10 Feb 2022

Families in motels brace for border opening

From Checkpoint, 5:26 pm on 10 February 2022

As Aotearoa's border reopening edges closer, families living in motels fear the country's housing crisis is about to get a whole lot worse.

Families take what can with them to emergency housing in a motel at $190 per night

Emergency housing motel accomodation Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

There are now more than 30,000 people on the public housing waitlist - among them the 5000 families living in motels.

With housing supply already stretched well beyond its limits, those struggling want to know where they'll fit when tourists and visitors start pouring into the country.

A single mother of two boys under 10, Missy - not her real name -  and her family have been living in a Northland motel for 25 months.

She's grateful they're not homeless, but the one bedroom unit they're in at the moment is incredibly hot in the current weather.

Soaring rents and a limited income mean Missy is getting turned away from every property she tries for.

"They just look at you like, 'No you're in emergency housing and you're a solo mum with kids', and I'm like - my kids are little angels."

The rules at her motel mean she can't have visitors beyond 8pm without prior permission, which makes things very challenging when she needs support looking after her two boys, who both have autism.

She said the hoops she has to jump through are never ending.

"Going back and forth, applying for houses, getting rejected, getting extensions here, getting spot checks here where they come in your house, examine what your cleanliness is like - they check in the toilets, they check in the rooms," she said.

As of December, there were 30,750 people on the public housing waitlist - that's more than the entire population of Blenheim and is an increase of 4000 person increase on a year earlier.

Ministry for Social Development (MSD) figures show there were 4911 people living in motels, with 46 percent of those households including children - but that doesn't include the hundreds of people in Rotorua contracted motels.

Missy said she worried about what would happen to her motel - and others across the country, when the borders open.

"There's going to be more homeless people, there's going to be shortages of motels for people like myself to stay in.

"They're just going to kick us out and give the tourists the rooms because they pay full price," she said.

She's not the only one concerned - the Salvation Army's Ronji Tanielu said the borders reopening would put a squeeze on the whole housing market.

Adding to existing pressures, he feared people will end up without places to live.

"The reality for those motel owners is they're business people as well so they will go to where the money is, whether it's with an MSD contract or whether they're likely to get more from those returning from overseas, I think they will follow the dollar.

I guess the consequence for that then is potentially less houses available, or less rooms available for those in that sharper end of the housing continuum," he said.

Tanielu said the government needed to have a plan to ensure families weren't abandoned by the motels they've been living in.

"They need to come up, and front up with some urgent options or else you're going to start seeing more visible signs of homelessness..."

But Tanielu added motels were only ever a short term option, with more housing supply needed to ensure permanent places for people to live.

In a statement, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni said MSD was aware of potential for pressure on motels once the borders open.

She said the Ministry was working with mottlers to understand their capacity, however, they had no current indication that motels were intending to stop offering Emergency Accommodation.