Category Archives: Media

More on cold, damp housing

A lot has been written in the last few days about sub-standard housing in the wake of the deaths of Emma-Lita Bourne and Soesa Tovo. Today I’m just picking out a few of the more interesting things that have been said.

From Judith Collins, government minister, who has never, as far as I can tell, known what poverty is like:

I think the best place to start is in social housing. This area provides housing for the most vulnerable New Zealanders who realistically have the least choice of all when it comes to housing. If Parliament expects private landlords to improve their houses, surely Parliament and Government should lead by example, rather than by law.

Tell me, how many landlords are going to look at well-maintained social housing and go ‘look, they’re doing it all right and getting bugger in rent. How about we increase our standards and accept low rent too!’. They’re not going to do it. Leading by example only works when people have some motivation to follow you. There’s no motivation to spend money that can conceivably be held on to until the last possible moment, for no real reward other than ‘yay we did what the government does’ and possibly ‘yay our tenants are happy’ . . . or not, when you hike the rent to cover the cost of the renovations. Leading by example just isn’t going to work. There needs to be some incentive.

From one Against the Current blog, rather left-leaning I would say:

The answer cannot be just to wave our fists at Nick Smith but to campaign for the nationalisation of the power companies so they can be managed as social utilities providing affordable power to all. They should be brought back into public ownership, and run democratically in the interests of workers and consumers. Then, prices can be controlled, bills made affordable, and profits invested in cheaper, cleaner and safer energy supplies, rather than in shareholder dividends.

I don’t know if public ownership with the right solution, but the way it’s put here sounds pretty bloody tempting really. Running it as a social enterprise and knocking prices down to where people can actually afford to run their heaters sounds like a very good idea right now, as one in ten face a winter where they will not run their heater at all. It’s five degrees out there in Wellington right now. Ten percent of people out there, give or take, are shivering through it. It’s not good enough. Maybe public ownership is the answer, maybe some sort of regulation is better, I don’t know, but the price of power is just too high, and the current model is not working.

Finally, Pete George of YourNZ, a right-leaning blog that claims to be ‘Reason, Reasonable, Robust’, has this gem for us:

But no matter what the Government does they cannot ensure everyone heats their house adequately, or ventilates their house adequately, or keeps their carpets and beds relatively free of allergens, or budgets effectively, or the many other things that can contribute to a family’s well-being.

Can we stop blaming the victims of economics for their own deprivation? It’s not a matter of choosing to run your heat pump and dehumidifier, or vacuuming, or watching your pennies. If it were, then there are a whole lot of people who were a whole lot healthier! These people. Cannot. Afford. To. Run. A. Heater. I suppose that the government really can’t ensure that everyone runs their heater – because there are people who look at whatever heating is provided in their home and laugh bitterly, knowing that it will never be turned on. They live in damp areas where opening your windows every day will do precisely nothing for the damp, except maybe exchange your inside, slightly warmer damp, for outside, slightly colder damp.

Keeping their carpet and bedding ‘relatively free of allergens’ has got to be one of the more ridiculous things I’ve seen. Ho do you keep your carpets free from allergens? Well, you vacuum  with one of those HEPA thingies, right? That required owning a vacuum cleaner, and bags for it, and so on. Those that can afford such things use them at about the same rate as richer people, I would wager – some just don’t but many do. But vacuum cleaners are luxuries. And what about the bedding? You keep that allergen free by washing sheets often – which poor people do as much as they can, but getting the only set of sheets you own for the bed washed and dried in one day in winter is a challenge sometimes. A dryer is WAY out of the question, and a trip to the laundromat to dry them off can mean no milk for breakfast that week. Then there’s the blankets and duvets and so on – things which need dry-cleaning. Ha! That’s bloody expensive. It just doesn’t register as high on the needs list as food and rent and power.

And then, there’s ‘budgets effectively’. If I had a penny for every person that has blamed poor people’s budgeting for their poverty, I would start a programme of insulating homes, and get a good way through the crappier areas of Wellington without blinking. How do you get it through people’s heads that you cannot budget effectively without the first tool of budgeting – money. When your money runs out before the end of the list of essentials, you cannot budget for the less urgent things. You just don’t have the resources. You can ask any budgeting advisory service in the country what they see most, and they will tell you – people whose money runs out before their needs do, who don’t even get into their list of wants.

There has been some sensible dialogue around this issue, and some stuff that just makes me rant. I think there are some people that need a short sharp dose of reality around this.

Help is everywhere

Today an article came out about a coroner’s decision that was released during the week regarding the death of a fifteen-month-old girl named Emma-Lita Bourne. She died of a brain haemorrhage related to the pneumonia she had been suffering during the time leading up to her death. The coroner ruled that her death was partly due to the inaction of Housing New Zealand, the government agency that is responsible for the national social housing stocks. The house was cold and damp, and contributed to her illness, according to the coroner.

I then made the mistake of reading the comments on the article. Many of them were well-considered and thought out, but one stood out. It reads “this is pathetic journalism. Help is everywhere for those who need it.”

I call bullshit.

