21 Dec 2018

Tenants evicted over meth test still paying debt

From Checkpoint, 5:19 pm on 21 December 2018

People are still paying debt incurred for emergency accommodation after being kicked out of their Housing New Zealand homes over dodgy meth testing.

The woman and her family were evicted from their state house and ordered to pay $20,500 in costs after the house returned a positive meth test

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Checkpoint has been asking the ministry for three months now whether it will reimburse people for the costs they incurred for living in motels, after they became homeless as a result of being booted out of their state homes.

Housing New Zealand announced in September it would compensate the evicted tenants, but MSD says it still hasn't reached a position on whether it will do the same.

Housing New Zealand has now compensated 210 tenants at a total cost of $1.6 million - an average of $7915 each.

Casey McCarry, who advocated for her father Robert Erueti over the more than a year he spent in emergency accommodation, said it was about time MSD did the same.

"Housing New Zealand has taken ownership of compensating my father and many other New Zealanders that are in the same situation, but I believe MSD needs to come to the party and they need to take ownership and they need to take responsibility for what they've done in terms of this methamphetamine eviction, and they need to compensate these families who have struggled through this huge crisis of not only eviction but emergency housing."  

More than $1500 of her father's costs for emergency accommodation was made recoverable, and Ms McCarry said he really struggled with the deductions coming out of his benefit.

Auckland Action Against Poverty spokesperson Ricardo Menendez March said many people ended up with debts to MSD through no fault of their own.

"Phil Twyford cannot hope for this issue to go away completely because they've given people a small compensation amount. Most of the tenants are yet to be found a home and many are still paying money back to the ministry.

"And the longer they take to action this, the more damage they're going to cause and the more money they're going to eventually have to fork out to genuinely compensate people."

Mr Menendez March said MSD must also compensate people.

"Giving people $8000 for something that put them in the street, that made them accrue thousands of dollars with the Ministry of Social Development in debt is simply not enough.

"I do think the government needs to look beyond the initial cash sum if they're genuinely looking to deliver justice to the people affected because of the meth testing regime."

For three months now, MSD has been telling Checkpoint the same story - that it is reviewing files to establish how much people owe, have paid and are still repaying for recoverable hardship support.

It has been working through a list of 782 tenants Housing New Zealand provided to it, and knows there are 566 people who may have a debt.

MSD declined an interview, but its deputy chief executive, service delivery, Viv Rickard, said in a statement: "We know people are worried about debt they may have incurred as a direct result of their Housing New Zealand tenancies ending because of meth contamination, and we want to assure them we are working on addressing this soon.

"We've done a lot to work out how our clients have been affected, including main tenants, as well as other people who were members of the household at the time.

"We're looking into all the types of financial assistance each person may have received since their tenancy ended, how much of it related to the tenancy ending, whether they were asked to pay it back, and how much they've already done so."

Mr Rickard says determining the level of debt people might have is a "complex process".

Mr Menendez March says that's an excuse, and it's really just a matter of resourcing.

"Every person's file with the ministry has a record of the grants that were given to them and the payments that had been made, so it's a matter of the ministry not wanting to put their resources and a team to find out exactly how much money people have been paying back over the years and how much debt they still have.

"I don't think it's an acceptable answer to say it's too complex when they've got it in their system."

Ministry of Social Development says it will be advising ministers in the New Year about the overall impact, and the steps it can take to address it. It says once a decision has been made, it will act as quickly as possible.