Wellington Mayor Justin Lester says he owes ‘an enormous debt of gratitude’ to community groups like The Salvation Army. He talks about growing up in a state house as the child of a beneficiary, to becoming Mayor of our capital city.
Justin Lester gets more than 30,000 invitations to events every year, yet when he was asked to speak at The Salvation Army’s Just Action Conference it was an easy ‘yes’.
‘I have an enormous debt of gratitude to the community and how they supported me when I was growing up, so anything to do with social justice, community services, community support—I am always really happy to say “yes”,’ explains Justin.
The Mayor, who is known for his values-based policies, is no stranger to The Salvation Army. He vividly recalls being picked up in the Army van every Sunday to attend the local corps in Invercargill, where he was raised. His school principal and teacher were local Salvationists Colin and Jill Garrett, and he grew up with their children.
‘They offered support. My dad died quite young, and The Salvation Army supported us,’ says Justin.
Even before this, his dad was mainly off the scene—drifting in and out of their lives. Justin and his two brothers were raised by their mother, which he says has been the single biggest motivator in his political life.
‘The biggest influence was growing up in a state house, with a single parent who was a beneficiary. My mum didn’t have a job and was raising three boys, which was a full-time job.
‘It gives you an acute awareness and understanding that life is not easy for everyone, and but for a change in circumstance, life could be very different. My mum came from a strong family in Christchurch, but she married the wrong man.’
He remembers at the age of 11, just after his dad died, the ‘mother of all budgets’ came out, slashing beneficiary payments. ‘I could see her distressed, anxious, it felt wrong,’ recalls Justin. ‘The societal sentiment was that beneficiaries were bludgers, no hopers, parasites, lazy and a drain on society. Meanwhile, what I could see, was that mum was working hard to stay afloat, to raise three boys.
‘My father was gone, but he wasn’t found at fault by society. I saw that my mother was the courageous one, she was the one doing the hard work, but she was being vilified.’
Justin defied the odds by going on to Otago university—even completing a Masters of Law at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. He was one of only four from his Decile 2 primary school that went on to university. ‘I got to university and was staggered that people were there not by virtue of their intelligence, but because they’d been prepared for it their whole lives.
‘I looked at people I had grown up with. Those kids were no less smart than the kids that went to the affluent school—the biggest difference was they didn’t see that pathway. All they knew was working at the freezing works.’
In his early twenties, Justin and his family settled in Wellington and co-founded a successful Wellington food business called Kapai. But at the age of 32, he decided it was time to ‘give back’ by getting involved in local government. In 2016, Justin was elected Mayor of Wellington.
To this day, it’s his early years that compel him: ‘I’m now very fortunate be to in a stable family with a good income, but I’ve seen both sides of the coin.’
Justin says that in his role as mayor, he lives by ‘the concept of servant leadership’.
‘That’s what I seek to espouse in my role as mayor. I’m here because I’m trying to repay that debt of gratitude.’
One of the first issues Justin championed as a city councillor, was the living wage for all its workers. He’s now proud that Wellington City Council is the ‘first and only’ living wage accredited council in the country. ‘It was huge—immediately those people felt valued, they felt they were part of something bigger,’ reflects Justin.
This continues to have a ripple effect throughout the region—just recently, a council-controlled organisation also became living wage accredited. ‘Within days, multiple people came up to me and said that this makes a huge difference in their life—because they are working adults with families. It’s about dignity, confidence, respect.’
When I ask whether the living wage is unaffordable for business, he answers simply: ‘Not true’.
‘If you’re a small business and you can’t afford it, you don’t have to do it. But if you can afford it, you should.’
Justin has also fought to see greater representation of women in the council. ‘I studied jurisprudence, which shows that laws usually benefit the people they are being made by, which tended to be elderly white men.
‘That is engrained in society—for example, a male would very seldom take on an administration job, whereas it’s expected of women. The only way we can get women to achieve equality is to support them.’
One issue that has continued to loom large during Justin’s mayoralty is housing affordability. With rent now the highest in the country, Wellington is fast becoming a city for the very rich. ‘Yep, I agree and that’s not a city that I want. That’s not what I want to see happen in our country either,’ says Justin.
But it’s not just about market forces, Justin believes councils have a role to play in housing affordability. Unlike many cities, Wellington has not sold its social housing, making it one of the largest landlords in the country. ‘But we need more,’ admits Justin.
Around 400 social housing units are currently being developed. In one exciting initiative, the council is planning to build the city’s first ‘wet houses’—homes where people can be supported, before they get sober.
In partnership with Housing NZ and City Mission, 100 supported living units are being developed: ‘We know that those who are vulnerable and on the streets need supported living—round-the-clock care—to get them back on their feet and sustain their tenancies.’
In the units, each tenant will have a case worker providing wrap-around support—including budget services, case workers, help with paying bills, and even help with collecting benefits if needed. ‘If you have addiction or mental health issues, it can be hard to sustain a tenancy, and up to 90 percent within six months will be out of their home,’ explains Justin. ‘Shelters are a good emergency response, but they’re not a home. You need housing.’
There is also the growing problem of the ‘middle-class poor’—working families who have been priced out of the city. The council is currently working to convert office buildings into long-term rental properties. The council will then take on 15-year leases, which means renters can still have housing stability, their kids can stay at the same primary school, and their rent will only be adjusted for inflation.
The council has taken its inspiration from cities like Paris, where 25 percent of its accommodation is public housing. ‘No one is going to commute an hour and a half into Paris for work
if they’re on low wages,’ reflects Justin.
‘Affordable housing is the critical social issue—it’s the thing that gives people confidence, security, it gives them a platform and we don’t have enough of it.’
When I ask Justin why values-based policies are important to him, he answers again simply, ‘Because of my mum’.
‘I can see how, if you’re not at the start line with everybody else, how hard it is. Therefore, everyone deserves to be at the start line.’
Wellington Mayor Justin Lester will be speaking at Just Action, from 1–2 October, in Wellington.
By Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 21 September 2019 p14-15. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.