Wellington, New Zealand – “I don’t want to take my family back on the streets again,” says Alisia Finau, fighting back tears.
She has invited me into the motel unit in South Auckland where she is living with her two sons, aged 16 and 17. We sit at the kitchen table while the boys loaf on single beds in the open-plan room. They are clearly bored and demotivated, passing time watching daytime TV on mute.
It’s been a tough year for the 38-year-old Tongan New Zealander. When the house she had rented for the past six years was sold, she was forced to move out. But she couldn’t afford anywhere else.
She had been working as a security guard but could no longer hold down the job. As a result her 61-year-old mother, two sons, her 14-year-old daughter and her dog moved with her into what she calls her “van” – a standard-sized estate car, or station wagon.
All three children dropped out of school and for three months, as they waited for social housing, they lived out of the vehicle, moving around the country, staying in friends’ driveways and barbecuing their dinner at parks or eating shellfish they had collected from beaches along the way.
As the winter arrived they started spending as much time as they could in cafes and tearooms. “We were [practically] living in shops. If we could buy a pie, that would be us for the whole day,” she says.
When Auckland’s cold, wet winter and nights of sleepless worry had finally exhausted her, Alisia was offered emergency housing: a basic one-bedroom motel unit near Auckland’s airport. By that time, her mother had fallen sick and moved in with Alisia’s brother, his wife and their eight children, in their three-bedroom rented house.
Alisia’s daughter had also had enough of living in the car and demanded that social services step in. With their help she went to live with relatives 450km south of Auckland. As Alisia remembers it, she breaks down.
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“I know we’re not in the van any more, we’re under a roof, but it still feels the same because it’s not our home,” she says, clearly exhausted. “I don’t know what is going to happen and I don’t want to lose any more of my kids.”
The government social agency, Work and Income New Zealand or WINZ
, paid 1,300 dollars (US $935) for her first week in the motel. They will recover this money by deducting 10 dollars (US $7) a week from her weekly 358 dollars (US $258) single parent’s benefit for the next two-and-a-half years. Two thirds of her weekly benefit is deducted before she sees it, to cover existing unpaid fines and loans, leaving her with just 120 dollars (US $85) a week for food for the family and petrol for the car.
WINZ hasn’t billed her for the subsequent five weeks she has stayed in the motel on the condition that each week she demonstrates that she has been trying to find a private rental. Alisia shows me a handwritten list of houses that are for rent. But most, she says, are out of her price range and some attract as many as 70 applicants.
“Most landlords and agents are just picky now. They are taking on full-time workers instead of [social benefits] beneficiaries. I feel discriminated against,” she says.
In May, New Zealand’s government announced
that it was making 41 million dollars (US $30m) available to pay for 3,000 emergency housing places such as Alisia’s motel unit.
There’s been confusion over the new policy – and over who will end up paying for the accommodation. There are reports
that some families are running up debts as high as $50,000 with WINZ for their emergency housing, with little ability to ever repay the loans.
“This is where we live – me and my six kids,” Hope* tells me as we walk through an overgrown garden to a derelict garage. It’s been raining hard and there are pools of water, damp clothing and soggy shoes on the ground outside the crumbling building.
Hope and her children have been sleeping on worn-out couches and on the floor of her friend’s garage in South Auckland for the past eight weeks. They were forced to move out of their rented house in June, when their landlord decided to renovate it. They’ve put up traditional tapa cloth and rugs to try to insulate the unlined metal walls, but it still leaks when it rains – and it rains a lot in winter in Auckland.
“To us, at the moment, its better than sitting outside in the car or outside some park with my kids, so I prefer it in here knowing my kids are safe,” she says, as she folds some of her children’s clothes and stacks them in a corner.
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Her situation is especially challenging as one of her daughters is autistic. Hope says she was especially troubled by losing their home and now finds the cold and having to cross the garden to use the toilet inside the house particularly stressful. She even tried to run away.
Hope’s other children have also suffered, becoming sick with colds, high fevers and developing chest infections.
“My kids are healthy kids but since we’ve been here my little one has been sick, because of the cold and the damp. I wish I can do better for my kids,” she says, adding that she feels as though she has failed them.
Hope says WINZ has told her that, because she has six children, she can only be placed in a four-bedroom social house. But it could be months until a house that size becomes available. Government statistics show
that in June, 645 families were placed in social housing by the government, but that 3,877 more, including Hope, remain on a waiting list.
“I’m not asking for much, something that is dry and clean and healthy for my kids,” she says.
Living in cars
For many who haven’t found a garage to stay in or are unwilling to risk running up debts with WINZ to stay in emergency housing, their car remains their best bet. Each night in a vacant car park beside Bruce Pullman Park, in a sprawling suburban area of South Auckland, dozens of vehicles park up, drawn there by the public toilets and showers that can be used free of charge.
I visit on a wet, wintry evening and find people sleeping in cars and vans. None are willing to go on the record and some say that they have been sleeping beside the park for months but previous publicity didn’t help them – in fact, if anything, it made their lives more difficult by alerting locals and the town council to their presence there.
“The ones who can no longer afford to rent a house, the ones who cannot find a garage to live in, many of them are now living in their cars,” says Jenny Salesa, a Tongan New Zealander and Labour Party member of parliament. She’s seen the number of people coming to her electorate office asking for help with housing more than double in the past year.
“They are living in cars because there is a housing shortage in Auckland of 40,000 now and it’s a desperate situation,” explains financial journalist and economic commentator Bernard Hickey.
According to the University of Otago, which analysed the latest census data from 2013, more than 40,000 people, or one in 100 New Zealanders, are now homeless. This includes those living rough, in emergency housing or living in substandard garages.
