Heading closer to a trailer park culture in New Zealand

Sheree has been living on a tent on State Highway 2 for the past two months as she has nowhere else to go.
MATT SHAND/FAIRFAX NZ

Sheree has been living on a tent on State Highway 2 for the past two months as she has nowhere else to go.

The roar of an engine rips through the night just metres from where Sheree Galautau calls home. These engines used to wake her, but no longer. 

Headlights flick over the roadside tent providing a snapshot of Galautau's belongings: A torch with a flat battery, a dying cellphone, a thermos - empty,waiting to be refilled in the morning - and an assortment of wet clothes needing daylight to dry. Sheree lies on the couch draped in a blanket that was dropped off, along with the tent, by a good samaritan.

She used to sleep under the stars in the exact same spot.

She used to sleep under the stars in the exact same spot, but one morning she woke up and someone had left her a tent.
MATT SHAND/FAIRFAX NZ

She used to sleep under the stars in the exact same spot, but one morning she woke up and someone had left her a tent.

"I just woke up and the tent was just left there for me," shes says. It was a welcome step up. Moving across the road and into Silver Birch and living in a caravan seems like moving to Beverly Hills.

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Nancy Nahi has been living in Silver Birch Holiday park as her main home for the family. The park is across the road ...
MATT SHAND/FAIRFAX NZ

Nancy Nahi has been living in Silver Birch Holiday park as her main home for the family. The park is across the road from Sheree.

The grass is greener over there – they have water, power, people and an alluring escape from the judgements that come about homelessness.

Occasionally, Galautau crosses the busy road to talk to the manager. There is no room for long term dwellers – there never is.

Owner Tony Makai has fielded calls non-stop from people in the same situation as Sheree since he took over Silver Birch almost two years ago.

Rod has lived at the Silver Birch Holiday park in a caravan for four years. He says caravan life takes some getting used ...
MATT SHAND/FAIRFAX NZ

Rod has lived at the Silver Birch Holiday park in a caravan for four years. He says caravan life takes some getting used to but can be a good solution to housing unaffordability.

"I probably get between five to ten calls a day from people unable to find a place to live looking for some options."

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"I don't like turning them away but I do not always have the space," he says.

With so many New Zealanders unable to find or afford homes, comparisons have been made to the American depression, when caravan parks popped up as a solution to the affordable housing crisis in the 1930s to 1950s, and again in recent years during the global financial crisis. 

Cars zoom past Sheree Galatau as she sleeps in her tent on State Highway 2.
MATT SHAND/FAIRFAX NZ

Cars zoom past Sheree Galatau as she sleeps in her tent on State Highway 2.

"In the Great Depression in the 1930s, people started living in trailers which were designed for travelling and vacationing. But out of necessity, people started to make these tiny mobile units their homes," says author of Diners, Bowling Alleys and Trailer Parks Andrew Hurley.

Typically trailer parks appeared on the outskirts of cities and became synonymous with working class and impoverished people.

However,in the 1960s and 1970s, the housing market caught up with the demand, and people moved out of trailers and into the suburbs, but the global financial crisis sent them back again. 

The tent is the only place in Tauranga Sheree Galatau can find to live.
MATT SHAND/FAIRFAX NZ

The tent is the only place in Tauranga Sheree Galatau can find to live.

While the film 8-Mile, starring Eminem, highlights a rundown trailer park full of socio-economic problems, a stigma often associated with trailer parks, there are some in the United States where prices reach the $2.5 million dollar mark and attract Hollywood celebrities. 

Data from the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand shows more houses were sold in March 2017 than the past six months but that increased supply had done nothing to constrain the median sale price which jumped from $495,000 in February to $546,000. In total 8,504 houses were sold in March, more than 2,200 than the previous month. 

Sheree earns $306 a week which can go a long way when you're living in a tent. But if she were to realise her dream and enter the caravan park that wouldn't stretch far.  

Nancy Nahi managed to get a space inside Silver Birch with her two children. It took time to get through the waiting list and into the facility but she is thankful she no longer lives in her car. Nahi lost her rental home when the landlord moved back in. She was unable to find one in the competitive market. 

The 46-year-old, who immigrated to New Zealand 15 years ago from Papua New Guinea, says she is appalled at the conditions she now has to live in. 

"I never thought I would end up being homeless in New Zealand," she says.

"It makes me think back to my country, Papua New Guinea, where people are living on the streets because they cannot afford to live in a house. It is happening here."

Nahi says whenever they found a place to freedom camp for the night it would not be long before someone would force them to move on. 

The cost of renting temporary accommodation each night keeps a roof over their head, and her children safe, but she says it is not ideal.

Nahi uses communal cooking facilities each night to prepare meals.  "I used to do that back in my home country when I was younger and stronger," she says.

"It is really hard on the children."

Despite her circumstances, Nahi gives back to those living rough. She offers to fill Sheree Galautau's thermos and charge her phone when she can. Occasionally she will give her food.

Tauranga caravan hire companies have no stock. One hire company owner, who asked not to named, said in his 25 years of renting caravans he has never seen this level of shortage. 

"It used to be all our caravans would come back for winter," he says.

"This year they never did. Demand is a lot higher than what it used to be because people are struggling to find housing anywhere. When that happens they come to us. They are old Kiwi caravans and get quite cold in the winter."

