For crying out loud

by David Fisher / 27 December, 2008
The Listener exposé of the squalid conditions in two Mangere boarding houses has led to improvements. But the waiting list of people desperate for state housing is growing.

Same room, same place, same problem. The boarding houses of Mangere, South Auckland, are still homes to families.

But there is a momentum for change that holds a promise of better things. Housing advocates have also taken heart from a pledge by the new National Government that it will increase the number of state houses.

Nine months ago, the Listener exposed the squalor of South Auckland boarding houses. Families were crammed into rooms measuring just a few square metres, with barely enough space for a cot and a bed. The two lodges examined closely - Kiwiana and Abiru in Mangere - were cramped and dirty.

The April 5 story provoked a strong reaction from then Housing Minister Maryan Street, who visited the lodges soon after and announced changes to improve conditions in Mangere and across the country.

A wide-ranging "90-day action plan" was introduced, and after 45 days had made a significant difference to the 52 children found living at Abiru and Kiwiana. Few had known the children were there, but once it became public, Housing NZ began finding homes for them and their families.

Other boarding houses were identified. At nearby Gadsby Lodge, there were 25 Work & Income clients - and 16 children. In total, 24 boarding houses were found across South Auckland.

There has also been more cooperation between the agencies with an interest in those living in boarding houses. New Housing Minister Phil Heatley is considering proposals, given to him earlier this month, to create a better relationship between Housing NZ, Te Puni Kokiri and the Health Ministry to improve the provision of housing, especially for those with urgent need.

That need appears to be growing. In May, Housing NZ told Cabinet that 34 people in South Auckland on its waiting list were classified as "Category A" - having "severe and persistent housing needs that must be addressed immediately". This month, it was 67. In the same period, the number in Category B - "housing circumstances that are unsuitable, inadequate or unsustainable" - had grown from 934 to 1298.

A return to Kiwiana and Abiru this month reveals many changes. Both have been spruced up, in appearance and attitude. A handful of children are living in Kiwiana, but their parents say they have been there only a few weeks and state housing has been promised within the fortnight.

Angela Warren, 21, and son Ian, 20 months, are living in the room that held two adults and two children the last time the Listener visited. Kiwiana is "a good place", she says, although "it's not good for my son. I don't want my son brought up in a place like this."

Kiwiana's new manager, Nicky Aloua, 32, is responsible for many of the improvements. "People are so desperate for housing. They don't care. They just want a roof over their heads. But this place is not a place for children." When they do come, Aloua says, she passes on their names to Housing NZ.

At nearby Abiru, half the lodge is closed for renovations. Children's clothing hangs on some washing lines but there are no children to be seen. The manager, who would not be named, points to extensive painting, shows where new carpets will be laid and says new appliances will arrive when the work is finished.

Owner Chris Mantell, in an email, says the lodge also communicates regularly with Housing NZ. "On occasion, we have provided free emergency accommodation overnight for families while waiting for Housing NZ to meet their needs."

Mantell says with the economic squeeze, pressure on South Auckland housing is likely to intensify. "The bottom line is that rent and the other associated costs of housing, even for a modest house in South Auckland, are becoming unmanageable for many families and individuals."

And the reality is that there is no simple solution.

Heatley says work is continuing to find a permanent solution to emergency housing. He says boarding houses have a place, but he makes it clear the emphasis is "particularly to respond to the needs of single adults".

Despite earlier talks of a cap on state houses, Heatley says state house maintenance is a high priority, as is better use of existing stock. And rather than put a cap on the numbers - or even make a cut - he says, "We would expect to see some increase in the numbers of state houses."

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