18-month-old Julia, the innocent face of modern NZ's brutal, archaic boarding houses

Is New Zealand a great place to grow up in? Innocenti's Report Card suggests that for many children, it definitely is not.

Is New Zealand a great place to grow up in? Innocenti's Report Card suggests that for many children, it definitely is not.

Eighteen-month-old Julia Alatina is smiley, snotty-nosed, and dotted with flea bites.

She's trusting; exchanging her toy broom, made of sticks, for a stranger's hand to toddle off down the bloodstained hallway of a south Auckland lodge for the down and out.

There are six prams in that hallway, more in others. Julia's not the only child sharing a bed with her parents in what is essentially a halfway house.

Julia Mika, Jeff Alatina and their 18-month-old daughter Julia have lived in this room in a Favona boarding house for ...

Julia Mika, Jeff Alatina and their 18-month-old daughter Julia have lived in this room in a Favona boarding house for three months.

Those on the frontline reckon kids living in boarding houses have it as bad as kids living in cars – and should be fast-tracked by the government into safer accommodation.

$250 rent per week, and the toilet's down the road at KFC
We ask: Can you help little Julia?
Gary Diaz: From jail to a boarding house and now back to jail
* Life inside one of south Auckland's notorious boarding houses
* Why we must break the cycle: families in trouble

Julia's dad describes her as "explorative", and worries when she runs out the door of their little room.

Julia's dad describes her as "explorative", and worries when she runs out the door of their little room.

Jeff Alatina and Julia Mika moved with their little daughter to a two-by-three metre room at the Pacific Pearl Lodge three months ago. They pay $250 per week, bills included, and share kitchen and bathroom facilities with around 50 other tenants.

The family's belongings are piled against walls, almost touching the mouldy roof. Plates of half-eaten dinner are stashed on top of stacks of clothes and saucepans. A frilly green dress and delicately knitted cardigan – baby Julia's church outfit – hang above the rolled-up foam mattress the family share at night. They traded its bed frame for floor space.

Plunket's national clinical advisor Karen Magrath says overcrowding is now commonplace; it stems from a lack of quality, affordable housing.

Plunket's Karen Magrath says overcrowding is on the rise amongst families, and is detrimental to health.

Plunket's Karen Magrath says overcrowding is on the rise amongst families, and is detrimental to health.

"Many families just can't rent a whole house on their own," she says. "That or they can't afford to heat their whole house, so live together in one room to keep warm."

Ad Feedback

Plunket nurses note families of up to six sharing a single room, around the country, daily. They also note the cases of eczema, asthma, flu, skin infections, and sudden infant death syndrome that partner jam-packed living conditions.

Plunket doesn't keep tabs on whether the families they visit are in official boarding houses or private residences rented out room by room; overcrowding's health impact and cause tend to be the same whatever the establishment.

Mika says her tiny flea-infested room was the only option available for her family.

The 21-year-old mum spends most of her time locked in the room. She is wary of other residents, who "are always fighting and drunk"; there's blood seeped into the carpet outside her door, and beer bottles strewn around the building.

She hopes Alatina's new job at an oyster farm will let them save enough money to rent a house; "it's not safe here," she says in broken English.


South Auckland social worker Anne is currently helping around 20 families get out of boarding houses around south Auckland, and her organisation has dealt with hundreds of others. She didn't want her full name published out of fear it would hinder access to those families.

"The reality is that families can languish in boarding houses for years," she warns.

Anne paints a bleak future for baby Julia, should she get stuck: "Living this way really denigrates the dignity of a person; it touches everything – their health, psychology, education, and employment."

"When you sleep in a room infested with cockroaches and fleas, surrounded by parties and fights each night, how can you be in the right mind frame for school the next morning?" she asks. "Where's the space, even, to do your homework?"

Boarding houses can be an education in themselves and many do not have a strict door policy.

They're home to drug addicts and the mentally-disturbed; to sex offenders and violent criminals placed there by Corrections after serving jail-time; anyone unable to convince a landlord they would make an upstanding tenant. Bad company for kids at impressionable ages, says Anne.

Former residents speak of sneaking in to live rent-free for weeks before being found out. One manager complained to Corrections this year of discovering an obsessive bomb-maker and an unreformed rapist, placed there by parole officers without a background briefing or warning to fellow residents. 

Anne says it's not unusual for mothers to stand guard outside bathrooms as their daughters shower or use the toilet, to ward off opportunistic lechers. 

Some boarding houses have child bans, but Anne says she's heard of managers letting families stay anyway and telling them to hide their kids if the police or council inspectors roll up.

The Ministry of Social Development does not deem boarding houses safe places for families to be placed for emergency accommodation. Instead, MSD refers them to self-contained motel units.