Rental prices for an average three bedroom home in Tauranga are about $450 a week, with a two bedroom home not far behind on $400 a week. It costs between $30 and $150 a week to rent a caravan from a company but placing one in a powered site will cost at least $210 a week.

The owner says the caravans are really not suitable for families. While he has not rented any out to families, he has heard of it happening as people become more desperate for homes.

Auckland-based caravan companies are reporting similar shortages. One outfit, also asked not to be named, said were also sold out. 

Not only are more people living in caravans as a last option, but homeowners are taking advantage of high sale prices coupled with low interest rates  and carrying out renovations. 

"They are renting out large campervans and living in them at their home while big renovations are underway," the owner said. 

"At the moment we do not have any stock on hand at all."

"One of the issus we are facing is a lack of places to park them. Many caravan parks are full up and with tourism booming many camps will not allow long term residents."

Demand is higher than it was 10-years ago during the Global Financial Crisis.

"Back in 2007/2008 we all thought that would be the time when demand would go up for caravans as people were doing it tough but it never did," he says. 

"Things seem to be worse now. Until last year there was probably little need to sleep in a car because you could always find a cheap caravan and a place to park it."

"That's not the case anymore."

It is a view shared by a long-term caravan park resident Rod . "I don't like to add it up but I've lived here at Silver Birch for about four years now," he said.

"It used to be people would live in caravan parks by choice. That is changing now."

Rod says life inside caravan parks is not as bad as depicted in Hollywood movies. He enjoys the social aspect of living within a community and getting to know people as they come and go. 

Rod enjoys the freedom that comes with being at the camp ground.

His neighbours include a home made out of a converted bus and a larger, more modern caravan. Rod's campervan has three couches that can double as beds, a foldaway table and a little kitchenette for cooking and boiling water. 

"I chose to live small to help keep costs down," he says.

"The good thing about living in a trailer park is the power is included so heating is not a problem. It costs me about $150 to park at a powered site each week plus the cost of the caravan. It is possible to live well for about $250 a week and be free from any mortgage. I keep telling myself everyday that I'm lucky to live here.

Managing people with addiction issues is key to ensuring happy living within the community. He thinks if trailer parks were to become more common in New Zealand some investment in management would go a long way to avoiding trouble. 

"Mental health is a factor," Rod says.

"We're getting to the point where the last stop for mental illness is prison. It makes more sense to not just build more houses but manage them. It'll cost $1000 a week to keep someone in prison and the same to put them in a motel. Here we can live for a quarter of that."

 Sheree, Nancy and Rod are just a few of the many New Zealanders who feel let down by their government because they can't afford to live in adequate housing.

Labour's shadow minister for housing Phil Twyford says caravan parks should be the last resort for affordable housing. He says the rise in people residing in holiday parks in caravans is a worrying sign.

"In many cases they are one step away from actual homelessness," he says.

"The fact people are living in caravan parks paying hundreds of dollars to rent a caravan or get a single bedroom each week shows how desperate the homeless problem has become."

Twyford's rallying cry is for more state houses to be constructed to keep up with demand.

"National is reducing state housing," he says.

"Instead of building new Housing New Zealand homes they have been obsessed with changing their ownership. They have taken 1.8 billion out of Housing New Zealand in dividends with that they could have built 5,000 state homes."

Last year the National Government increased its' emergency housing supply by just five beds – enough for Sheree and four others across the entire country.

House prices continue to rise and house prices continue to rise. more people are making tracks toward try and get caravans and caravan parks. 

In January this year the average house price in Auckland was $943,047.

Unlike Eminem's song "Lose Yourself," which is about people making the most of an opportunity, seizing it – many New Zealanders living on the street, in a caravan park, or in a boarding house may never have a real shot at owning a house.

While Sheree has her hopes set on moving in to Silver Birch and living in a caravan, Rod is worried he might not get to stay in his. He has heard about caravan parks closing down around Tauranga due to their high land value and wonders if the same will occur to his home. 

"The owners are not getting rich taking money off me."

"But the land, the capital value, has got to be going up about $5,000 a week. Soon it's got to be worth more to sell than keep. We'll be out there parked next to the lady in the tent outside. We're at the bottom of the cliff and the ambulances are full. And there isn't even a hospital to go to anyway."

ALMOST HOMELESS – NO CARAVANS AROUND

Matt Shand needed a place to escape close living quarters with extended family, but almost missed out.

The plan sounded simple enough but simple plans often do.

With limited space at the in-laws, after failing to secure a rental property over the last few weeks, the plan was to expand the amount of space on hand. Extensions took time and this was just to have an office space and occasional retreat. The family had rented caravans before and knew some suppliers in town. 

The first chap ran an operation out in Welcome Bay and was genuinely surprised to receive a phone call from a 'regular' customer. Most of his customers knew there was nothing to rent from him at the moment. Most of his stock had been used for kiwifruit season and he was often busy at this time of year. With no stock on hand the phone book was used to fund the rest. 

An operation out in the Kaimai's said they had nothing available. Even their rental cabins were nearly all gone and it was unlikely they were going to have any stock soon. The third caravan rental in town had one available. Just one out of a large fleet. The owner then told me most of his stock was rented out to people unable to afford homes. He said it was lucky the call came in when it did. The last caravan would be gone soon. From several hundred caravans, only one was available to rent. 

When I took the caravan and parked it up, it was impossible not to feel guilty. There were many other places that could be used as an office but not so many places to live. I returned it the next day, and it was quickly rented out again.

 - Sunday Star Times

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