If there was help everywhere for those that need it, we would have no suffering in the country, yet that is blatantly untrue. Food banks would never have to turn people away, or if they did, there would be a service that took up the slack instantly. There would be no cold, damp, leaking housing stock, because anyone that found themselves in such a place would apply for help and it would be given. Is that our reality?

People who say things like that have no idea what poverty is like, or their experience of poverty is atypical to the point of being alien to your average poor person. The hopelessness and powerlessness of having no good choices, no lifelines, no avenues of escape are not in any way familiar to them, and they are pontificating from a place of comfort into a world they just don’t understand.

I find it shameful that there are people that misunderstand the reality of poverty in this country so thoroughly that they think such things. But then I think, how on earth would you educate such people. I think that if I had no experience of being broke (and I was never in desperate poverty, just student poverty) I would likely not understand what it was like. But then, I have education and empathy – maybe I would be less ridiculous than this creature.

The resources available to people in deep poverty are sparse and inadequate. Stating that help is everywhere is just straight bullshit, spouted from a place of privilege. A place where there is money to turn the heater on, and the roof doesn’t let the rain in. The world of the really poor just isn’t like that. It’s about being cold and hungry and never really having enough of anything.

A report put out by the Ministry of Social Development on Friday pointed out that 200,000 children are in situations like Emma-Lita’s. How many of them become so unwell they end up dying because of their living conditions? It’s shocking that such a thing happens in a country as wealthy as this, with a strong history of social support. What has happened to us that we have let our social safety net develop so many gaping holes?

We can do better by our people living in poverty. We can actually spend money that is allocated for Housing New Zealand maintenance on that maintenance (because our Housing Minister is proud to state that only 60% of the maintenance budget is currently being spent, and it has been like that for several years). We can raise benefit levels to a point where people can afford the power to heat their homes, or we can subsidise power. A heat pump is no good when you can’t afford to run it. We can pay people enough to put food on their tables, and we can feed the kids at school to take some of the strain off people’s budgets.

We can do better, but this current government will not, because they don’t understand grinding poverty. Even those that had to rely on social security to get by did so in an era when such things were properly funded, and you could live well enough on benefit dollars, in properly funded state houses that were relatively new. It’s not an experience at all parallel to the ruins of the welfare state we find ourselves in now.

Help isn’t everywhere. It’s hiding away, it’s hard to access, and it’s out of reach for many people. Middle and upper class New Zealand need to stop deluding themselves about this.

Should boys be wearing skirts?

This is the reaction of New Zealand designer (and all-round nasty individual) Denise L’Estrange-Corbet has to the idea of gender-neutral uniform options being considered by schools.

Yes, Denise. If a boy wants to wear a skirt then there should be absolutely no problem with him doing so, because gendering clothing is unnecessary and ridiculous. A boy should be allowed to wear a skirt or a dress any time they wish, just as a girl should be allowed to wear shorts or trousers, or a kilt for that matter. Non-gender-conforming people should have no troubles with what they are allowed to wear, leaving them only the problem of choosing which of the options available to them they wish to select.

People like Denise-of-the-overpunctuated-surname and their sneering attitude toward what is a big deal for the minority of students who dress in ways that don’t necessarily conform to the norms of their birth gender are an impediment to the progress of society. Gender non-conformists are people too, with the right to be treated well, and without prejudice. If we stop making a big deal over gender norms, and start looking at people as people rather than categories, there are many who would live a better life because of it.

Being different and special

Have you ever seen those encouraging little messages broadcast to society, the ones that say that some talent you have will get you ahead? Creativity, determination, willpower, thinking outside the box, all these things make you special, more employable, more successful.

I see those, and I think,”Well, I’m not really creative, nor more determined than your average person. I don’t really have great willpower (pass me the chocolate), and nothing about my thinking is special. I guess I’m just plain and normal.”

That makes me think, wait. Most people are just that – normal. Why are we pushing so hard for people to be unique special snowflakes of great importance all the time? It’s a bit insulting for anyone who recognises in themselves that they aren’t special snowflakes. They’re the normal that special is measured against.

I guess those ads are meant to appeal to the part of everyone that wants to affirm snowflakehood. The part that says ‘no, I’m not part of the crowd, I have these special qualities that most people don’t’. Reality is different, but it’s probably good for people to have that belief in themselves.

Is it a sign of my illness, then, that I don’t identify with these things? Maybe. I can identify myself as lucky, as having had many privileges over my life, but I’m not special. I’m just another person, one that a high-achiever like Nanogirl or Helen Clarke can be measured against and found special.

I’m ok with being plain and normal. I have skills and abilities, but I don’t have to be exceptional at them to be ok with what I am.

The grand flag-changing plan

New Zealand is beginning the process of consulting on changing our flag. It’s a controversial process, and the first part of the process asks which of the new flag proposals the nation prefers, before even considering whether we want the thing changed at all! Most left-leaning people are against the proposal, because they see it as a waste of time and money, and a distraction from serious political issues.

