The Nation: Housing New Zealand CEO Andrew McKenzie

Sep 25, 2018 | News

• Andrew McKenzie denies Housing New Zealand had a cultural problem. “As an organisation, we were placing emphasis on different things. If you’re a landlord, you think of those things that you’ve got to get a balance…you’re looking after a home, you’re making sure the tenants are safe and healthy, you’re looking after their well-being, you’re complying with the legislation.”
• He says the culture within Housing New Zealand is already changing. “All big organisations will occasionally have pieces of the organisation, whether processes or people, who will let them down. But I can tell you very, very clearly that the organisation’s modus operandi, the policies we work to, the processes we work to, are all being changed to align with keeping people in homes.”
• He estimates 1200 to 1500 of the tenants evicted from Housing New Zealand homes under its zero tolerance methamphetamine policy were children.
• He admits HNZ does not know what became of many of those evicted, and they are now trying to contact them through social agencies.
• He believes he is the right person to lead HNZ through the process of enshrining its social objectives in law. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve made and led some very positive changes to the organisation.”
• He said Minister of Housing Phil Twyford has “every confidence” in the Housing New Zealand board. “He has appointed some new members to the board. So he’s taken some action there.”
Lisa Owen: The Government has now announced Housing New Zealand’s social objectives will be enshrined in law. The eight objectives include being a fair and reasonable landlord and supporting tenants to live with dignity. I asked Housing New Zealand chief executive Andrew McKenzie how he is going to change the culture at the agency.
Andrew McKenzie: As I say, we’ve been changing for the last two years. And we haven’t evicted any tenants now for over a year. So we have moved already to implement that change. It became very clear when I arrived as chief executive that decisions to move people out were simply passing costs on to other parts of the social support system. If they’re not living in one of our homes, somebody else will have to put them up somewhere. And it could be with special needs grants. So we made the decision over a year ago that we would not evict people, and where homes were unsafe, we would look to rehouse them. So we have already begun that process. We’ve begun the change. We’re working to line ourselves up with a whole lot of other social agencies who are expert at helping people with some of the issues you face. It’s not just methamphetamine use that will cause issues for a tenant, in terms of the stability of their lives. It could be alcohol addictions. It can be mental health issues. So DHBs, Ministry for Social Development, Corrections, police — they’re all agencies who we’re working closely with so that those people are able to stay in their homes.
Lisa Owen: All right, so it’s going to be about degrees of change. You say you’ve started to make some change. But here’s the thing. If we look at what has happened with the meth-testing regime — it was a policy based on bad science, but let’s put that aside for a moment — the testing and eviction process was deeply flawed as well. There were no baseline tests, in most cases, done before tenants were moved out. They were robbed, in many cases, of their rights to natural justice. That kind of looks and sounds like bullying behaviour. Was it?
We’ve certainly apologised for the way in which tenants were treated. My personal view, as I say, when I came in, is that we weren’t doing it right.
Was it bullying behaviour?
I don’t know that it was bullying behaviour. The lack of a baseline test is really about attributing whether or not that tenant caused the harm. Where the organisation was unable to determine that the tenant had caused the harm, they would rehouse them. Where it was determined that they did cause the harm, then they made the decision, for that period of time, not to rehouse. We’ve changed that behaviour, and we now focus on keeping them in the homes. They are rehoused where the house is not safe to live in. You need to understand that at the essence of this was ‘when is a house safe for somebody to live in?’ And that was the reason that the organisation went out and looked for these standards and guidelines.
But you were getting conflicting information over a period of time, and challenges to those guidelines. Yet you enthusiastically applied them. So can you see how some people will find it difficult to believe that, because you have changed a few things, and a few things have changed on paper, that you are actually going to change your whole culture and attitude?
Yeah, I can understand that people would be concerned, absolutely. The organisation has — and it has very openly said — we did not do the job that we should do as a public housing landlord.
You had a culture problem.
I wouldn’t say we had a culture problem. As an organisation, we were placing emphasis on different things. If you’re a landlord, you think of those things that you’ve got to get a balance between—
Yeah, but you’re more than a landlord—
If I could just finish, you’re looking after a home, you’re making sure the tenants are safe and healthy, you’re looking after their well-being, you’re complying with the legislation. All other landlords are affected by this too. And they too were subject to the Tenancy Tribunal decisions which said that if you put somebody into a home that had contamination above the guidelines for manufacturing, but even if it was due for use, then the landlord was liable for damages against those tenants. So that’s the environment that the organisation was working within. And in terms of the change, we have begun that already. As I have said, it is over a year now since we evicted anyone. We have moved on. We have changed. We’ve stopped seeking damages from tenants. So the organisation is different, and it will continue to change and improve. And there are some very concrete steps outlined in our report which we will be taking to make sure that we embed that change in Housing New Zealand.
