple living in a truck and we've got numerous clients who have been told they're on the Housing New Zealand waiting list so they've actually gone through the process and met the criteria but they are still stuck on the waiting list."

Ms Fage said a lot of her clients were working and it was not unusual for them to be paying 85 percent of their incomes in rent.

She could also see where Mr Mair was coming from.

"Adding pressure to a pressure point is probably not a good thing, but I believe in a diverse community so, you know, it's a bit of a tricky situation to actually say what's the right thing to do."

Whanganui District councillor Philippa Baker-Hogan has questioned whether Whanganui was ready to host refugees.

"I'm clear that our priority and I believe council's priority is dealing with what really is our own housing crisis."

Ms Baker-Hogan said the council had been finalising its housing strategy this week.

She said it had a glaring omission.

"The truth is that there have been no actual iwi submissions to this housing strategy and yet we know that a lot of the issues around the housing crisis affect Māori people.

"I believe and I pointed out that council really needs to engage at a partnership level with iwi. Iwi in my view should not have to submit to our strategies necessarily. Our discussions with them need to be at a real relationship, partnership level."

Ms Baker-Hogan said councillors passed a resolution on Tuesday to seek out iwi input on the strategy.

But Mr McDoull said Māori were heavily involved in "pre-engagement" on the housing strategy - the stage before the draft policy is released.


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