'Motel generation' feared as New Zealand's emergency housing need continues

A child on a bike at an emergency accommodation motel.
A child on a bike at an emergency accommodation motel. Photo credit: RNZ

By Nita Blake-Persen for RNZ

There are fears Aotearoa could end up with a 'motel generation' as whānau struggling to afford rents are bumped across emergency accommodation providers.

Latest figures show there are more than 4000 children living in emergency accommodation - mainly motels - with more than 1000 of those living there for up to a year.

At 31 December 2020, there were 4137 children living in motels, according to the latest figures from the Ministry for Social Development. Single parents with children made up the second highest household group.

Auckland has the biggest numbers, followed by Hastings and Rotorua - but the problem is nationwide.

Barnardos Gisborne and Hawke's Bay service manager Joan-Ella Ngata (Ngāti Porou and Tūhoe), said they were seeing lots of children in motels in her rohe - and she feared for the long-term consequences.

"My concern is, with this motel-generation children, is that they won't actually have the stability, or know what it's like to have a solid foundation - somewhere they can call home."

She said she recently met a four-year-old boy who had moved seven times.

"Research has proven that when you have stability as a child, that helps you with what trials and tribulations you face as an adult."

Those concerns were echoed by assistant Māori Commissioner for Children Glenis Philip-Barbara.

Philip-Barbara (Ngāti Uepōhatu and Ngāti Porou) said Aotearoa was teetering on the brink of a generation raised in motels, and New Zealanders could not accept that as being okay. 

While she applauded the government's efforts to combat child poverty, she said they needed to act urgently in dealing with children living in emergency accommodation.

"Once the government decides that this is an urgent issue, then I have absolute faith that the communities that are at the forefront of designing solutions for these problems will step in and work on these solutions."

She said Māori were over represented on the housing waitlist and the effects would be felt for generations to come. 

With the trans-Tasman bubble about to open, Philip-Barbara feared things could be about to get worse.

"I think the announcement that the travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia is opening up this month raises the spectre or urgency around solving this problem for New Zealand's children."

In a statement, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni said while a motel room was a better solution for children than sleeping in cars, the government recognised it was not sustainable and considered it to be an urgent issue.

She said a funding package for whānau with children in emergency housing had been set up to cover additional costs - especially related to keeping kids in education, early childhood centres and for wellbeing needs - while major work was under way to increase New Zealand's housing supply.

In Whangārei, those houses cannot come soon enough.

A 20-year-old mother living at a local motel, who did not want to be identified, said she attended at least three viewings a day for rental properties but never had any luck.

While she was struggling to find somewhere within her price range, she said she just wanted to be given a chance because most landlords seemed put off by her young age and lack of credit history.

She and her three-month-old baby had been in their current motel for three months, but had lived in two others before that.

Her mother-in-law said while they were grateful their whānau had somewhere to stay, the situation was far from ideal.

A motel rule banning any visitors meant the mother and baby previously had to walk to the nearby library so they could all spend time together.

"They were with us for a while but 'it wasn't in my tenancy agreement that I could have [other people]' - and it's your family and your moko, and so to not be able to have them with us is very sad."