18 Feb 2021

Housing crisis: More than 4,000 NZ children living in motels

From Checkpoint, 5:13 pm on 18 February 2021

There are now more than 4000 children growing up in motels across New Zealand, devastating parents who are desperate to find a permanent place for their kids to live.

Skyrocketing house prices are prompting many landlords to sell, forcing up rents which are becoming unaffordable for many families.

Figures released to Checkpoint show that in September last year (the most recent figures available) there were 3350 households with one adult and at least one child in motels.

There were another 800 households with two adults and at least one child.

That was an overall increase of more than 500 children on the previous three months - and the public housing waitlist has been steadily rising ever since.

Emergency housing special needs grants in the year to September 2020.

Emergency housing special needs grants in the year to September 2020. Photo: RNZ / Vinay Ranchhod

As of June last year there were more than 1000 kids who had been in motels between three and six months, more than 500 living there between 6 and 12 months and nearly 100 who'd been there between one and two years.

Auckland woman Skye Richardson had to move into a motel with her four children for six months last year after the rental she was living in was sold - she said they'd told her it was the "shittiest time of their life".

"There was me, my two babies in the double bed and then there was my oldest son who's 10 with his little sister who's seven in one single bed."

She eventually managed to find a place for $700  - the bulk of her $940 weekly income. 

But she said they had to get out of the motel.

"Kids are meant to be free, they're meant to be kids, they're meant to play - they're not meant to be stuck behind what you might as well say are jail cell bars, stuck in one room. It's not right at all." 

Motel-based since moving from Melbourne 

Ramona has been living in the same motel with her partner and three children since last November.

"I wouldn't choose this for anybody. Growing up I didn't come from a rich family but it was never as hard as what my children are going through and it sucks."

The family had been living in Melbourne when Covid-19 hit and with no support in Australia they decided to come home, but had no idea how hard the housing hunt would be.

"We were staying with my mother-in-law but she's also in a social housing house, which was overcrowded, so we were asked to leave and here we are."

She puts bars across her windows and her youngest isn't allowed to play outside because it doesn't feel safe.

Her older kids are struggling too.

"I know for my oldest daughter she's nearly 15, she hasn't told any of her friends that she lives in emergency housing.

"It's hard as a mum because you feel like you've failed, my daughter is embarrassed to tell her friends the truth, but what else can you do?"

She's constantly searching for a rental while her partner works fulltime at a warehouse - but his wage isn't enough to get them into the hugely competitive market.

"It's too expensive - there's too many other applicants and you feel overwhelmed but you have to do it. WINZ is telling me I have to apply for five to six houses a week and I've said to them that sometimes there's no houses within my price range and they're like - well you need to find something."

She said Work and Income had told her that if she didn't complete her obligations she would be obligated to pay the cost of the motel - which was $2800 for her family.

"We've been here 11 weeks so that's over $30,000."

Housing situation dire for children - principal 

Whangārei's Horahora school principal Pat Newman said his school was aware of 10 pupils who were living in tents, caravans, motels or garages - but he estimated there were probably another 10 who were in similar situations.

He said families simply couldn't afford rising rents, which were caused by landlords cashing in on rising house prices.

"The people renting those houses are being put out in the streets because they're being sold empty and then the new owner is putting them [rents] up $100-$150 a week."

And it's those with kids that were finding the housing crisis particularly dire, he said.

"First home buyers tend to already be renting and in a house; otherwise they wouldn't be looking at the hope of having a deposit. What we're talking about is another level below the first home buyers who are living in a tent so the deposit isn't very great on that."

Newman said those figures were getting worse - and they were taking their toll.

"In a way it's taking away hope for these kids - they see on television all the nice goodies that you should be able to get if you're a 'normal' child, and yet they think, 'that's not me'."

no caption

Pat Newman: "It's taking away hope for these kids." (file pic)  Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

In a statement, the Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni said there was a major programme of work underway aimed at increasing the supply of public housing and improving housing affordability and supply.

Next week the government is scheduled to release its latest statistics around child poverty rates - numbers Kiwi kids are counting on improving.