On Saturday 26th May, protesters gathered outside earthquake recovery minister Gerry Brownlee’s Ilam electorate office to draw attention to the housing crisis faced by many Canterbury residents. Occupy Christchurch activists involved in organising the action decided to hold the demonstration over the weekend, as electorate office staff could not give a time in the foreseeable future when Brownlee would be in his office to meet with residents regarding their concerns. This came as no surprise to protest organisers, as Brownlee had recently publicly denied the existence of a housing crisis in Christchurch. He has claimed that while individuals may be experiencing housing issues, there is no widespread or systemic problem with provision and availability of shelter in the city.
Illustrating that this is clearly not the case, protesters shared their own personal stories over the megaphone of homelessness, hosting displaced friends and family, and finding themselves unable to stay in their homes, not because of earthquake damage, but as a result of rent raises making accommodation unaffordable to families on low pay.
Approximately 80 people attended the demonstration which had a diverse turn-out and lively atmosphere despite the cold weather. Food Not Bombs attended with hot soup for all of those there, everyone present held signs or banners and spoke over the megaphone about their situation and concerns. A higher turnout could have been expected, however the time of the protest coincided with another rally to save the Christchurch cathedral.
For those present on the day, there appeared to be a noticeable class divide in Christchurch residents’ concerns for buildings and their prioritisation in the rebuild. The resources available to the cathedral rally organisers allowed the event to be widely advertised, with signs on street sides and at intersections in a number of affluent suburbs such as Fendalton and Cashmere. As a result, the demonstration was attended by a large number of people, though protest goers expressed disappointment regarding the tone of the event.
Recent large public protests such as the Save the Cathedral rally and the February protest calling for City Council CEO Tony Marryatt’s resignation have been impressive illustrations of peoples’ desire for greater democracy. However there is a sense of growing disillusionment over whether large, tightly controlled demonstrations organised in a top-down way can achieve this. Public engagement with the housing protest, and its openly radical demands, indicates that there is increasing support for progressive alternatives to the solutions proposed by both government and the organisers of mass demonstrations which have, by and large, focussed on the needs of property and business owners.
The conditions many people in Christchurch are now living in have created space for more radical critiques of the management of social issues in post-earthquake Christchurch. Media reports have highlighted the levels of homelessness in the city and large numbers of people are staying with friends or family, without any shelter, or living in their cars. Homes which are habitable but have sustained significant earthquake damage are also yet to be repaired while offices and businesses have been rebuilt, and the opportunistic rent increases of up to fifty per cent by agencies and private landlords have all impacted considerably, and disproportionately, on poor and working class communities. For people living in these situations, prioritising the rebuild of businesses and restoration of iconic buildings seems acutely out of touch with the reality faced by many people.
In response to the housing issues many Canterbury residents are facing, protesters at the housing demonstration demanded action which would actively reduce the burden on the worst off in society. These included more decent social housing, a sustainable rebuild, the organisation of housing according to need not profit, acknowledgement of the real levels of homelessness and displacement in the city, a rent freeze for all private and social housing, a living wage and affordable housing for all, no shock doctrine housing policy and a democratic process for peoples’ housing concerns to be heard.
Social housing was a significant concern for people present at the demonstration. One protester was quoted in The Press saying “we need housing for more than just the high priority cases. When someone is on a benefit paying half their income to a private landlord, welfare money is becoming a return on someone’s investment property, and that’s not how the welfare system should work. We need social housing for anyone receiving welfare, and also the huge number of people working reduced hours for low wages.”
Following an impromptu general assembly on Brownlee’s front lawn, the group decided to hold future action around the housing crisis. Ideas for demonstrations were focussed on direct action and included occupying Gerry Brownlee’s office, picketing rental agencies which have profited from unjustifiable rent increases, highlighting the absence of emergency housing for women in the city and organising drive in movie screenings of ‘Coming Home’, a documentary about community action around the housing crisis following hurricane Katrina, for people currently living in their cars.