Emergency housing system in breach of human rights, but not beyond repair - Press Release

The government’s emergency housing system is in breach of the human rights of those it aims to help but it is not beyond repair according to the report, Homelessness and human rights, released today by Te Kāhui Tika Tangata, the Human Rights Commission.

“An emergency housing system should meet basic human rights standards, be accountable to those it serves, and help people in their journey out of homelessness,” says Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt.

“Yet these features are lacking in parts of our emergency housing system, and constitute a breach of the human rights of those it is meant to help.”

"We are aware of measures announced this afternoon by the Government, but on the face of it little appears to have changed to meet their human rights obligations. The details of the review are also still to be made public.”

The report released today outlines four human rights obligations that the government’s emergency housing system should meet and finds three areas in which the current system is in breach of human rights.

“In a country like Aotearoa New Zealand, neither homelessness nor a failing emergency housing system are acceptable and both fall short of human rights standards.”

The report contains experiences from people in emergency and transitional housing, alongside social service providers.

“We heard from young people who felt so unsafe living alongside some adults in emergency accommodation that they have resorted to or returned to living on the street.

“We also heard stories of children who are now two or three years old and have only ever known living in a motel room,” says Hunt.

The Chief Commissioner says people shared their stories because of the absence of adequate accountability when emergency and transitional housing falls short. Since 2020 residents living in the emergency housing system are not entitled to protections under the Residential Tenancies Act (including access to Tenancy Services and the Independent Tenancy Tribunal).

“We’ve had emergency accommodation provided to people in need with little guarantee of it being decent or suitable for their basic needs, or that it will uphold their human rights, and with no accountability process for when things go wrong.”

The emergency housing system has basic human rights obligations
The government’s emergency housing system should meet the following four obligations:

1. Provide emergency housing that meets minimum decency standards and other key features of the right to a decent home.
2. Do not evict anyone into homelessness.
3. Uphold Te Tiriti o Waitangi alongside other human rights obligations.
4. Establish effective and accessible accountability arrangements in relation to the emergency housing system.

Embedding these obligations into the emergency housing system could go some way to restoring public confidence in the system, says the Chief Commissioner, while building on the Government’s very significant efforts over the past five years to deliver a more equitable housing system. These efforts include for example, a $3.8 billion housing acceleration fund, legislative changes to improve conditions for renters, the Māori national housing strategy, and the introduction of Healthy Homes Standards.

The report recommends the Government phase out the use of commercial accommodation, such as motels not under government contract, to deliver emergency accommodation as soon as possible.
The Government’s announcement last week to wind down mixed-use motels as accommodation near to zero in Rotorua, indicates this is feasible.
A refreshed, unified emergency housing system
The report recommends replacing the current two-pronged system of emergency accommodation and transitional housing with a unified system that can meet urgent housing need.
“Transitional housing providers told us that distressing scenes from emergency accommodation could unfairly impact on their services because few people understand the distinction between emergency accommodation and transitional housing.
“I saw remarkable efforts from transitional housing providers to support and provide decent homes for people, which need to be recognised.
“These services often took a relational approach to supporting people, where manaakitanga was the common theme, rather than the transactional and at times punitive approach common in emergency accommodation.
“A relational approach better reflects te ao Māori and should be at the heart of a refreshed emergency housing system,” says Hunt.

The new system must be designed, developed, and delivered in partnership with Tangata Whenua, and respond to Māori needs and te ao Māori responses to homelessness. This partnership is imperative to ensure that Te Tiriti o Waitangi failures are not repeated or further entrenched.

A refreshed, unified emergency housing system should focus special attention on the rights, wellbeing, and needs of children and young people experiencing homelessness.
The Chief Commissioner highlighted the bravery of many people who shared their story with the Commission.
“Many people shared situations in emergency housing that had caused them considerable stress and at times trauma. It is crucial that their voices, which call loudly for change, are heard by the Government.
“I also commend the lifesaving work being done by housing and social service providers, community organisations, hapū and iwi, housing advocates, and public officials within the emergency housing system says Hunt.
The report is available on the Human Rights Commission’s Housing Inquiry website.


