Life on the public housing waitlist: ‘A never-ending hell’

JOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFF
Social housing has changed since Lynda McKenzie first moved in 17 years ago, describing it as being a slum now. (Video published April 2021)

There are many nights when Teressa Obrien huddles under a pile of blankets with her cat and cries herself to sleep.

It’s been five years since the 57-year-old first put her name on the social housing register.

During lockdown, her damp one-bed Richmond flat became a “prison”. She was constantly breathing in the smell of mould, unable to open the sealed windows to let in fresh air.

There’s no heater, and with holes rotted through the windowsills and high ceilings, no point in getting one. Instead she relies on the electric blanket her daughter bought her.

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“I really can’t bear it. I’m cold, I’m so cold.”

With the windowsills rotted through, Teressa Obrien finds it impossible to heat her house.
Teressa Obrien/Supplied
With the windowsills rotted through, Teressa Obrien finds it impossible to heat her house.

Her sights aren’t set too high: just a one-bedroom unit that’s warm and dry.

Both are foreign concepts. When it rains, she has to put buckets out.

She has no idea when she might get placed. Her priority rating is A17, with A20 the highest.

Her doctors have written supporting letters about her health conditions – she has fibromyalgia and stress-induced cardiomyopathy – but to “no avail”.

“It just seems like a never-ending hell,” she said.

The latest figures show the public housing waitlist hit a new record high of 24,474 in June, about three times what it was three years ago.

More than half of those who got into houses had spent more than 27 weeks on the list.

People say they are living in mouldy, unsuitable properties while waiting for public housing. (File photo)
People say they are living in mouldy, unsuitable properties while waiting for public housing. (File photo)

Angel Kaur is spending lockdown in an Auckland motel with her seven children, aged 9 months to 16 years old.

They’ve bounced around emergency housing for the past three years, staying in some places for just two weeks.

In the worst places, the family of eight has been crammed into a single, mouldy room. Sometimes they’ll be housed next to drug dealers, or be woken up in the night to people drunk or fighting.

They’ve spent nights in their van when they couldn’t find anywhere to stay.

“It just gets more and more depressing. I feel like we’re going to run out of places to go.”

Kaur said they had been A20 – the highest priority rating – since December, but homes were in short supply for families of their size.

She described emergency housing as “the struggle of my life”.

“I’ve been through a lot, but this has been the worst.”

Lockdown has made things harder. Other residents are coming and going despite level 4 restrictions, and Kaur worries about them bringing Covid back with them.

As a single mum, it was tough having no alone time, she said.

The unit they’re in has a lounge, but there are beds in there too, so there’s nowhere to escape to.

Many motels used as emergency accommodation are full during lockdown. (File photo)
Christel Yardley/Stuff
Many motels used as emergency accommodation are full during lockdown. (File photo)

Christchurch woman Akoia Wilson is on the transfer list, waiting for a house where she can care for her mother as well as her three tamariki. Her mother uses a wheelchair since a stroke in 2016 left her with partial paralysis.

Getting an accessible house that’s big enough for the whole family has so far proved impossible, meaning Wilson’s mother remains in a residential care facility.

Being unable to provide care has left Wilson and her siblings feeling guilty and like they’ve failed. She said she was disappointed by the lack of housing for wheelchair users.

Wilson said her mother’s health had deteriorated since being in residential care, and the isolation of lockdown made her mental health even worse.

The care facility would not allow visitors until level 1, she said.

“She just wants to get out of the residential unit.

“Residential care does not cater for Māori whānau, we like to gather in the numbers and often.”

Associate Minister of Housing Poto Williams acknowledged the Government “need[s] to do more” to tackle the growing public housing waitlist.

She attributed the increase in people waiting in part to the Government encouraging people to come forward and ask for help.

She said the Government was making “strong progress” towards its target of delivering 18,000 public and transitional housing places by 2024.