But you keep saying you’re a landlord, just like other private landlords were held to these standards. You’re more than a landlord, and you were more than a landlord then too. Your kaupapa was to build lives by housing people — ‘build lives’, that’s from your own website and your own statements.
Yeah, ‘Building lives and communities by housing New Zealanders’, which is—
But you didn’t do that, though, did you?
That is the vision for the organisation. We developed that at the end of last year to reflect our move from being a landlord to being a public housing landlord. As I say, I arrived here two years ago. The first thing I did when I got here was look at the direction of the organisation and understand whether we were operating in a way that was aligned with exactly that vision. So we developed it, so that’s been there in the last two years. And because of that vision, and because of the direction we’re taking around keeping people in homes, we came to the decision that we would move from evicting and not rehousing to keeping people in homes, rehousing them, finding agencies that could support people to deal with the issues that were causing them problems.
And that’s your approach in the last year.
For the last two years we’ve had that approach.
Are you telling people that the entire culture of your organisation has been sorted in 12 to 18 months, and everything is all good?
So, we’re a big organisation. And all big organisations will occasionally have pieces of the organisation, whether processes or people, who will let them down. But I can tell you very, very clearly that the organisation’s modus operandi, the policies we work to, the processes we work to, are all being changed to align with keeping people in homes. That’s why we decided last year not to evict people. That’s why we are now working and we have very close relationships with other agencies who are supporting these people in our homes. One of the things that you need to realise is that when you come and live in one of our homes, you come normally supported by a multiplicity of other government agencies. And we’re making sure we are working with them so that we’re able to support them, cope with the different slings and arrows that life has thrown at these people who live in our homes.
So you don’t evict people now, but you did. So how many children were kicked out of their homes under that meth-testing regime?
So, we know that post-2013 around 800 households were moved out and—
Yeah, how many were children?
Well, we don’t know the exact numbers, because our records are kept based on the lead tenant, who will be an adult. On average, there would be three people in each of our homes. So we’re talking probably 1200 to 1500 of the tenants affected would have been children.
Right. And you don’t know what happened to most of those people, do you? Most of those people that you evicted, you have no idea what became of them.
That’s correct. So there are some households that we’re unable to contact.
So with all those children in those households that were kicked out, you sent them off, you don’t know what’s happened to them. Is that because you simply just didn’t care enough about them?
I think— Again, I go back. The organisation was a landlord, and while you were living in one of our homes, we obviously kept the records and we understood what was going on. Once you had moved out and you weren’t living in one of our houses, then the organisation didn’t keep—
These are our most vulnerable people, and you were responsible for them.
We were responsible for housing them. And when we stopped being responsible for housing them, we obviously didn’t keep those records. What we’re now doing is reaching out, using those other agencies that are supporting those families, to find out where they are, so that we can go and ensure that they have the assistance and support they need in their lives.
So, obviously this happened over an extended period of time, as you pointed out. But you started in early 2017, didn’t you, in this role?
Well, late 2016, yeah.
OK, so you— it continued on your watch. The enforcement of the policy continued on your watch, until you changed.
So, yeah. So, what happened— There’s a lot of issues that you need to get right here. One of them is staff health and safety, and that was one of the key concerns that drove the previous approach taken. So once we had established that we could safely — and we had staff lined up, so that they were comfortable with the new approach we were taking, were able to implement it.
So do you think you’re the right person to stay on and do this job, given that you were part of a process that is now recognised as being grossly flawed?
I think if you listen to— The decision as to whether I’m not appropriate is something that the board, obviously in discussion with the Minister, will make. You heard him yesterday say he has confidence in the board. He’s got confidence in the direction the organisation is taking, with my leadership.
What about you? Do you think you’re the right person?
Certainly I think that, since I’ve been here, I’ve made some very positive changes, and led them, to the organisation — positive for our tenants, positive for our employees.
Are you 100% comfortable and confident in the board? Because they were complicit in a lot of the decisions made. The report has said they basically abdicated, in some cases, their decision-making responsibilities to people in management. It kind of sounds like they were asleep at the wheel. So do you have confidence—?
It’s not my role to have confidence in my board.
You’ve got to work with them, though.
