The great betrayal of our poorer folk

Glenda Connon at home in Glen Innes, Auckland. She is to be evicted from her state house after living there for 26 years. Photo / Doug Sherring
Glenda Connon at home in Glen Innes, Auckland. She is to be evicted from her state house after living there for 26 years. Photo / Doug Sherring

For some state-housing tenants, life as they know it is coming to an end, the Government warns. Gone will be tenancy for life and the quarter-acre backyard. Susan Edmunds talks to some of those affected.

Glenda Connon is almost in tears as she surveys her large back garden, washing basket on her hip. This place, at Auckland's Wai O Taiki Bay near Glen Innes, has been her home for 26 years. A treasured cat is buried under the lemon tree. The lawn is dotted with plants she and her 30-year-old son have been tending.

It's on a neat, well-kept street, with glimpses of the sea between the trees. It's that view that has, in all likelihood, made Connon's state home, and others like it, a target.

Housing New Zealand (HNZ) has told her to expect to be moved by the end of the year. Connon's weatherboard home and large section is one of 45 state-owned properties to be redeveloped by the private sector.

Housing Minister Phil Heatley says he can understand the distress Connon and other tenants feel. But he says with a waiting list of 2000 families, change is overdue.

HNZ owns 70,000 properties throughout the country, housing 200,000 people. But it's not enough, which means properties such as Connon's, worth enough to sell and buy two more properties in their place, are in the spotlight. In Auckland, redevelopment plans include 850 new HNZ units in South Auckland and 450 in West Auckland within the next three years.

HNZ's briefing to the incoming minister, published in December last year, says it estimates that more than a third of state houses are in the wrong place or are the wrong size or condition to meet the needs of tenants in the future.

Over the next five years, properties will be bought, leased and sold in areas of high demand and the concentration of state housing in areas of lower demand will be reduced. Auckland's state housing stock will increase but in other areas numbers will decrease.

Heatley says the Government will work with what he calls "third sector providers" to increase their housing stock, groups such as councils and iwi organisations.

Connon is one of 45 HNZ tenants in her neighbourhood who will be moved on. Another 111 tenants in Glen Innes will be affected.

For Connon the day she leaves the home she has lived in since she and her husband split almost three decades ago will be heartbreaking.

She has raised three children there, plus taken in schoolfriends who had done a runner from their parents. Now she is helping to care for five grandchildren. Her son lives with her to help his benefit go further and she says his 7-year-old son needs somewhere to play rugby and cricket.

Because she's approaching 55, Connon has been told to expect to be assigned a one-bedroom unit. But as an epileptic prone to seizures, she worries about ending up in an upstairs unit. And she can't see how she will fit a lifetime's collection of knick-knacks and memories into a smaller property.

"It would be like putting a size 10 girdle on a size 26. I don't see why I should have to move into a smaller place. It's not my fault I can't work."

Nor is she happy about the constraints of an apartment block. "You're not allowed kids, or pets or plants. I said 'you can get ****ed'. I need a three-bedroom home with a section."

Around the corner, Moepai Temata is sitting on the floor, sorting through letters from HNZ and the disability support services. She and her husband, Michael, have been in their home for 48 years. It has been modified to accommodate the wheelchair he needed after having his legs amputated due to complications with diabetes in 2005.

He was halfway through painting the patio when word came they would have to move out by the middle of the year.

The message is clear. The days of expecting to have a state house for life are gone. State-housing tenants should never have been allowed to stay in their houses so long, Heatley says.

"Successive governments have been remiss in allowing state-housing tenants to stay in state housing for decades, even as their circumstances improve."

All new tenancies will now be reviewed every three years and anyone who can afford market rent should be in private rentals, he says.

Had those policies been in place when the Tematas moved in, they would have been shuffled on decades ago. They have been paying market rent for their property through most of their tenancy, until Michael was no longer able to work.

Around the corner, a neighbour pays $240 a week against market rent of $280, because her partner's $560-a- week earnings is deemed enough to handle it.