Notes About the report

In September 2022, the Human Rights Commission invited those living in emergency and transitional accommodation to share their experiences with us to inform our housing inquiry.
Many people came forward, including residents of such housing as well as service providers. Their experiences, outlined in this report, paint a sobering picture of a system failing to meet human rights standards, most particularly in emergency accommodation, but also across some transitional housing.
About the emergency housing system
The emergency housing system in Aotearoa New Zealand currently involves two separate main initiatives:

1. Emergency Housing Special Needs Grant, which funds non-contracted temporary emergency accommodation,
2. Transitional housing, delivered by accredited and contracted housing support providers.

These initiatives together form the bulk of places in the emergency housing system. They are separate initiatives delivered by different government agencies and with varying funding models. Given this distinction between the two initiatives, in the report we refer to one as ‘emergency accommodation’ and the other as ‘transitional housing’. When we talk about the entire system, we use the term ‘emergency housing system’.
What is the right to a decent home?
The human right to a decent home has been recognised in multiple international human rights treaties. International law usually refers to the ‘right to adequate housing’. Sometimes the term the ‘right to shelter’ is used. However, the human rights literature is clear: the right to adequate housing is much more than shelter, bricks, mortar or a house. It is about a decent home.
Aotearoa New Zealand has ratified many of these treaties. In other words, the right to a decent home is both ethically compelling and legally binding in international law. It places responsibilities on central and local governments, and on the private sector. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the constitutional status of Te Tiriti o Waitangi means that the right to a decent home must be read alongside, and grounded on, Te Tiriti.
What are decency standards or principles?
The United Nations outline seven housing principles, which include habitability; affordability; accessibility; access to services, facilities, and infrastructure; access to location; respect for cultural diversity; and security of tenure.
If homes and housing initiatives do not comply with these seven principles, read with Te Tiriti o Waitangi, they are not complying with the right to a decent home, unless it can be shown that all reasonable steps have been taken to comply with the principles.In addition to the decency principles, there are other key features of the right to a decent home grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, including accountability and community participation. These features are set out in the Framework Guidelines on the right to a decent home in Aotearoa published by the Human Rights Commission in 2021.

The Commission’s findings and recommendations

The Commission’s report finds three key breaches of the right to a decent home grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi:
The emergency housing system is failing to deliver government’s immediate human rights obligations to provide emergency housing that meets basic standards of decency and other key human rights features, and not to evict anyone into homelessness. This failure results in a breach of the right to a decent home grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

The Government’s decision in 2020 to exclude emergency accommodation and transitional housing from the Residential Tenancies Act is a serious and ongoing breach of its human rights obligation to provide accountability for the right to a decent home.

Government has failed to put in place accountability arrangements for the right to a decent home, grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, in relation to the emergency housing system. The lack of accountability over the emergency housing system, in particular the emergency housing grant initiative, is a serious breach of government’s obligation in relation to the right to a decent home.

The report makes recommendations to address these human rights breaches:

  1. Address the inconsistencies between the two different initiatives (emergency accommodation and transitional housing) and work to create a single, holistic system of emergency housing. This system must:
    • meet urgent housing need at a range of levels and support requirements, without stigmatisation, and with a focus on relational rather than transactional services;
    • be designed, developed, and delivered in full partnership with Tangata Whenua, and respond to Māori needs and te ao Māori responses to homelessness;
    • actively support and build on community, hapū and iwi initiatives;
    • be developed in active participation with those who have lived experience of homelessness and the emergency housing system.

  2. As soon as possible, phase out the use of uncontracted commercial accommodation suppliers receiving the Emergency Housing Special Needs Grant to deliver emergency accommodation.

  3. Commit to adequately protecting the rights of those in the emergency housing system, either by amending the Residential Tenancies Act or by creating an alternative mechanism that is significantly stronger than the current draft Code of Practice for Transitional Housing.

  4. Establish an effective, accessible, and constructive accountability mechanism for the housing system, including the emergency housing system.

  5. Establish an independent advisory and advocacy group grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi.