‘They forgot about us’: Family of 13 placed in one-bedroom motel units after fire highlights serious emergency housing crisis

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The family was moved to a motel in Takapuna after a fire at their home in Ranui Kainga Ora. Photo/Michael Craig

A family of 13 have been living in two one-bedroom motel units for more than a year after a fire at their home in Kāinga Ora, underscoring New Zealand’s emergency housing crisis with 26,000 people on the list waiting times and a seven-fold increase in occupancy times.

Twelve months after their six-bedroom home in West Auckland burned down, the mother and 10 of her 12 children are still in the same cramped emergency housing motel complex in Takapuna.

She told the Herald said she has received little support from authorities since she was initially “dumped” with her 12-year-old on the North Shore in October 2021.

National Housing Party spokesman Chris Bishop said the family’s plight was another case highlighting Kāinga Ora’s inefficiencies and the country’s dire emergency housing situation.

The family lives in tight sleeping arrangements in the motel.  Photo/Michael Craig
The family lives in tight sleeping arrangements in the motel. Photo/Michael Craig

Emergency accommodation – created in 2016 by the previous national government to tackle rising homelessness – has increased sharply in the Covid-19 years as the government moved people from the streets to motels during closings.

What was meant to be a short-term solution turned into a long-term nightmare for many families as the average stay in emergency accommodation rose from three weeks in 2018 to more than 20 weeks at the end of September, according to information provided to Bishop.

The public waiting list at the end of September was also over 26,500, which has grown by nearly 21,000 over the past five years. More than $1 billion has also been spent since Labor took office in 2017 to pay the motels used.

Emergency housing alone in 2021 cost taxpayers over $365 million.

For the family of 13 in Takapuna, their frustration is growing with the authorities, who the mother says have “virtually forgotten about us”.

“We thought it would be a few months until our house was fixed,” said the 43-year-old single mother, who did not wish to be named. Herald.

The family, which has children aged 5 to 22, lost much of their possessions in the fire and begged and borrowed clothes and furniture from whānau and good Samaritans.

“We’re grateful for the support we’re getting, but I want a home where the kids have play areas and I can get them back into a routine.

The house fire was an accident, she said, adding that the family had lived in their former accommodation in Ranui for two years and had been tenants in Kāinga Ora for two decades.

“There’s nowhere for the kids to play except a little lawn in the driveway of the motel, and now the older kids are going off the rails because they have no structure. They don’t go to school,” the mother said of life in the motel units.

One of her teenage children is also attracting the attention of the police, she said, while the Ministry of Education is also looking into the whānau and the worrying decline in children’s school attendance.

The family moved to a motel in Takapuna after a fire at their Ranui home in October 2021. Photo/Michael Craig
The family moved to a motel in Takapuna after a fire at their Ranui home in October 2021. Photo/Michael Craig

The mother said to Herald when she moved into a motel, “I hated it but I had to be strong for the kids because I didn’t know how long we would be here.”

“There are days when I feel like giving up, but I have to keep going for my kids, because I’m their mom and dad,” she said. “I had the kids in a routine at Ranui and they went to school.”

The woman said she wanted Kāinga Ora to take the family back to their home in Ranui, once it was fixed.

She said she had been separated from her partner – the father of 11 of the children – for two years.

The children are split between the two side-by-side motel units, she explained, with the older children in one and the younger ones with their mothers in the other.

The family moved to Takapuna Motor Lodge after a fire at their home in Ranui Kainga Ora.  Photo/Michael Craig
The family moved to Takapuna Motor Lodge after a fire at their home in Ranui Kainga Ora. Photo/Michael Craig

The mother said she always makes sure the younger children are fed, but managing the food budget is a challenge.

“When we run out of food, we go to the food bank for help,” she said.

“There are always quarrels and arguments and now my children won’t go to school. They are registered but will not go. They want to go back to their old school in Ranui.

She said the high cost of living, especially in an affluent North Shore suburb, and the cost of gas made it prohibitive to drive her children to school.

“I fight with the kids every morning just to get them to get up to go to school. I fight.”

The Ranui house where the 13-person whānau lived caught fire.  Photo / Provided
The Ranui house where the 13-person whānau lived caught fire. Photo / Provided

Auckland North/West Department of Social Development Regional Commissioner Glenn Mckay said he sympathized with the family who lost their home.

“We typically work with emergency housing clients to find private rentals, transitional housing or public housing. We encourage customers to actively work with us to help resolve their situation, including finding rentals.

“We allocate emergency housing based on information we share about household size. Unfortunately, we do not have the client’s permission to let you know what information she provided us about her household size.

Kāinga Ora Regional Manager for Auckland North and West Taina Jones said they sympathize with the whānau.

“After the fire, which we understand was accidental, [their] house was uninhabitable. Despite our efforts, another Kāinga Ora house large enough to accommodate the family in a suitable location was not available.

Kāinga Ora offered to accommodate the family in two separate houses, but this was refused.

“So the family was placed in emergency housing,” Jones said. “[The mum] agreed to end her lease with us so that she would not have to continue paying us rent in addition to the rent required for emergency accommodation.

Jones said that based on people’s priority rating and housing need, Kāinga Ora matches people on the housing registry to houses as they become available.

The director of the Salvation Army’s Social and Parliamentary Policy Unit, Lt. Col. Ian Hutson, described the situation as “unacceptable”.

“There’s not enough housing in all areas, but it’s even worse for large families,” Hutson said.

“Basically the system is not for large families, they just don’t have the facilities.”

He wondered how those involved in this family’s case could let this sort of thing happen, and said he knows of other families who have been left in emergency shelter situations “more longer than they should have been”.

The Salvation Army has been lobbying the government to increase the housing supplement to reflect the housing and cost of living crisis, so families can escape the emergency housing system altogether.

The housing supplement has not been increased in the past five years, Hutson said.

National’s bishop said it was unfortunately “not a rare story”.

“And although I sympathize with this family, every week my office receives multiple requests from desperate Kiwis for social housing. They just can’t get it.

Bishop said the problem is systemic.

“Kāinga Ora is a very inefficient model and an ineffective organization. They own about 65,000 homes in the country and you would think that would give them scale, but it seems to be the opposite and the community providers are doing a much better job for their tenants,” he said.

When asked for comment, Housing Minister Megan Woods’ office declined to comment and said it was Kāinga Ora’s responsibility. Carmel Sepuloni, Minister for Social Development, and Peeni Henare, Associate Minister for Housing and Minister Whānau Ora, declined to comment.

Bishop also said that more and more Kiwi children are now living in cars.

“Jacinda Ardern said in 2017, ‘I refuse to stand around while kids sleep in cars.’ Yet under his watch, around 200 children now live in cars, up from 51 in December 2017.”

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on Bishop’s statement when approached by the Herald.

“It’s a tragedy that a child in New Zealand has to sleep in a car every night. Living in an emergency motel isn’t much better, but that’s the reality for around 4,000 other Kiwi children – four times as many since the Labor Party took office.

Bishop said National will partner with the community housing sector to build more homes, “reverse the tax on tenants from work and the expansion of the Brightline test” and use a social investment approach to move people into transitional housing with comprehensive support.

“These children need more than kind words and good intentions, they need a home to live in.”

Did you have any problems with Kāinga Ora? E-mail [email protected]

– Additional RNZ reports

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