Niki Provokes Debate About Right to State Housing

I have nothing but admiration for Niki Rauti. Have you heard of her? She's a slightly built 62-year-old woman with heart problems and arthritis who tells all comers that she doesn't want to move from her home of many years, that in fact she just wants to be left alone. Who can't sympathize at least in some measure with that?

However, Niki's home is in fact a state house on land the Tāmaki Regeneration Corporation wishes to redevelop. They claim they have offered her other places to live. She claims those places are unsuitable, for example because they are two-story, which is too hard because of her health problems, but the biggest sticking point seems to be that the TRC will only offer her a lease for one year. I also wonder if they antagonised her early in the process by serving an eviction notice.

Niki's plight has garnered her many supporters, with Stop Niki's Eviction becoming a rallying cry for a community being squeezed by gentrification. She's also found support from organizations like Auckland Peace Action and State Housing Action Network. So far she's managed to hold her ground and her case is working its way through the legal system.

Reaction to media coverage reveals people are strikingly polarised by Niki's case. Her defiant attitude at a time when beneficiaries are expected to be ashamed, meek, obliging, and above all, grateful, rubs many the wrong way. KoolKat, commenting on a stuff.co.nz article, opined, "State/Social housing is not meant to be a forever home, it's there to help people thru a rough period until they get back on their feet. They should only come with a max. 2 year lease, that way there is always a supply and it encourages people to better their situation." Others were far more vitriolic, and no doubt the Hui's coverage of Niki's case this Sunday will rouse additional people to uncharitable sentiment.

alt

Obviously some Kiwis aren't familiar with the grim history that provoked past governments to build state housing. In the 19th century, there were slums in our urban areas replete with overcrowding, polluted water, and inadequate waste and rubbish disposal. Now we seem to have gone full circle, with 1% of the population (that would be at least 44,000 people) actually homeless and many others also living in miserable conditions. It should be clear that the market is no more able to adequately provide for this basic need now than it was back then.

Yet we live in times when all are supposed to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, apparently in two years, regardless of systemic issues (for example replacement of manufacturing sector with lower-paid service sector jobs, automation, stagnant wages, and escalating living costs) beyond their control. Rather, failure to secure private housing is ascribed to individual character failings such as a mania for smashed avocado, cell phones, and Sky TV. Servicing a mortgage is the hallmark of the fully actualized adult. Renters and beneficiaries are second-class citizens. In government documents, only property owners live in "homes"; the rest have "houses" or "places".

But when exactly did we collectively decide that a state house couldn't be a home for life? As with asset sales, voters may have elected a National government but that does not mean they necessarily share its ideology. In fact, when surveyed, many Kiwis mention serious concerns about the housing crisis, homelessness, and poverty.

Still, commentators like Witchcraft voice a common argument: "If you don't OWN 'your' house it ain't your's, period. Therefore if the OWNER wants you out then guess what, your out. RENTING is NOT THE SAME as OWNERSHIP no matter how long you've lived there, why can't people understand that?"

My view is that the government, which we must remember is actually all of us, must strive to be a better landlord (and a better employer, for that matter) than the market. Is there a better use for our tax dollars than ensuring all of our fellow citizens have warm, safe, dry, and secure housing? The government--unlike Mom and Pop private landlords--doesn't die, divorce, or have kids returning from OE needing a place to live. There is no reason it cannot offer a home for life to anyone needing one.

Furthermore, our government is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 states: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." I hope Niki's advocates are raising that argument in court.

Does Niki have the right to remain in the exact same house until her death? Perhaps not. It's only reasonable for state housing to fit the size of the household, and her house has two bedrooms for just one person. But I cannot blame her for holding out for more security than a one year lease affords and I applaud her for serving as a lightning rod for a question worthy of debate.