'I was breaking down': Disabled mother's gruelling search for an accessible Auckland house

"My kids shouldn't have to be in a motel or out of school for this."
"My kids shouldn't have to be in a motel or out of school for this." Photo credit: Rachel Peterson / Supplied.

A disabled mother says a severe lack of accessible housing is making it almost impossible for those in her situation to find a suitable place to live.

Rachel Peterson, who uses a wheelchair, was accepted into an accessible rental property in Silverdale on Tuesday, but only after seeking Ministry of Social Development housing assistance for five years and having 32 rental applications declined.

The mother of two says while she's relieved to have found a suitable house, it shouldn't be this hard.

"There was so much time off work and I was breaking down. The time, the money, the stress was exhausting."

Ms Peterson says she was well-supported by her boss, friends and family but adding the housing search on top of juggling her job, two kids and a daily commute from Warkworth to Albany was too much.

Frustratingly, she knows others in the same position.

"I personally know of people that this stress has broken, costing them their employment,” she says.

"There's an urgent, severe shortage of accessible housing in New Zealand at the moment and the situation is a living hell for disabled people in need of somewhere to live."

Ms Peterson said that the Housing NZ and work and Income staff she's worked with  "were kind and have empathy," but that the bottom line was New Zealand needed more available accessible properties now.

MSD Regional Commissioner Mark Goldsmith told Newshub MSD is "really happy" Ms Peterson has found a place to live and that the Ministry remains committed to helping her however it can.

He said that Ms Peterson was offered a three-bedroom property by Housing New Zealand last week, but that it didn’t meet her accessibility needs to fit her wheelchair or for medical equipment storage.

"As the nationwide shortage of public housing makes it harder for people to find suitable homes, we remain committed to supporting our clients however we can, as soon as we can, to help them build independent lives."

Figures provided to Newshub by MSD show that as at September 2018, there were a total of 556 applicants for modified public housing deemed either "at risk" (from lack of housing) or "in serious housing need."

Of those, 258 or almost half were from the Auckland region.

Mr Goldsmith says after a person's immediate housing need is met, MSD works with them to assess their needs and ensure there's a good match between the person and the home.

"We want to make sure they have the appropriate number of bedrooms, are close to essential services for them such as schools, and that the house meets any specific disability needs."

Ms Peterson, who works in disability advocacy as Community Relationship Manager at Yes Disability Resource Centre, says navigating the system is a challenge, even with her advocacy expertise.

"If it’s this hard for me with my knowledge and such, what is happening to people with out that privilege?"

Ms Peterson says that a social housing property is the preferred long-term option for her, partly because it's not possible to get ministry of Health funding to modify rentals to meet her access needs.

She says the property she has now been offered is expensive but is otherwise ideal, with level access, wide doorways, wheelchair-height work surfaces and an accessible ensuite.

She encourages property developers to consider building accessible from the start, so there are more properties like this one on the market.

"In an inaccessible environment, I can't do meal prep, have a shower, or care for my kids properly."

Ms Peterson had applied unsuccessfully for 32 rentals in the last twelve months before Tuesday's good news.

She says a lack of accessibility and poorly-founded assumptions are among the reasons given for rejected rental applications, in the rare cases where a reason is provided.

She emphasised disabled people are ironically likely to be excellent tenants.

"Disabled people will become established and stay, they don't run as they have nowhere to run."

Ms Peterson, who also sits on Auckland Council's Disability advisory Panel, says 10 to 20 percent of all new Housing NZ stock should be built accessible, accounting for the ageing population.