Boarding house horrors

By David Fisher

Tyrall West, 4, in the communal kitchen in Kotuku Lodge, where decay and rubbish are part of the scenery. Photo / Janna Dixon
Tyrall West, 4, in the communal kitchen in Kotuku Lodge, where decay and rubbish are part of the scenery. Photo / Janna Dixon

Children are living in tiny, damp and sometimes squalid boarding houses - and our state housing agency says it has no business interfering.

Among them is four-year-old Tyrall West, who lives in a box of a room with his mum Lynnaire at the Kotuku Lodge in Mangere.

With its own toilet and shower, their room is de luxe compared to their neighbours'. But the $220-a-week room's toilet leaks sewage under the peeling lino and waste backflows into the shower. Most light fittings are ripped from the sockets and the room smells dank and dirty.

Lynnaire worries Tyrall is getting sick - his chest is rough after a week sleeping on the other side of a thin wall from the toilet. As we talk, he lies an arm's length from his mum, who sleeps next to their carefully arranged food supply.

The rest of Kotuku Lodge doesn't get much better: mounds of empty beer bottles out the back and trashed stoves in the kitchen.

Rows of empty light sockets leave fire exits dark at night. Manager Gurmeet Gill later explains they are removed to discourage drinking in the hallways at night and because tenants steal the light bulbs.

Kotuku Lodge is recognised by community agencies as one of the worst boarding houses in a neighbourhood of extreme housing need. The collection of boarding houses in a defunct mental hospital offers rooms for between $120 and $220 a week, with shared kitchen, toilet and shower facilities.

Auckland Council yesterday gave Kotuku Lodge until tomorrow to attend to mainly minor infringements of its building licence. The rooms - like Tyrall's - were not checked because regulations forbid the council from entering them.

A council report produced last month stated: "Boarding house regulations are inadequate for safe housing to a vulnerable population."

I visited these lodges of last resort three years ago and exposed the awful conditions in which people were living. Then-housing minister Maryan Street called them "God-awful" and promised action. In just 45 days Housing New Zealand removed 52 children from two lodges and found 22 others across South Auckland, with similar problems in Porirua, Wellington.

Now the problem remains, but the momentum for change has died. Housing NZ sends parents and kids to boarding houses and has a list of six preferred for emergency cases.

There were children at every boarding house I visited this week. In some cases, mum, dad and at least one child were crammed into tiny rooms.

Punitia Galuvao, 20, is in Kotuku with 14-month-old Fasi. Her partner Mati'i left for Samoa two weeks ago on a one-way ticket for his parents' funeral. She doesn't know when he will get the money to return.

"I talked to Housing NZ. They told me I wouldn't find a state house, just a private rental."

The refusal, she says, was based on an assessment which included Mati'i's overtime. He's now not working and she owes $180 a week for her room.

Kyra Dimitrof, 44, who suffers from schizophrenia, pays $120 a week for her room from the $228 she receives in sickness benefit. The door to her room is thin and the lock flimsy; sometimes young, angry men get drunk and stomp through the corridors, smashing on walls with their fists.

"I hate it," she says. "I'm waiting for a state home."

The story is repeated across the suburb. Hannah Pasikala, 38, stopped working after a serious foot injury and put on weight while recovering. Now she's on an invalid's benefit and paying $140 a week for a single room, with a single bed and an oxygen machine beside it.

Jess Kairau, 20, shares her $150-a-week room with son Jackson, 2, at Housing NZ-approved Freda Lodge. She put her name down with Housing NZ a few weeks ago but was told others were in more need.

While she waits, she worries about Jackson's health - he's just developed asthma. "There's a lot of smokers around. Maybe it's the secondhand smoke."

In Opposition, housing minister Phil Heatley said boarding houses should exist for "the needs of single adults".

Now, he says, it's not his responsibility; changes to tenancy laws gave boarders the same rights as rental tenants.

Heatley says an inquiry into boarding houses is being considered by the social services select committee. He supports the plan.

Monte Cecilia Housing Trust chief executive David Zussman said greater rights for boarders had little impact when most people didn't realise they had any.

"We need a response which asks 'How do we make these better places to live'?"

The answer might sit across the road from Kotuku Lodge. Mike and Mai Ross run Favona Lodge. It is clean, tidy with two cleaners, overnight security and a live-in carpenter who does maintenance.

Management is the answer, says Mai Ross: "What we're doing is protecting our investment."

They reinvest their earnings into the lodge, spending an estimated $300,000 in the past five years.

"These other lodges need to tidy themselves up," says Mike Ross. "They're giving us a bad name."

NO HOPE - AND NOT ON THE LIST

Staff at the agency created to ensure every Kiwi is housed are discouraging people who are seeking help from formally registering their need.

A new Option and Advice Service means people visiting Housing New Zealand are assessed before they register.

Many are told they haven't got a hope of getting a state house and redirected to private landlords or boarding houses.

It means they are not recorded anywhere as having raised a need for housing.

Housing NZ figures show waiting lists began falling when the new system was introduced.

At the end of last month, there were 8867 people waiting for a state house.

A year ago, when the Option and Advice Service was rolled out across the country, there were almost 2000 more.

The Herald on Sunday met several people in boarding houses who had approached Housing NZ for help. They say they were told to seek private lodging.

Housing Minister Phil Heatley said: "We're there to help people who need a state house - not those who would like a state house."

He said Housing NZ staff would not visit boarding houses to check on conditions or vulnerable people because it wasn't their job.

But he would ask Auckland Council to ensure it was checking health and building fitness and supported an inquiry into boarding houses.

- Herald on Sunday

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