"This is ironic," says Anne, "because if a family applies for emergency accommodation when they're living in a boarding house they're going to be told 'no, you are already adequately housed'."

It's Anne's mission to prove otherwise.

"Life in lodges is pretty similar to sleeping in a car or a garage, then going into someone else's house to use the kitchen and bathroom."

She documents the maggots, the leaks, the one bed for a family of five, the unisex bathroom shared by dozens. Then she insists the MSD conduct a housing assessment for families she works with.

Housing assessments "most often" lead to the family getting put on the social housing register or offered emergency accommodation, says Anne. "But 10 out of 10 times a family will not get offered an assessment unless I am on the phone too, asking for it."

When asked what she wants from life, baby Julia's mother thinks of the basics first.

"Clothes for the baby," Mika says. "And some plates."

Then she looks at her daughter and reflects that she mainly wants happiness for Julia.

"I am so proud of her already," she says.

"Julia is a very kind girl – if someone is crying, she gives them her toys ... even if they are mean. This is what I try to teach her."

*Comments on this article have been closed

 - Sunday Star Times


Ad Feedback
special offers

Poi dancing good for elderly

Poi, a traditional Maori dance, involves weights on the ends of cords being spun in circular patterns.

The Maori dance can help seniors improve their balance and memory, according to a new study.

Wakeboarder towed by seaplane

Brad Smeele, Brant Hales and Jesse Cassrels set new standards to raise awareness.

Wakeboarder Brad Smeele injured his spine three years ago. His friends are going to extremes to help raise awareness.

Auckland teacher shortage will get worse

More than two thirds of Auckland's new primary and intermediate teachers are thinking about leaving the city, a new ...

More than two thirds of Auckland's new primary and intermediate teachers considering moving due to cost of living, survey reveals.

Digger flips, driver trapped

Emergency crews are working to free the driver after his digger flipped over in Flat Bush on Monday afternoon.

Emergency crews are working to free the driver after an incident in Auckland's Flat Bush.


Capital's cycle lanes a Kiwi-first

A proposed new contra-flow bike lane on Wellington's Cuba St will allow people to ride both ways along part of the ...

Proposed new lanes will allow Wellington's cyclists to ride against the flow of traffic.

Ticketed in free park

Shane Leach has been parking his motorhome in the free car park since November, but has been ticketed twice by Wilson ...

The tiny car park is a "hidden gem" in the capital. That didn't stop Wilson Parking.

Celebrations timed rugby team out

Masterton Red Star have received a valuable reminder about converting tries in a timely fashion.

With seconds to go, they scored a try. But their celebratory high-fives came too soon - and went on too long.

Do we have hazard fatigue?

Civil Defence says it's important to follow a trusted source for official warnings.

Study finds widespread scepticism of official disaster warnings.


Huts near lake still underwater video

Questions have been raised about Lake Ellesmere not being opened ahead of floods that inundated Lower Selwyn Huts over ...

Questions are being asked about why Canterbury's Lake Ellesmere was not opened to the sea ahead of the weekend's flooding.

Anger at flooding

Southshore's estuary frontage at the weekend.

Southshore residents are angry homes flooded due to lack of flood protection.

Man with a flood plan

24072017 Photo: John Kirk-Anderson/Stuff

. Flooding

When a flood looks likely, Hugo Young starts raising all his belongings off the floor.

With a whisker to spare video

Some of the cats at the planned cafe will be available for adoption.

Plans to open a Christchurch cat cafe are purring along nicely.


Parents sell up to treat child video

Moana Forbes admits that Ka'iulani's illness has changed their lives, but they couldn't live with themselves if they ...

A Hamilton couple are selling their home to give their first born a fighting chance.

Death a 'homicide' video

Police tape guards the scene in North Street, Te Awamutu.

Body discovery scream startles couple as they nestle in for prime time telly. 

SH25A closed for days

The slip occurred near Kitahi Road, close to the summit.

Main road over Coromandel Peninsula won't be clear until at least Thursday, though one lane may open sooner.

NZ's worst footpath?

Te Ranga Memorial Drive has an unusual footpath design.

Ten steps forward, one step sideways. Tauranga City Council left defending flexible path twisting up users.


Faull family success

06042017 News Photo ANDY JACKSON/Fairfax NZ.   Saturday big read,  Faull Farms at Tikorangi is one of Taranakis biggest ...

Gavin Faull is one of two Taranaki entries on the latest NBR Rich List.

A virtual remedy

Digital health deputy Janine Maruera photographs Makaiah Nui's tummy as she is held by cousin Tesha Whakatutu,  during ...

