The rental crisis creating Taupo's homeless community

The Facebook page set up to address homelessness in Taupo.
MATT SHAND/FAIRFAX NZ

The Facebook page set up to address homelessness in Taupo.

The public toilet at Taupo Community Park shuts at 4pm each day.

Until 5pm, if you have 50 cents for the loo or $2 for the shower, you can use the award-winning Superloo on Tongariro Street.

But after 5, your options start to lessen. The last easy option is the Ferry Road carpark toilet, which remains open until 7pm.

Taupo Mayor David Trewavas says the council might have a role to play in addressing the homeless problem.
MATT SHAND/FAIRFAX NZ

Taupo Mayor David Trewavas says the council might have a role to play in addressing the homeless problem.

Miss that and you are not going to the toilet for another 12 hours unless you buy something from McDonald's or brave the freedom camps at Reids Farm and 5 Mile Bay.

But those are a long way out of town when you are busting.

The toilet schedule is something you need to know when you are homeless in Taupo. It is something Glenn knows only too well after he found himself homeless and living in his car for two months.

"It's not great," Glenn says.

"It's really tough when it's after 7pm and you have to go to the bathroom. If you need a shower after 5, you have to use a sink or jump in the river."

He's one of a growing number of people who end up homeless as they struggle to find accommodation in one of the country's most popular tourist destinations.

Taupo District Council figures show that the town has just over 23,000 properties in total, but 42 per cent of these (7470) homes are owned by people living outside of Taupo.

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While some of these properties end up as rental homes, many are used as holiday homes or remain vacant most of the year, limiting the rental pool.

Fresh from a stint in Melbourne, Glenn returned to Taupo to get work and live in his home country.

"I naively thought there would be a bit more work in the area for my skills," he said. "I had plenty of work in Melbourne."

A keen outdoorsman with a relaxed and outgoing personality, he fits in with the other fishermen and hunters who call Taupo home.

Most are surprised to find he was living on the streets, but there he was.

He initially looked for a rental, but without a job and prices very high in Taupo, finding one in his price range proved impossible.

"If I was to get a rental property, I would have had no money left for food," he said.

"Maybe $30 to $40 a week, tops. It was just cheaper and easier for me to live in my car.

"I was a bit proud to ask Winz for assistance finding a house and there were likely people out there worse off than me."

Finding work when you're homeless is also a struggle - but it can become less so if you know where the free internet access is.

While there are some slow pockets of Wi-Fi at the Ferry Road carpark, where many homeless people like Smythe park-up, the BP Station has a good service that can be accessed without even leaving your car if you park close to the doors.

Here you can not only pick up signal but have access to computers to help you with find a rental property or job to get you off the streets.

"I was staying in Reids Farm for a bit but without internet access it was hard to keep in touch with jobs and the rental market.

"The library was the most useful place to go to."

At the library, Trade Me was the primary port of call to check on the rental listings for the day.

There were fewer than 50 rental properties in Taupo listed at most given times.

If he'd logged in today, there would be 43 properties, 27 of which renting for less than $350 per week.

Tenancy.org.nz lists the median rental price for a two-bedroom home at $290 per week, a three-bedroom at $340 and a four-bedroom at $400.

The median income for a person in Taupo is $28,200 or $542.30 a week.

Housing stress is a term used to describe the pressure a household faces when it spends more than 30 per cent of its income on living costs. Severe cases set in at 50 per cent.

When Glenn did find a rental property he could afford, it was more like a lottery than an application.

"The ones I did go to always had 30 to 40 people all trying to get them," he said.

With such high demand on rental properties landlords can afford to be picky and some tenants are resorting to offering higher rents to take on properties.

 Glenn soon discovered he was not alone in his struggle.

"When I arrived at the Ferry Road carpark to live, there were four others parked up there just like me," he said.

"One had been living there for nearly six months. They are just in their cars, parked next to the motorhomes. It's a bit of a community."

While knowing that others are also doing it tough in town is not going to make a winter night, it can be a strong mental boost to realise that you are not an isolated case and what has happened to you can happen to anyone and is doing so more often.

There is emergency accommodation in the form of Women's Refuge, and the Salvation Army has some capacity to serve about a dozen people, but once that is used up, you're on your own.

Ange Cherry, who is expecting her second child, has also been unable to locate a rental property for her growing family.

While both she and her partner work - so have more than the median rent to spend - they haven't been able to find a suitable house.

Their current rental, a two-bedroom flat, is cramped, damp and expensive, so they wanted to move.

They looked at moving towns, but they would both lose their jobs if they did.

