Monday, April 14, 2008

More on Housing

This week's Listener has a follow-up to a story on serious housing problems in South Auckland. The original article profiled the appalling living conditions in two Mangere boarding houses (see here for additional commentary on the first article on Capitalism Bad, Tree Pretty). In the new piece, writer David Fisher indicates that a woman he originally interviewed has been evicted from her room in Abiru Lodge, along with her baby. This apparently happened as a direct consequence of her speaking out. Fisher goes on to describe her success in being relocated by Housing New Zealand, which happened extremely quickly due to her "unusual circumstances", presumably Fisher's involvement in the situation. He called both the Monte Cecilia Housing Trust and Housing NZ to try and get action.

Fisher was prepared to help the woman move her things from the boarding house and try to find somewhere else to stay - even at personal risk, as he was shoved and asked to leave the premises by someone claiming to represent the boarding house's majority shareholder. His decision to help the people in his article is admirable. Media-makers are responsible for taking other people's stories and putting them in service of a more over-arching narrative. We, and any company we work for, stand to gain more from the telling of these stories than the people who share them. It's an ethical imperative to give back and actively work for the change we advocate in a story and a lot of the time this is easier said than done, but Fisher has taken the opportunity presented.

However I remain extremely ambivalent about Fisher’s choice of final comments. National housing spokesman Phil Heatley is quoted claiming that housing minister Maryan Street "is more interested in hiding the problem in an election year, and in protecting the corporation, than in facing up and dealing with the causes". He invokes the concept of a "growing underclass" that John Key has "been warning us about". I'm sure that Labour wishes housing wasn't a problem being raised in an election year. The unofficial referrals by Housing New Zealand to the boarding houses in Fisher’s article are not a good look. But there's no comparison available with how things were before Labour started their first term. And I’ve seen nothing so far presented by National to suggest they'd make the provision of services like emergency housing any easier for the most vulnerable to access. Their core principle of individual responsibility means that people like the woman in Fisher's article are likely to be treated like bludgers and left to their own devices. And the gap between rich and poor got wider under the last National government. I’m seriously under-convinced that they have the policy or the desire to turn the current situation around. A left-leaning government at least has the will to do so and now, with Fisher’s article, the incentive.

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