5 Jun 2019

Working poor: The long, excruciating wait for a state house

From Checkpoint, 5:15 pm on 5 June 2019

A Mangere family of six has spent the last four years in a one-bedroom private rental, in what an Auckland social worker says is an example of the wait for state housing putting young lives at risk. 

The family says they have been on the public housing waiting list for more than four years - a list which has grown to more than 11,000 this year, up by 40 percent a year prior. 

Their youngest child recently had meningitis, prompting a doctor at Middlemore Hospital to write a letter saying the family's overcrowded conditions were putting the baby's health at risk. 

"While recovery from this illness is expected, the health of this child will continue to be compromised if the living conditions of this family do not significantly improve," the doctor wrote in a letter the family sent Ministry of Social Development (MSD) this year. 

The family said that despite providing this information to MSD - which manages the housing register - nothing had changed. 

They cannot afford to heat their home nor buy all the food they need, and struggle to cover the costs of special items and toiletries for one of their sons who has eczema and asthma. 

Recent correspondence from MSD stated the family's income and medical issues had already been considered when it came to their waitlist rating. MSD also said a housing escalation team had reviewed the case but decided the family did not qualify to move up the register.

Following enquiries from Checkpoint however, MSD now says it "overlooked" the letter from Manukau Counties DHB and has reassessed the family, moving them from A14 to A16 on the register. 

'I always need the overtime ... to feed my kids'

The family, who do not want to be identified, say they told Checkpoint their story because they are desperate and want people to know how hard it is. They hold on to hope that something will change. 

They pay $365 a week to rent a modest unit in the South Auckland suburb of Mangere. Mum and the youngest two children sleep in the bedroom, while dad and the eldest children sleep in the lounge. 

They all wake about 4am when dad's alarm goes off. Dad gets ready and heads off to work, and says he always calls his wife about 5am to check if the children have fallen back asleep, but they're usually still awake. 

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The family has lived in a rental with just one bedroom for four years. Photo: RNZ / Checkpoint

Through tears, he tells Checkpoint how he makes $44,000 a year as a forklift driver. He used to work as much overtime as possible, but his employer has recently put a freeze on overtime hours - so they're struggling more than ever. 

"Every week I go sit down at work and make my budget, what money is going from my rent and my bills and the leftovers buy my kids' food.

"I always need the overtime to make sure [I meet] my financials every week, some money to feed my kids and my family."

Crying, he said it was "very hard" without the overtime hours, while mum said she avoided heating the home because they could not afford to pay for the power.  

With overtime hours, he was earning about $70,000 a year, and the family also receives a weekly family tax credit of $244 a week.

But a detailed budget prepared by an independent budget advisor shows they're $40 a week in deficit - and that's accounting for overtime hours he no longer gets. 

"For nearly four years we've stayed in this private house. We apply for Housing New Zealand more than four years before we move here, before we move here we stay at the boarding house so move in here.

"We're still on the top on the waiting list. Every time we call them they give us the same answer every week.

"They always tell us 'don't worry, your application is being updated, someone will call you when any house is available'."

But no one ever calls.

"It looks like they don't care about my kids and my family ... and they always tell us to go looking for a private house. We can't afford to pay the rent on the private house."

Mangere East Family Services Centre social worker Alastair Russell said the family urgently needed help with accommodation as the overcrowded conditions they were living in contributed to their children's respiratory illnesses. 

"This is a family that is living week to week with no prospect of saving, and the ability to move into more suitable private housing is just not real.

"This family is doing everything it can to support themselves and to look after their kids and all they need is a break and a house so that their kids can live a life with dignity and hope for the future that is being denied them. 

"And whilst that goes on these children are at ongoing risk of serious illness and tragedies could occur in this situation if nothing is done."

While the family's wellbeing should be paramount, they're instead being neglected, Mr Russell said. 

"The government and Jacinda Ardern say that child poverty is at the top of their agenda. Where is the evidence of that?"

As for the dad, who cried throughout most of the interview with Checkpoint, he said he just wants a house from Housing New Zealand "so my kids stay healthy and happy every day".

MSD reassesses family's case

Following Checkpoint's enquiries, MSD said it had reassessed the family's application for a public house which referred to the doctor's letter, which advised their accommodation was affecting the children's health. 

"We've looked into this case further since your initial approach to us last week and realised we had overlooked a letter from Manukau DHB," Regional Commissioner Mark Goldsmith said in a statement. 

"We're sorry for this.

"Upon reassessing [the family's] application, their priority rating has moved two places from A14 to A16. The highest rating is A20. How much a family can afford to pay for housing is a key component in assessing a household's priority rating."

MSD said the family first applied for public housing in January, 2015 but that application was closed in September that year because it didn't receive the necessary verifying information. It said the family reapplied in June, 2017. 

It said it was in "frequent contact" with the family and was working hard to offer them support, but the demand for public housing continues to outstrip supply. 

"At any given time we are providing housing support to numerous families with high needs, including people who have nowhere to live. 

"Over the last two years the number of families waiting for public housing has more than doubled."

Social worker Alastair Russell said MSD advised him today that the family may also be eligible for a weekly accommodation supplement of $117.