City's rental crisis 'at breaking point'

OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 05:00 12/04/2012
Charmaine Nolan
DEAN KOZANIC/Fairfax NZ
SEEKING SHELTER: Charmaine Nolan and her children, Hannah, 8, and Fletcher, 4, are among the many who have been caught up in the rapidly rising house rental market tide.

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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The rental housing shortage in Christchurch is at breaking point, agencies say.

Tenants hunting rental properties in the earthquake-hit city are fighting soaring demand, rising rent and a plummeting supply.

Landlords are fielding a 42 per cent increase in inquiries, tenants face a 15 per cent rent rise and rental listings have dived 40 per cent compared with last year, new Trade Me figures show.

Some of the hardest-hit people sleep in garages and have moved into damaged red-zoned homes, while others face homelessness.

Tenants Protection Association manager Helen Gatonyi said the rental market had been under stress before the quakes, but the disaster had brought it to "breaking point".

"We are in a crisis, crisis, crisis. It's just about as bad as it can get and, yet, it's getting worse," she said.

Gatonyi works with some of the worst-affected residents. She had seen unlawful overcrowding, people who had been forced to sleep in sheds, tents, garages and cars, and some who had no choice but to turn to the streets.

"Many people are facing absolute uncertainty. Children are unsettled, parents are becoming unwell and the elderly are losing themselves with worry and fear. God forbid what is going to happen when winter hits," she said.

"It is time somebody steps up. The Government must take leadership and do something right now that is going to meet the needs of people who need it most and need it right now."

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said last month that the rental housing crisis was best left to the market, but Gatonyi said his stance was "totally flawed".

Methodist Mission earthquake support co-ordinator Alannah Winters said she had seen the grim reality first-hand.

"Sometimes I go home and think, 'I can't actually do my job any more because there is just nothing I can do'. There is a real sense of hopelessness here."

She knew of six families, all with young children, who had been forced to leave their homes and rent in the abandoned red zone.

"Usually you can choose what neighbourhood you want to live in, but now you move because you are desperate."

Winters said 95 per cent of her clients were living in unsuitable accommodation.

One mother was living in her former husband's spare room with her two small children, another young, pregnant woman was living in a damaged flat on the edge of the red zone.

Many people were overcrowding with family and friends or moving into damaged homes that would be impossible to heat in winter.

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Some welfare recipients, or people on the minimum wage, could no longer afford to live in the city, students and young adults were struggling with high rents, cold homes and picky landlords, and elderly residents had nowhere to go when their damaged homes needed to be repaired.

"One elderly woman thinks she will be dead before they fix her house, so she has chosen not to worry about the repairs and just battle on," Winters said.

Displaced residents could become the city's next homeless community, she said.

FAMILY MAKES HOME IN RED ZONE

A single mother of two has been forced to move into a damaged home in the heart of the red zone as Christchurch's rental housing drought continues to bite.

Charmaine Nolan, 39, faced the bitter reality of the rental crisis last month when she and childeren, Hannah, 8, and Fletcher, 4, were a week away from becoming homeless.

The family had lived in a three-bedroom townhouse in Queenspark for three years, but when her landlord increased the weekly rent by $45 she had no choice but to go.

"I begged. I said: 'Please, please don't do this to us. This is our home. This is where the kids have grown up'," she said.

"But they told me, 'If you can't pay, you're out'."

Nolan, a beneficiary, had made plans to store the family's belongings in friends' garages and to "sleep where we could".

"We were literally a week away from being homeless when we heard about this place."

The family's new two-bedroom Burwood home is in the centre of the red zone and is set for demolition next March.

It is dark and cold. Some windows cannot open, some doors do not close and cracks snake through tiles in the conservatory and down walls in the garage.

The neighbourhood is abandoned, homes are empty, gardens are overgrown and a nearby block of shops has been boarded up.

Facing homelessness with her children was the worst thing Nolan had been through.

"It was absolutely devastating, demoralising and embarrassing,'' she said.

"I felt like I couldn't protect my children.

"I don't think people realise how bad it is. This crisis is very real."

Nolan applied for about 30 rental properties in the city in the weeks leading up to her tenancy deadline, but said she never heard back from landlords.

Their new home provides only temporary relief because it comes with an impending demolition deadline.

"I go on Trade Me to look for places every day. To be honest, I can't imagine that I am going to find anything, and when the situation doesn't change by next year, what are we going to do then?" she said.

"Someone has got to step in and do something, surely?"

LISTINGS FALL NATIONALLY

A quarter of rental properties listed in the major centres of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch are removed within six days, suggesting strong demand for certain properties, Trade Me Property head Brendon Skipper says.

Overall listing supply is down 7 per cent across the country, although it remains strong in student cities Palmerston North, up 13 per cent, and Dunedin, up 17 per cent.

Figures showing a sharp drop in the number of Wellington properties available for rent have confounded property managers, who say tenants are spoilt for choice.

Trade Me Property listings in the first three months of 2012 in the Wellington region were down 12 per cent on the same time a year ago.

Activity on the website was climbing, with the number of inquiries up 13 per cent over the past year, although average asking rents were unchanged.

- The Press

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