HNZ is axing what it says is an under-used service in South Auckland, working with other agencies to find private rentals for people who miss out on state housing. But Wai O Taiki residents say for people in their situation, private rentals are often not as good an option, regardless of the price.

The Tematas say they would have had no stability in a private rental. "You don't know whether you're coming or going."

Connon, who pays $50 a week for her home, says her friends in private rentals are given only just enough help to pay the rent. It would be a much tighter financial struggle, she says.

Moepai Temata, 68, admits she can see the logic behind the Government's moves. "But they didn't stipulate when we came here that it's only for a certain number of years."

It's not the first time an area of social housing has become too valuable for its own good. Ten years ago, Auckland's Madeleine Ave was a crime-ridden "street from hell", a state-house-lined blot on the city's landscape. The state houses were sold, the street name changed to Mt Taylor Drive and redeveloped. Large private homes were billed as "Tuscany in Glendowie" to prospective buyers.

HEATLEY SAYS the Government can't win. "Everyone's screaming 'we need more housing in Auckland, we need higher-density'. The Government is the only one doing it and those same people are screaming 'it's not fair'."

Existing tenants who want to be rehoused in HNZ houses will be, he says, and efforts will be made to return them to the same areas.

However, the allocation of state housing should focus on those who are most in need, he says and "single people rattling around in three- or four-bedroom houses" will be moved on to one-bedroom units.

The Tematas and Connon know they are in that category but are distressed at the idea of being shifted somewhere smaller.

Moepai Temata points out that because of the machines Michael must be hooked up to, to sleep, they need a room each. Shortly after being given notice of the plans, they were shown a unit. Wheelchair-bound Michael laughs: "It was on the fourth floor and there was no lift."

In Northcote, Marcia Pahulu, a single woman in a three-bedroom house, knows she, too, is probably in the department's sights. "I don't want to be squashed up in a little place." Nearby, apartment blocks are replacing high-density developments.

Pahulu says the new apartments are nice, but too close together. People are packed in and that exacerbates problems in the area - graffiti, teenage gangs, drug-dealing and violence.

In the terraced block in front of Pahulu's house, Peata Pule is making a traditional Tongan fruit drink for her son's shared lunch at nearby Takapuna Primary School. She has lived in her house since 2001 and says she would move if she could. She would rather be in a private rental, in a different area, but as the only earner in her household, she can't afford it. She is worried about the crowd her son might fall in with when he gets older.

Unlike the Wai o Taiki residents, whose houses are in reasonably good condition, Pule says hers is in desperate need of attention. The wallpaper is peeling, and the stained kitchen should have been upgraded 10 years ago.

She worries about the health of her son and her grandchildren.

She and Pahulu say their houses are cold in winter and hot in summer. Heatley says a third of the state housing stock is in serious disrepair but says every home will be insulated by the end of next year.

He hopes a new 0800 hotline being promoted by HNZ will help address some of the maintenance issues. Branch offices will close in favour of a national call centre but he says that will encourage better service.

"People can still make appoint-ments for face-to-face meetings, but we've found if someone just wants to know how much rent they owe or want the toilet fixed, being able to phone and organise it is easier than going to an office without an appointment and standing in line."

The last Census showed that 105 households in the Pt England/Wai O Taiki Bay area had no access to a phone. But one resident shrugged off the problem, saying most people knew someone with a mobile phone and that it was hard to be heard by HNZ anyway, whether she calls or turns up at an office. She says the only way to get a maintenance person is to complain of an electrical fault.

Labour's housing spokeswoman, Annette King, says the Government seems to have lost sight of what state housing is for. "They are meant to have security of tenure, and not be told to move. It's making people very uncertain. If they are saying it's now going to be emergency housing only, they need to tell the public we no longer have a system that gives poorer people security."

She says Auckland has a looming housing crisis and 13,000 new houses are needed every year.

- Herald on Sunday

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