That’s the Minister’s role, so he’ll determine who he is comfortable with leading the board. And as he said yesterday, he is comfortable with the board and has every confidence in them. He has appointed some new members to the board. So he’s taken some action there. But he certainly expressed confidence in the board yesterday. That is not my role to make that judgement.
But change comes from the top, doesn’t it? Change, especially in culture, has to come from the top. And if most of the people at the top are the people who were at the top when things went horribly wrong, people will question whether you are able to make those changes.
So I think, first of all, the people who are at the top are the people who have led the change already, and changed approach, and that’s certainly something that’s been acknowledged by the Minister and is clearly set out in the report — that the change process had begun, people were doing thing differently, the organisation was doing things differently. So that changed had happened.
So this report, now, says that you’ll be paying out discretionary grants, basically — up to $3000 to affected tenants.
That’s not correct. Just to be really clear, what we’ll be doing is we’ll be providing assistance to tenants and it will be treated on a case-by-case basis as to how much money they should be provided.
It’s capped, though, isn’t it?
No, it’s not capped. In the report, the indicative numbers, based on the assistance we provided to other people — because obviously people want to know, what’s it going to cost us?
So you could pay more than that figure?
Absolutely, we will. There will be some larger households where we’d certainly expect it. So that was the average on the assistance that we provided to people in the past when they were moved out of their homes—
It is based on material loss, though, isn’t it?
Yeah. So, if I could just finish, the compensation was paid to people who were deemed not to have caused contamination, and it was based on putting right the cost that they had incurred through loss of goods and for any moving costs. And so we will be following the same approach. We think it’s fair and reasonable to do exactly the same to those tenants who were moved out and weren’t rehoused.
Right. So, on average, it was around $3000. You are prepared to pay more than that, depending on what the losses are.
We did pay more than that in the past, and we expect to do that.
But it’s material losses, isn’t it? Like costs of moving, if your belongings were destroyed as a result of contamination. I’m just wondering, what about the emotional stress, the loss of mana, the trauma, the having to house your kids again, and maybe them having disrupted education — what about all that stuff? What’s that worth?
So, the assistance we’re providing is, exactly as you’ve said, to compensate them for the material loss. Those other elements, we’ve been in, we’ve reviewed how government pays… assists people in these circumstances, and the approach we have taken fits with what government has done in the past. Of course, if there are other redress people are seeking, then they are still able to do that. This is simply about –
You mean through legal action?
This is about putting right what we’ve done, in terms of those costs we have caused to those households through moving them out of their homes. As part of the assistance, we’ll also be looking to rehouse them. And we are also looking at how we work with the other agencies who are supporting them, to make sure that is done in a way that deals with any issues that they have, as a family or as a person.
You’re no longer going to have to return a profit to the government. So that is so that, Mr Twyford says, you can build more houses and also meet your welfare obligations to your tenants. What kind of money will that mean is directed into those areas — the looking after the welfare of your tenants?
So, if you look at the welfare of our tenant, the first thing that we have is we have to give them a safe, healthy home. So, our stock is old. We’re in the middle of a huge renewal period of time for our homes. Over the next 20 years, 45,000 of our 60,000 homes that we currently own will be renewed. They’ll be insulated properly. They will be refurbished completely, throughout. So that is a massive programme of work that we’re underway. And that money that the Minister’s talking about will help us pay for that. In terms of the tenancy support, we’ve already increased significantly the level of tenancy managers we have in the organisation. We have specialists who are now dedicated to dealing with particular tenants who require additional assistance. We’ve got a really exciting development in the middle of Auckland, in Greys Avenue, where we’ll be building a 279-home complex that will include homes dedicated to those people who have been chronically homeless. And there will be space for the Common Ground, Housing First type of services to be provided out of that. So those are all things that we’re introducing in an effort to make sure that, as a public housing landlord, we can keep people in our homes and support them to have the dignified, stable lives that the Minister has talked about.
All right. Just before we go, you have acknowledged that, for some families — and this includes families with kids — that the damage that has been done may be irreparable in some cases. So I want to give you the opportunity to speak directly to those people. The camera is just over there. What would you like to say to them?
Certainly, to them, we have apologised for the disruption we’ve caused to their lives. And we want to make sure that we assist them to get back into a position of stability. And we will work with those other agencies who are supporting them to help deal with the issues that they have in their lives.
So to those people, what, you’re sorry?
We absolutely apologise.
You are sorry?
I apologise. I mean, as an organisation, we did not do what we should have done.
Thank you for joining us this morning, Andrew McKenzie, head of Housing New Zealand. Appreciate your time.
Thank you.

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