Cherry said all she wanted was something better for her children.

Cherry is one of many to air her concerns on the Taupo to Rent and Board Facebook page, which moderator Ras Dred said has seen an influx in people facing homelessness.

"It's always been a bit of an issue, but I'm really starting to notice it now," Dred said.

"I'm seeing requests every other day of people losing their homes and not being able to find another property.

"We've got about 3000 people on our page, so it is easy to see there is a need for rentals."

Taupo Mayor David Trewavas is unsure of the exact cause of so much strife in the rental accommodation market, but admits it is something that needs to be addressed, as families living in cars or leaving town is not a good thing.

"It is something that needs to be discussed by council," he said.

Trewavas said Taupo District Council did not have any immediate plans, but did mention that the council currently owns 2200 undeveloped sections.

"The sections were purchased when the bypass road was put through," he said.

"It will be a juggling act, as we have to balance the ratepayers' [who paid for the land] needs as well as the need for housing.

"The sections average around the $100,000 mark, so could see a property built around the $300,000 to $350,000 mark."

The search for affordable housing

The government says steps being taken to fix housing problems in Auckland, by establishing housing accords under the Housing Accord and Special Housing Area Act of 2013, will also benefit other regions.

"New Zealand's housing challenge is about more than just Auckland and Christchurch," Housing Minister Nick Smith said.

"That is why the Government entered into accords 18 months ago with councils like Tauranga and Western Bay of Plenty.

"We need to grow housing supply in these areas as well in order to properly manage the national housing demand."

The act permits the Government to make arrangements with local bodies to allow space for fast-tracked development for affordable houses.

In order for a Special Housing area to be established, the weekly mortgage payment on a median-priced house as a percentage of the median take-home pay for an individual needs to exceed 50 per cent.

"House costs in Taupo have gone up over the last few years, but with the lowest interest rate in 40 years," Smith said.

"Special Housing Areas were designed in areas where council had not freed up significant land. In Auckland, it was vital.

"My official advisers tell me council in Taupo has not done a bad job."

Smith said Government has been deliberately trying to "screw the scrum in favour of first-home buyers" with HomeStart grants and KiwiSaver enabling more people to purchase their first home. 

More than 100 HomeStart grant applications have been received in Taupo. 

So far, no housing accords have been signed in Taupo and the bill that allows them to occur expires in September.

In October 2015, the median sale price of a home in the Waikato jumped dramatically. Taupo surged 27 per cent to $395,000.

This upsurge is in some part due to Auckland homeowners selling up and buying south of the Bombay Hills in Tauranga and Taupo, Mortgage Link Taupo broker Wendy Yorke says. 

While there's no silver bullet for affordable housing, some members of the Taupo community are stepping up to help.

After hearing story after story of people ending up homeless in Taupo, four women decided that it was time to put up or shut up.

Renee Gray, Cindy Turetahi, Ailyn McSweeny and Kirsty Brown got together to help people find accommodation solutions.

They set up a Facebook page to establish a network of people who were willing to offer a sleep-out, spare room or unwanted furniture to needy families.

Within a few weeks, they had 1000 likes and had several requests and offers of help.

"Sometimes people just need a place to take a breath," Gray says. 

The group has split into two. Gray focuses on the day-to-day needs of people and the others work on long-term solutions.

Ideas such as purchasing old motels and turning them into emergency housing or creating social housing projects on unused land are some of the goals the women are lobbying for.

Gray preferred to stick to helping people immediately, as she can't stand idle when people are in trouble.

She's been getting lots of requests for help, one of them from Glenn.

He saw the Emergency Accommodation group on Facebook while he was checking for property listings.

"I just thought, what do I have to lose at this point, and got in contact.

"Renee was amazing."

It was not long after making contact that he was able to leave his parking spot at Ferry Road.

He now has a house and no longer has to wait 12 hours to go to the bathroom.

"I touched base with her and within 24 hours, she had gotten me into a temporary place for a couple of days.

"That gave me a few nights to get myself together and just focus on finding work."

That was something he couldn't really do while living in his car.

"It was hard to make yourself presentable for interviews. It wasn't like I could whip out an ironing board."

But everything fell into place once he got the temporary house.

With a solid place to plant his feet, he focused his efforts and landed a job the next day and now has a permanent house to live in.

"I can't sing Renee's praises enough.

"The community was so generous, as well. They even located a bed for me once I found a place. 

"It just makes you feel really welcome in town.

"If I can ever repay them or help them out, I will definitely do it."

 

 - Stuff

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