A combination of local gumption and modern technology is bringing health care to a town with no doctor.

'Moonshine' madness 

Drunk on home brew whisky or "moonshine" a South Taranaki man assaulted his partner and drove dangerously. (File Photo)

 A South Taranaki farmer was so drunk on moonshine he had little memory of assaulting his partner.

Something beginning with C

240717 News Photo. SIMON O'CONNOR/STUFF
Central School in New Plymouth has had the 'C' stolen from its front entrance. ...

Be on the lookout for a missing C. It belongs to Entral School, formerly known as Central School.


Last supper for church video

Bishop's Warden Steve Fowler outside the church building.

Earthquake prone Levin church has been part of the community since the 1890s.

Another gorge slip

A new slip has fallen on the already-closed Manawatu Gorge road.

The closed Manawatu Gorge road is blocked by a third slip that came down this weekend.

Win for developer

Palmerston North courthouse.

Property developer wins case after High Court incorrectly interprets the law.

Flood-damaged paths repaired

Fresh erosion on the Mangaone Stream has exposed more stormwater pipes.

Paths have been left sodden, silted and damaged by floods.


Recyclable cups end up in landfill

Smart Environmental manager Yuri Schokking with recycled plastic at the Richmond Resource Recovery Centre.

Almost all our disposable coffee cups are going nowhere near the recycling plant.

Weekend crime spree

The door at the Milton Street Store in Nelson was replaced with a sheet of plywood after a ram-raid attack on the store ...

Another dairy raid caps a spate of crimes across Nelson on a busy weekend for police.

Cadets' voyage of discovery

The Nelson Sea Cadets with LTCOL Josh Wineera, New Zealand Defence Advisor to Fiji and LT Sam Wilson, Military Liaison ...

It was hardly smooth sailing, but Nelson's young sailors learned plenty about theimselves.

Pain relief battle

Yvonne Gill has been using opioid painkillers for 10 years to manage pain from a medical mishap.

 A Nelson woman is angry at doctors for stopping access to strong painkillers.


First look at Kaikoura village video

The North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery Accommodation Village.

Mark von Huben​ normally wears a tour guide's hat when he visits Kaikoura - now he's behind the wheel of a dump truck carting rubble away from slips blocking SH1.

$231m boost for SH1

A slip on State Highway 1 after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake.

New cycleway announced for 60km section of quake-hit highway north of Kaikoura.

Cats suffer anxiety too

Vet Centre Marlborough senior veterinarian Mark Wiseman says some cats have to take anxiety medication long term.

Some of our feline friends are so stressed they need anti-anxiety pills, just like humans.

End of the Manhattan

23072017 News Photo- RICKY WILSON/STUFF
The Manhattan Cafe has been sold after 28 years of ownership by 
Murray and Mary ...

Blenheim's longest-running cafe calls it a day.

South Canterbury

'Lake' consumes farm

Farmer Geoff Wallace on his Hook Swamp Rd property, which is still inundated with water.

Rapidly rising water in a flood-prone area meant a South Canterbury farmer ended up with a trailer load of dead calves.

$500k clean-up bill gallery video

Ashbury Mowers & Heating business in Washdyke had to get rid of chainsaws and line trimmers that had water damage. ...

Cleaning up the Timaru District aftermath storm will come with $500k price tag.

'Tough as teak' ex-AB dies

Tom Lister played eight tests as an All Black against, Australia, France, Wales, South Africa and the 1971 British and ...

South Canterbury's most-capped test All Black Tom Lister dies, aged 73.

Chainsawing through

Ricky Hunter had no way out of his Bouverie St property other than on foot, after a tree fell down onto the driveway ...

In a bid for freedom after the weekend's storm, Ricky Hunter picked up a chainsaw.


"The culinary world has just lost a gentleman"

Scott Richardson, pictured here in 2015, in his role as a catering and hospitality teacher at Southland Boys' High School.

Well-known Invercargill chef Scott Richardson died this morning in Dunedin Hospital.

'Business as usual'

Aparima College principal Kaye Day. The latest Governmental report on the College said "urgent" improvement in ...

A troubled Southland secondary school is to continue as usual, despite its leadership coming under fire.

Hotel facing potential delays

Invercargill Licensing Trust general manager Greg Mulvey in front of the proposed site of the ILT's new multi-million ...

The Invercargill Licensing Trust has unearthed some speed bumps in its plans to build a new inner city hotel.

Defending champions on fire

Wensley's Fire cyclists from left to right, Nick Barclay, Marty Jillings, Ben Coley and Tai-Anne Blair set off in the ...

The fire service team has confirmed its the fastest emergency service in Invercargill.

Ad Feedback