Aaron Hendry on poverty as a political decision

Aaron Hendry on poverty as a political decision

by Charli Cox

Having worked in youth and emergency housing spaces, Aaron Hendry’s writing is featured by local media across various interrelated subject matter. Here we discuss housing, poverty, and policy — and why regulation is required to see food and housing remain accessible to all of us.

The United Nations declared the housing crisis a breach of human rights in 2021, and you’ve seen the realities of it. Motels for emergency accommodation began in 2016. It was meant to be a temporary fix to the 1990s depletion of public housing stock. What measures do you think the government could take to address the housing crisis?

I don’t believe emergency housing, as it stands currently, is a solution that prevents homelessness. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is that our current system sustains homelessness, often leaving really structurally marginalized people vulnerable and causing greater harm to our people. Essentially, we have privatized a service that should be funded by the Government, delivered by the community, and factored in as a key part of our housing continuum for those who are at risk of experiencing homelessness. I’d like to see the Government fund an Immediate Accommodation model, one that is equipped with wrap-around, 24/7 support, and a therapeutic, safe environment where people can get the support they need to progress on their journey.

In terms of the housing crisis in general, we have a need for far more housing. greater rental regulations and protections for renters. However, we also need to understand that homelessness is not solely the result of a lack of houses. Specifically for our young people, homelessness can be a result of a range of systemic and societal failures – from poverty to trauma to racism and discrimination. If we built 100 thousand homes today, we would still have youth homelessness. To solve this issue, we need a strategy that clearly identifies the pipelines into homelessness for our rangatahi, and commits to doing the work needed to close them. 

Chlöe Swarbrick wrote a piece on the urgent need for rent controls for The Guardian recently, and you touched on this with your post on the rent increases which occurred in relation to the Tamaki flooding. What has your experience been with young people and accessing private rentals in Aotearoa?

I’ve found it very difficult to support young people to access the private rental market. Those I’ve known who’ve gotten private rentals have often only been able to do so without a tenancy agreement, meaning they are often exploited and renting in subpar housing. Many landlords don’t want a young person to rent their home. There’s a lot of discrimination when it comes to young people, and a false belief that young people can’t be responsible or trusted to rent. This is a huge loss, becomes it means that these rangatahi must live in hotels or continue coach surfing. And there’s a huge social cost to this. Without stability, our young people struggle to find employment and continue their education. It has an impact on their mental and emotional well-being and can cause lifelong mental and physical health complications that they will have to grapple with for much of their life.

I believe it’s important for us to begin to understand that housing is not a commodity but a human right our communities need in order to thrive. Many of the issues we see in the rental market result from housing being treated as a commodity. Housing is imperative, both to individuals, and also to strengthening the social fabric within our communities. It’s important we start to acknowledge this by ensuring we have the regulations and mechanisms needed to guarantee this right is upheld.

Inflation is hitting everyone, but the impacts are not felt equally. Rising costs of living have meant those who would not normally approach charities are. Even in 2018, 10% of the whole population was in poverty. What are some very common stories that you’ve been exposed to in terms of peoples’ situations and needs?

It is far too common to hear stories of whānau moving from private rentals into lodges and emergency housing because they can no longer afford rent. Young people specifically are struggling, especially those with a care experience or those who have had some form of whānau breakdown. Lack of access to housing is already inequitable, and for young people living independently due to some form of breakdown in their whānau, the Youth Payment as it stands provides them with $52.80 less than an adult in a similar situation. And yet, things aren’t cheaper because you’re young. Young people living independently are left to struggle to survive, with some feeling pressured to leave school and find work just to ensure they can buy food or keep a roof over their heads.

Society widely believes that employment provides protection from poverty, but this is not true. You wrote recently about the minimum wage and the rise of the working poor. How would you like the government to address this underlying cause of poverty?

I believe we need to urgently raise benefits and the minimum wage to ensure everyone has a living wage. We also need to explore what universal services can be provided to ensure that everyone has equitable access to health care and transport. Free dental visits, health care, public transport and mental health support would make a huge difference in the lives of some of our most structurally marginalised whānau. With the cost of rent and food rising, it’s also vital the Government explores what regulation is needed to ensure that these two basic necessities (food and housing) are still accessible to everyone.

In the year ending June 2021, 13.6% of New Zealand children (156,700) were living in poverty. People have to make tough decisions in terms of priorities. Do they continue to pay bills or eat? And this is nothing new. We’re just seeing more of it. What do you think is required to tackle child poverty in Aotearoa?

There is a range of policies we could explore, and we’ve mentioned a couple already. But honestly, at the core of poverty and inequality are the political choices we continue to make. Choices that value the security of the status quo, over the lives of the children and whānau who are suffering today because of the lack of love and care our society shows them. Poverty is not an accident, it’s a political choice. A choice not to redistribute wealth, a choice not to implement a wealth and capital gains tax, and a choice to allow the rich to continue making exorbitant profits while life gets harder and harder for the majority of us. The average New Zealander pays about 20% in tax, while the wealthiest 300 pay only about 9%. That is not an accident.

If we chose to reform our tax system, choose to create a tax framework that ensured our country's wealth was shared equitably, we could end poverty.

Until we care more about those who are suffering than we do about protecting the status quo and protecting the rich, we will not see poverty eradicated in this country.

But, it is important to recognize that things can change. We have more power than we realise.

If Poverty is the result of political choices, then we can make different ones.

To follow Aaron's work, join his Substack community.