A waste of money, and oh, what a waste. $26 million to go through a process that is driven from a political figure considering his legacy. He’s wanting to be remembered not for his poor handling of the Christchurch rebuild, or his shady Sky City deal, or his failure to deliver the long-promised budget surplus, or even for the revelations of Dirty Politics or his habit of pulling girl’s hair, but for something important and symbolic like changing our flag and moving away from our colonial roots (perhaps). It’s a lot of money for what can uncharitably be called a political vanity project.

What could $26 million buy? Well, it could buy 3250 insulin pumps and supplies for them for a year. It could fund KidsCan, the biggest charity for children in poverty in NZ, for almost four years. It could keep the National Library curriculum topic support service available to school children for more than 66 years. It would keep the Wellington Rape Crisis Drop-in Centre open for almost 366 years. It could fund Lifeline for five and a half years.

This isn’t small change, and there are places it could go that would make a real difference to the lives of vulnerable people. Burning it on a flag referendum just feels so wasteful. It’s been allocated now, though, and there’s just nothing that anyone can do about it. All those things go begging, because of a vanity project. It’s galling.

The voice of privilege speaks on college and travel and debt

Today’s post is brought to you by a chef names Alton Brown, who I had never heard of until today. I understand he’s pretty good though, explaining things in everyday ways rather than throwing a French dictionary at his watchers. That kind of everyman approach is pretty cool. What’s not so cool are his remarks on college (university) and what people should do there.

What he says just reeks of privilege. All the while, he claims that he was completely broke in college, but then he says that every college student should travel abroad while studying. This may be possible for the privileged ones with money backing them, but for the less well-off, travel is just a dream. Just earning enough money to eat at the crappy job they work is too much of a struggle sometimes, never mind dropping several hundred on spring break in Mexico or several grand on a jaunt to Europe. It’s something every student should have the opportunity to do, but in reality it’s way out of reach for some.

A little later, he says the biggest piece of advice he can give college students is “don’t go into debt”, to drop out before they start incurring debt. This is perfectly reasonable . . . if you have money backing you. If you’re poor, what then? Don’t go to college? Don’t try and get a good job? I know that the American student loan business is a horrific sea of loan sharks, but for many people it’s the only possible way out of poverty, and even going to community college is going to incur some debt. A pronouncement like this can only come from someone who’s never experienced poverty, nor needed to climb out of it somehow.

Even if you’re awarded a scholarship, college can incur debt. You’ve still got to eat during that time, and buy textbooks if they’re not included, and pay rent, and all these things that require money beyond what you can earn part-time at Papa John’s. So a scholarship is not a magic bullet for poor people to get through college debt-free.

It is interesting to see how Brown sees himself as poor, given what he considers essential for a college kid’s refrigerator – eggs, butter, herbs, hummus, cheese, and wine. Cheese? Butter? Are you kidding? What about ramen and rice? That’s more like it when it comes to being actually poor.

This guy is probably a good guy, but he’s so out of touch with what poverty is and what it means for kids trying to pull themselves out of it. For so many good jobs, you need a degree. Any degree will do, a lot of the time, as long as you have proven that . . . well, whatever a degree proves. I’ve just completed one, and I have no idea. Still, it’s what you need for so much – corporate, government, even mid-range management requires one. Putting yourself through college, as opposed to having someone help you through, is expensive and requires sacrifices that he just doesn’t understand.

The needs of state housing applicants

Yesterday a wee article came up in the Boy of Plenty Times. It’s a smallish regional newspaper, and there were some big stories yesterday, so it just slipped under the radar a bit. It’s important, though. It talks about the issues facing applicants for social housing in Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty, and those issues are a big deal for those on the waiting list.

Many of the applicants are very vulnerable groups – single parents with multiple children, people with long-term health issues, homeless people – and the issue is bad enough that the government, amidst plans to sell off social housing, is looking to purchase 90 more houses in the area to accommodate people.

Those purchases are just plans for the next two to three years at this stage, and with winter looming the problem is more immediate than the government proposal will deal with. 139 applicants are on that list, and many of them are living in the homes of relatives or friends in overcrowded conditions, or in their cars, or on the streets. Winter means the risk of illness increases in these situations, and for many of these people illness is a crisis.

Single-parent families have enough to deal with without the problems that the illnesses that winter and overcrowding can bring. It’s worse, though, for people living on the Supported Living Payment. These people are have serious long-term illnesses, and getting sick can be catastrophic for them.

As the article says, the government needs to be thinking very seriously about the amount being paid to beneficiaries, so that they can afford to get into private rentals. Or it needs to provide adequate state housing so that those it pays so little to can live in a house rather than their car or a tent. That those are real situations that people find themselves in, rather than silly hypotheticals, is shameful in a country where we have enough resources to house everyone.

There also needs to be a willingness to make state housing work for the people that need it. The standard three-bedroom state house will not work for everyone, particularly those living alone and those with disabilities that need modifications to their homes to make them accessible. One-bedroom state houses should be more common where need dictates, and the government needs to be really responsive to the needs of people with various disabilities. A wheelchair fit-out isn’t cheap, but in a world where people can’t afford their own homes to modify, and getting an accessible private rental is near impossible, the state needs to step up and care for these people.

State housing is a disaster in the current political climate, where sell-offs are king. It creates an environment in which people with serious needs are failed with alarming regularity. We can do better.