‘The council do nothing’: No respite for refugee man and pregnant wife in mouldy Wellington council flat
Alexander Aragon wanted a warm, dry, affordable home, where he would feel safe. Instead, the Iranian refugee lives in a mould-infested council house, with unaffordable rent, and threats of violence at his doorstep.
Aragon says his pregnant wife “now has problems with asthma” after living at the one-bedroom flat, and a doctor blames black mould at the house.
She is due to give birth next month – and the couple fear for the health of their baby when she does.
“How do you expect a child to live in this situation?” Aragon said. “I wouldn’t want my dog to live in this house.”
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And, yet, despite numerous complaints, Wellington City Council has not fixed issues at the Newtown flat, part of the Rintoul St Villas, which it owns. “The council do nothing,” Aragon said.
Once, when he raised concerns during an inspection, a tenancy manager pointedly asked if he “wanted to be homeless” instead.
Wellington City Council is the second-biggest landlord in the country, with a portfolio of 1931 properties and a bigger caseload of crippling debt.
City Housing, which manages those properties, rejected claims it was an inattentive landlord, and denied knowledge of flippant eviction threats made by its staff.
City Housing manager Angelique Jackson said the council had been very responsive, inspecting the Rintoul St flat several times.
And City Housing’s own records showed no traces of a conversation where Aragon was threatened with homelessness, though such a threat would “certainly be concerning”, she said.
“A small amount of mould” had been identified – and cleaned – during an inspection in August last year. Then, last month, the property was inspected again at Aragon’s behest, with “significant mould found”, particularly in the bathroom. Aragon had subsequently blocked access to the property, meaning no further action could be taken.
The flat did “not currently meet all Healthy Homes standards” – minimum standards around heating, insulation and ventilation – but would by the July 1, 2024 deadline.
The couple had been given advice about “the importance of regular ventilation” to prevent mould at the house, Jackson said. “Our team have also noted that the curtains were closed, even on warm, fine days which limits the ability for air to flow around the home, removing moisture.”
Aragon, however, rejected any assertion that he and his wife didn’t ventilate their home. The house was well aired, aside from when windows were closed during strong winds.
He said he didn’t understand how the council could make such a judgment when its visits were intermittent and brief.
The couple ran three dehumidifiers around the clock to reduce moisture, Aragon said. Those running costs contributed to $1300 of debt now owed a power company.
He was frustrated by the council’s frequent ineffective visits, “six or seven times” across four years. The problems at the house were structural – and he wanted a transfer to a warm, dry house instead.
Health practitioners endorsed relocation, too, he said. “The GP, and the midwife highly recommend we change our house.”
Jackson, however, said the couple had twice been offered transfers to “similar, suitable properties”, and declined both times.
Those offers were extended in the aftermath of an incident where a pig’s severed head was left at the couple’s front doorstep, alongside a note with an Islamophobic message.
Aragon conceded those alternatives were offered to him. However, both units were at the Granville Flats, in Berhampore – and he said those flats were infamous for fighting and drug use, and also known for being damp. He thought uprooting was pointless, when the new living situation might be similar or worse, and so they had declined.
Stuff spoke to a refugee family, living at the Granville Flats, who had requested a transfer themselves due to fighting in the building, and concerns over their adolescent son’s wellbeing. That family had been waiting for years, too.
Jackson confirmed the family’s transfer was approved in March last year, but “a low turnover of properties” meant a suitable alternative was not easily found. It was hoped the family would be transferred this month, she said.
The private market was not an option for Aragon and his wife. The refugee was a painter by trade, operating his own business between 2018 and 2020, until a knee injury deteriorated to the point where he now walked using a crutch.
The family’s income came from his job-seeker benefit, and an accommodation supplement. Rent at the council flat was high however: $261 a week, or almost 70 per cent of that income.
Aragon came to New Zealand from Iran, in 2016, with help from the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR).
He moved into council housing soon afterwards, transferring to Rintoul St from a different council flat, in late 2017. Aragon married Maryam Asadi in 2018, but the couple didn’t share a home until she moved to New Zealand in early 2020.
ChangeMakers Resettlement Forum general manager Jacqueline Wilton said a lack of affordable housing often complicated the resettlement process for refugees.
“When people arrive in this country, they’re trying to re-establish themselves from scratch,” she said. “And, so, putting them straight into relative poverty, by not providing affordable, quality housing, doesn’t help them on that pathway.”
“Refugees need to feel safe”, and cultural differences could make that difficult.
The issues were complex: sometimes there might be “unsavoury neighbours”, other times discrimination, or lack of community. Even differences in the physical structure of the home – such as the absence of high walls for privacy – could be disorientating.
Wilton, however, said Wellington City Council was “working really hard” to foster a sense of community throughout its housing units, which she knew housed people with diverse needs.