Quake-hit Christchurch families still living in squalor

OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 05:00 29/01/2013
Amber Breiter
DEAN KOZANIC/Fairfax NZ

BARE BONES: The housing crisis in Christchurch has left mother-of-two Amber Breiter with no choice but to live in a single garage.

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Horror stories of Christchurch families living in garages and tents continue to surface almost two years on from the February 2011 earthquake.

Some families are still stranded in sheds or illegally overcrowding friends' and relatives' houses.

Meanwhile, rental housing prices show no sign of abating and welfare agencies believe this year could be worse than the last.

Demand on Christchurch's social services continues to increase: people who have never needed help before are queuing up at food banks and many families still face impoverished living conditions.

City Missioner Michael Gorman said the unprecedented demand on the mission's alcohol and drug services, foodbank and night shelters "has not eased at all".

"There is a lot more money going into rent and a lot less money going into living."

The number of people approaching the mission suffering from poverty or mental health issues was rampant, he said.

One of his social workers had a week-long waiting list of families needing assistance with school uniform grants. Another had recently been supporting a young family living in a tent, and a couple renting a washhouse.

A desperate woman with a newborn baby emailed Gorman last week asking for any free food because she said she was "paying so much rent, I can't afford to live".

"We are seeing many, many new people. Some who may actually own property but are so stretched by having to be out of their houses and pay horrific rents," he said.

Pacific Island Evaluation social worker To'alepai Louella Thomsen-Inder said she was growing tired of "fighting day and night" for her clients.

Before Christmas she dropped food parcels off to 10 struggling families and said she could "smell the poverty as I walked in the door".

"I saw the reality. Some people had just a twig in a corner for a Christmas tree," she said.

"Some homes have no curtains, babies are crawling around on rotting carpet, it's damp and the children are running around with no shoes on and with visible skin conditions."

Tenants Protection Association manager Helen Gatonyi believes this year is "shaping up to be the worst".

"When winter strikes this year, we predict it's going to be very difficult for a large number of people."

Some owners had been renting out cramped, damp three-bedroom homes for more than $500 a week, she said.

"The behaviour of some landlords is totally unacceptable. They are renting homes for an arm and a leg, knowing there will be a queue of people lining up to view the place."

Gatonyi is calling for a warrant of fitness and code of practice to be placed on Christchurch rental properties and said the association was about to launch an in-depth inquiry into the living conditions of tenants in the city.

The Government's investigation into overcrowding, homelessness and unsuitable living conditions in Christchurch was kick-started in June last year, but the results are yet to be released.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment had hoped to have the report finalised by the end of last year.

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A spokeswoman said the release had been pushed back to ensure the information was correct and the report "robust".

According to recent ministry figures, rents rose between 7 and 21 per cent in Christchurch last year, depending on suburb.

SOLO MUM JUST WANTS A CHANCE

You don't have to look far to find a Christchurch family living in poverty.

Amber Breiter and her 1-year-old daughter inhabit a standalone garage in Linwood.

There is no heating. There is no carpet. And the windows do not open.

The 22-year-old mother was renting a two-bedroom house in Waltham last month with her daughter, Bella, and 4-year-old son, Jesse, but said she had to give it up because she could not afford the rent, power and food bills.

A week before she moved out, she rang Housing New Zealand and asked to be put on the waiting list.

Breiter moved into her mother's shed with her daughter, and her son now sleeps inside the four-bedroom house - with seven other relatives.

She pays $300 a week for food, power and rent for the one-car garage and said she looked on Trade Me every day for an affordable rental property.

She has been to 15 flat viewings in the past two weeks but has had to compete with more than 60 prospective tenants every time. With two young children and a bad credit rating, she said there was little hope.

Breiter's message to landlords was: "Give the little person a chance."

"I am down on my hands and knees, saying ‘Please'."

Raising her children in impoverished conditions was soul-destroying, Breiter said.

"Jesse asks why I don't love him any more. He thinks I am trying to punish him by doing this."

Breiter went on the domestic purposes benefit after she was injured at work in the June earthquakes in 2011 and has sought help on budgeting advice and finding employment from welfare agencies.

- The Press

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