Grim life of council housing residents

03:47, Sep 03 2011
Newtown Park flats
Newtown Park flats resident Kishor Maharaj is a relative newcomer.
Newtown Park flats
Newtown Park flats resident Melanie Schnauer.
Newtown Park flats
The Newton Park block of flats where tenant Michael Clarke was found dead.
Newtown Park flats
Room without a view: A glimpse into the lives of Newtown Park residents.
Newtown Park flats
Modest dimensions: The interior of a Newtown Park flat.
Newtown Park flats
A disconnected dinosaur phone.
Newtown Park flats
A view of the Newtown Park flats.
Newtown Park flats
Flat 16 in the Zoo block was where 88 yr old Tenant Michael Clarke was found dead.
Newtown Park flats
Newtown Park flats resident Olivene Taylor.

Sofia Mohammed Kadia is in a hurry.

She left her washing in the ground-floor laundry and doesn't want it nicked like last time. The Somali refugee lives with her seven children in a three-bedroom council house in Daniel St, but regularly comes here, to Newtown Park Flats, to check on her mother.

"It's terrible," she says. "All the different people mixed up. It's not safe."

BOXING ON: Newtown Park flat residents Kishor Maharaj, above, and Melanie Schnauer, left, are relative newcomers and have established a community of sorts.
BOXING ON: Newtown Park flat residents Kishor Maharaj, above, and Melanie Schnauer, left, are relative newcomers and have established a community of sorts.

Her mother, who speaks little English, returned home last month to discover a busted door and no television. "It's a sad life. She doesn't want to go out," Sofia says, baby Samia bound to her back in a scarf, and daughters Salma, 2 and Nafisa, 4 in tow.

Another tenant of 23 years grumbles that he would happily stay in his shoebox bedsit, which is about to be demolished, if he could be rid of his neighbours "with their filthy habits, parties, abusing their women".

"I come home from work, the key goes in, the door gets locked and stays locked until I go out again. I don't mix with people."

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The council flats came under fire this week after the discovery of the body of 87-year-old Michael Clarke, which lay unnoticed in his flat for up to 14 months. The lonely death exposed the isolation of the vulnerable, elderly, mentally ill and refugee tenants housed by the council, which calls itself a landlord of last resort.

Of the council's 3500 tenants, four out of five receive income support, a third are refugees and migrants, almost half are over 50 and more than a quarter have a physical or health disability. The 279-unit Newtown Park block of flats is the worst of the bunch. Its chequered past includes murder, gang conflicts and drug use. This is the frayed fringe of society.

Peter Leonard, 53, puffs on a cigarette on the balcony outside his bedsit. Smokes help him relax. "Otherwise I sit there and shake."

He's lived here – a floor below Michael Clarke in the grim silo known as Zoo Block – for eight years. Like many in this block of recluses and misfits, he suffers from depression and exists on an invalid's benefit.

"We are some of the people who have fallen through the cracks," he says. "I'm not feeling sorry for myself. It has been a journey."

He apologises for the flat's state: "I know I need to clean more." The bathroom is so poky you can barely squeeze past the open door to the toilet. The coffee table is an old computer hard drive. Mr Leonard volunteers part-time for the Wellington People's Centre, but can't get paid work because he never knows how he will feel from day to day.

A FEW doors down, stringy-haired dinosaur-tattooed Bob emerges for a smoke in his dressing gown and bare feet. He doesn't want to be identified for the sake of his estranged family. "They never come to visit. We fell out as a family. We only come together at funerals."

He moved in eight years ago when he was turfed out of his two-bedroom flat in town. Most residents live as hermits – the quirky dinosaur phone on the table is disconnected. But friends do visit and, if Bob disappeared for too long, his absence would be noted by staff at Zoo Bar. He's there most days, from 1pm to 6pm, drinking tea and the odd shot of Southern Comfort from his special glass.

On the top floor, relative newcomers Kishor Maharaj and Melanie Schnauer have established a community of sorts. They have swapped keys and Ms Schnauer is coming to share the butter chicken simmering on the stove. Mr Maharaj had a house in Karori and a Brisbane apartment, but things fell apart when he split with his ex. His 23-year-old daughter won't talk to him: "Her mum brainwashed her."

His blood pressure is sky high and he suffers depression and anxiety – he pulls out a bubble pack of daily medicines.

There are former criminals on his floor and noisy pot smokers below, but Mr Maharaj is just happy to have somewhere to live. It can feel like a prison, but he gets regular visits from a Te Aro health centre nurse and his mum calls two or three times a week.

The articulate Ms Schnauer moved down from Palmerston North after being made redundant when Telecom moved its call centre to the Philippines. She's still looking for customer service work, but in the meantime exists on a sickness benefit. The novelty of free time quickly wears off and it's easy to get down, she says.

"It's very easy when you're not working to get into a bad routine. I'm single, no kids, I want to earn some money. I would like to be able to go on holiday, visit my dad and his wife in Australia."

Wellington City Council admits Newtown Park Flats is tired and unseemly, and is part way into a $32 million upgrade that will install double glazing, new carpet, thermal curtains and swipe-card access to improve security and clean up the urine-soaked stairwells and corridors. The Zoo Block will be knocked down.

But that won't solve the problem of the isolation of misfits estranged from their families. Council housing services manager Vicki McLaren acknowledges the council needs to do a better job of checking on tenants.

Downtown Community Ministry director Stephanie McIntyre says Wellington's vulnerable are better off than those in many cities because the council has retained its social housing.

But Mr Clarke's death should be a wake-up call to all society to work harder to support those on the fringes. "Whose role is it to be a good neighbour? Who do you want to be responsible to ensure that vulnerable people do access the sort of support they need? If the public is outraged we have to put our money where our mouth is."

The Dominion Post