Low-income people 'have nowhere to go'

TURNED AWAY: A family of seven are living in a relative's sleepout because of the difficulty in finding rental accommodation in Christchurch. From left AJ McIlroy and Anne Bovey with Aja, 4 months, Courtney, 14, Bailey, 8, Tatanya, 11, and Tasman, 14.
TURNED AWAY: A family of seven are living in a relative's sleepout because of the difficulty in finding rental accommodation in Christchurch. From left AJ McIlroy and Anne Bovey with Aja, 4 months, Courtney, 14, Bailey, 8, Tatanya, 11, and Tasman, 14.

People on low incomes or benefits have always found it difficult to rent adequate accommodation. Anna Turner reports on whether it has become worse in the post-earthquake housing market.

Rising rents and fewer rental properties are pushing Christchurch's strugglers into inferior housing.

The Press carried out a two-week investigation into the city's housing supply, finding housing problems in general appeared to be overstated.

It found, however, that those who usually battle to get good housing are more disadvantaged in the rental market because landlords can afford to be more selective.

The Press heard anecdotal evidence about the plight of those at the bottom of the market but some statistics suggest otherwise.

Housing New Zealand (HNZ) has recorded a marked decrease in the number of people on its waiting list for social housing units, dropping from 744 people in 2010 to 195 in 2013.

The drop came even though 551 of HNZ's properties in Christchurch were rendered uninhabitable due to earthquake damage.

Of their 5277 units, 658 are now unoccupied, some because they are being repaired.

The numbers on the Christchurch City Council's waiting list are also similar to pre-quake levels. Of the council's 2209 units, 440 were closed - 113 were in the red zone, while the other 327 were closed for repair or rebuilding.

The city has also lost a lot of its cheaper housing stock.

A Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) report last year showed more than 2500 properties were renting for less than $300 a week, and more than 250 boarding house units renting for $150 or less per week had been removed from the market and not replaced.

Partnership Health Canterbury support worker Tania Caa said she saw the effects of housing problems on the people she worked with.

"I don't consider those who have to pay $30 or $40 more on their rent in a crisis. I appreciate that a crisis is different to everybody but at least they have somewhere to live. It's the mothers with several children living in a car that are really in a crisis," she said.

"A lot of people just have nowhere to go. I know people in cars or in camping grounds. Some are working; others are on benefits. It's the people on low and average incomes that are in a crisis."

Pineacres Holiday Park Wayne Curragh had almost 100 people living permanently at his camping ground.

Most were families with parents on benefits or others on sickness benefits, he said. Before the earthquakes he consistently had about 50 guests, mostly couples and single men.

"There are people here who are absolutely struggling and have been here since the quakes. These are people who were sleeping in their cars because they had nowhere else to go. It's really wrong."

Caa said those sleeping in cars or shelters would not speak to The Press because of "pride".

Salvation Army worker Glenis Tricklebank works at a shelter that provides accommodation for 82 men. The shelter had been at 100 per cent occupancy since the earthquakes.

"Single men on benefits and those on low incomes are unable to move on back into the community and often do not have the socially acceptable graces to rent or flat with others," she said.

"It was bad for these guys before the earthquakes but it's been getting consistently worse."

Landlords now simply had more choice, Independent Property Managers Association president Martin Evans said.

"Before the earthquakes we had a surplus of properties and everybody got housed. Now, people at the bottom are missing out."

Independent landlord Pam Shadbolt owns about 20 properties throughout the city and agreed she could be "pickier" about who she rented to.

"Landlords have a choice of the type of tenant they get now. You can be stricter on the credit records and not take the risks on people you used to have to. I do feel sorry for people who can't find a home."

Despite the tough rental market, waiting lists for social housing in Christchurch did not appear to have increased since the earthquakes.

HNZ earthquake recovery manager Andrew Booker said many people on the waiting list to rent before the earthquakes had decided to leave Canterbury.

"Before the quakes, the requirement for state houses in Canterbury was generally trending downwards. However, we cannot say with any certainty that this trend will continue.

"The waiting list over the past year has fluctuated and after a dip in the middle of last year has started to move up again."

Some welfare agencies believed the social housing figures were misleading, blaming a long process and strict criteria to get on the list.

To go on the HNZ waiting list, a person undergoes a telephone assessment before another phone interview and the production of relevant documentation.

Applicants must be under the asset threshold of $40,231 and under an income threshold - $523 weekly for a single person and $805 for other households.

Applicants must also be assessed as having a "high housing need".

Priority is given to those deemed to be "at risk" or in "serious need". Those with a moderate to low need can join the list, but below priority candidates.

Tenants Protection Agency manager Helen Gatonyi said it was difficult to prove a "serious need".

"You've got to show you're in substantial or extreme hardship to get a property. A lot of people are applying and not meeting the criteria."

Tricklebank, who helps people to get on HNZ's waiting list, said the criteria were complicated, and single men were not usually its first choice for tenants.

"They usually try to help families and mothers first. Our guys aren't technically in an emergency situation because they know we are providing some shelter and food for them."

Many people contacted The Press to say they were having difficulty finding a rental home, but few were on the waiting lists.

To "meet forecasted demand" HNZ has announced it will build 700 new houses in Christchurch before December 2015.

The council plans to build 22 new housing units and repair 70 damaged units by the end of this year.

All of the people displaced by the council had been offered accommodation in another council unit. To date, 84 per cent have accepted the offer and 16 per cent found alternative accommodation.

House-hunting a struggle for family of seven

A Christchurch couple and five of their six children are living in a relative's sleepout as they struggle to find a place to live.

Anne Bovey and her partner AJ McIlroy say landlords reject them because they are both on a benefit and have a poor credit rating.

The couple's housing problems began in October when they were told they had to leave their flat in Addington, which they had rented for over a year, because of earthquake repairs. Their tenancy was not renewed.

Bovey was eight months pregnant at the time and went into hospital with serious complications.

While she was in hospital, McIlroy lost his job as a scaffolder and had to move the family into a friend's home. A disagreement with their hosts meant they had to leave.

"AJ applied for some Housing New Zealand houses but we couldn't get all the paperwork together while I was in hospital," Bovey said.

The family and children moved into Bovey's aunt's sleepout late last year.

The family has lived in the sleepout for several months, but the landlord recently discovered the family and told them to move out by the beginning of March.

The couple had been hunting for a rental but were "always turned away", they said.

They admitted having a poor credit rating and McIlroy had criminal convictions.

"As soon as landlords hear we are on a benefit they want someone with cash in hand who can start paying straight away," he said.

As soon as a landlord heard they had five children they "say no straight away", McIlroy said.

"It's really tough," Bovey said.

The couple were now trying to get on Housing New Zealand's waiting list but were finding it a "long process".

The Press