Homelessness on this scale is new to New Zealand, which was a pioneer of the social welfare state. In the 1930s, it launched an ambitious programme to build thousands of social or “state” houses. The policy was based on the idea of equality, equal opportunities and the fair distribution of wealth – notions that have long been core values for most New Zealanders.
“We used to pride ourselves as being an egalitarian society,” Jenny says. “But we are no longer that unfortunately, especially in Auckland, when we are seeing so many families that are homeless.”
“The amount of rent that is being charged here in Auckland has doubled for many of them. However, their wages haven’t doubled. Some of them are working two full-time jobs and they still can’t afford to pay the high rent,” she says.
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Rent rises in Auckland have largely been driven by a dizzying rise in property values – the result of too few new houses being built and a tax system that provides generous incentives for landlords.
“In the last four years, for example, [house prices] are up 85 percent,” says Bernard. “For most of that time rents didn’t rise nearly as fast, but just in the last couple of years it’s starting to overflow into rents and that’s putting enormous pressure on those people who have relatively low incomes.”
In South Auckland, Pacific Islanders and Maori, who are much more likely to rent than own a home, are particularly feeling the pressure.
“Eighty-two percent of Pacific families do not own their own homes,” says Jenny. “They rent either from the government or from private landlords. So when you see rents going up, it disproportionately affects Pacific and Maori families.”
The rapid rise in house values has also seen many landlords decide to sell their rental properties. These are often re-sold after only a few months, resulting in even more instability for renters.
“Turnover of rental properties is very high, less than 18 months,” says Hickey. “That means people are continually bouncing from house to house. That means housing is very unstable. Often it’s incredibly poor-quality. It flows through into very high rates of chest infections, skin infections [and to] overcrowding.”
The link between poor-quality housing and the health of children has been widely reported
in New Zealand with one doctor recently describing how on a cold winter night “the emergency department was essentially a paediatric ward, filled with coughing and spluttering kids. I would talk to them to ask what their home situation was like; the vast majority came from poor housing.”
“These people are what you might call the forgotten people,” Hurimoana Dennis, the chairman of Te Puea Marae, the meeting grounds of local Maori tribes, tells me. He has shown me their facility’s kitchen and communal sleeping areas and large piles of donated food and clothing that volunteers are sorting as we pass.
“There is a new strata of the community that has been created and these people are mums and dads sitting below the poverty line,” he says.
Te Puea Marae opened its doors to the homeless in May, welcoming those with a genuine need. In the last 10 weeks it has housed 160 people, most of whom are Maori.
“When they arrive the families are absolutely depleted. Some of them are sick. They are all very, very hungry and the chance to sleep in one place, in a bed here at the marae, is a blessing to them. You can see they are relieved,” he says.
The marae has a long tradition of welcoming those in need, but late last month it closed its doors to new arrivals, saying it had responded to the crisis but now the government and other agencies needed to take responsibility for the homeless.
“For agencies that are mandated to look after this, you cannot go to sleep. We’ve given you some breathing space [but] you need to have a comprehensive plan moving forward,” Hurimoana warns.
Among the homeless I meet there is anger and frustration with the government and its agencies. They say the current system is confusing and bureaucratic, and leaves many feeling hopeless. I contact the office of the Minister for Social Housing, Paula Bennett, but my repeated requests for an interview are declined and I am told to read the press releases on the government’s website if I want to know about its response to the housing crisis.
There I find an announcement
about the allocation of nine million dollars (US $6.4m) over the next two years to “tackle the causes of homelessness” and help “people having difficulty holding on to their tenancies”. There’s no mention of rising rents. Instead, the minister identifies those who are “evicted due to rent arrears, anti-social behaviour or an overall inability to cope”.
There is also a press release
about a national government programme offering those waiting for social housing a 5,000-dollar (US $3,500) grant if they move away from Auckland. In the first month, just 12 grants were issued, provoking criticism that the programme is not doing enough to support those who could be tempted by the offer.
“Many of the people desperate for a home in Auckland are actually working,” says Jenny. “Their children attend the local schools and their families and friends who are part of their support network live nearby. Paying them to walk away from a job and their support networks here to shift instead to a distant town is just not an option for many families.”
The government has also promised
to spend 1.8bn dollars (US $1.3bn) on building around 6,000 new social houses over the next five years. Half of these are expected to be in Auckland, where the government is also going ahead with a plan to sell off hundreds of social houses as part of a redevelopment plan.
“One of the things this government has done in the past few months is to pass legislation to sell state houses off,” says Jenny.
“We know that the stock of state houses in New Zealand was up at about 69,000 at one time. They are now wanting to sell 9,000 of those state houses, at a time when we have such a huge shortage of houses.”
The government says the sale of the houses is part of a programme to ensure it can offer homes in the right locations and of the right size to those who need them.
Last year, the government introduced
a limited capital gains tax on investment properties sold within two years of their purchase, and more recently minimum equity limits have been imposed on property investors.
But, for many critics, it is too little, too late and will do little to halt the rapid rise in house values or reduce incentives for landlords.
“We are the lowest tax country for property in the world and that means housing is treated as an investment. It’s not a home,” Hickey says.
A new chapter
Just a few days after we met and filmed with Alisia and Hope – and perhaps as a result of it – both are offered housing. Alisia is hoping to be able to move in early in September. Hope and her six children have just moved into a government-owned four-bedroom house
“I’m thrilled and relieved,” she tells me by phone.
It marks the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of two families, but for hundreds of others living in cars, garages or in emergency accommodation, the wait continues. It will be a long winter without a home.
*Names have been changed.