Droves of working poor living in cars due to housing shortage in Northland

By Peter de Graaf of RNZ

Working families who can't afford to pay rent even on two incomes are increasingly among those forced to live in tents and cars, Northland housing advocates say.

Monika Welch, who provides food for struggling families, said it was mainly solo mums who needed help when she started her charity Finkk ('Families in Need Kerikeri') just over 10 years ago.

Now most of those who came to her for help were families with both parents working full-time - yet they still couldn't afford a roof over their heads.

Welch said finding work in Northland wasn't the problem.

"There's plenty of jobs out there, but whatever you earn it's peanuts compared to your rent.

"What is left after you pay your $650? Virtually nothing. And as soon as you get behind in your rent, it's all over."

Monika Welch surrounded by donated food and clothing in 2013, when she first set up the charity Finkk ('Families in Need Kerikeri').
Monika Welch surrounded by donated food and clothing in 2013, when she first set up the charity Finkk ('Families in Need Kerikeri'). Photo credit: Peter de Graaf/RNZ

With many families only just making ends meet, one unexpected bill was all it took to put them on the street, Welch said.

"It only takes one thing to go wrong - the car breaks down, or the washing machine or fridge. Then it's just a plummet into a huge hole."

Welch said she'd helped whānau living in cow sheds and teepees, and a family of nine living in two cars parked next to Kerikeri's public toilets.

She'd also fed families living in caravans without power or running water, whose children didn't go to school because they couldn't afford transport or uniforms.

Another family she'd helped was ecstatic to finally get what they thought was a long-term rental - only to be evicted a few months later to make way for summer Airbnb guests.

Welch said property management companies played a part in the crisis by insisting on annual rent increases.

Some people had lost their jobs during the pandemic due to vaccine mandates, and had then lost their homes when they couldn't keep up with mortgage payments.

"There's car parks around Northland full of people living in their cars. It seems to be getting worse and worse."

Council's formal strategy is years away

The crisis has prompted the Far North District Council to develop a housing strategy, in the hope of emulating Hastings' success in turning around its housing woes.

Since introducing a "place-based housing strategy" in 2019, Hastings has managed to slash the number of people living in emergency accommodation.

Measures taken by the Hawke's Bay city include encouraging developers to build affordable rentals on council land, more public housing through Kāinga Ora, new subdivisions, converting inner-city buildings into apartments, and community housing projects, including papakāinga on Māori land.

Far North Deputy Mayor Kelly Stratford, who shares the housing portfolio with councillor Babe Kapa, said Northland's long-standing housing problems were worsened by Cyclone Gabrielle, when many unconsented homes were badly damaged.

"They were just demolished, and there were gaps in being able to assist them," Stratford said.

Like Welch, she had seen an increase in the number of working families living in car parks intended for freedom campers, because they couldn't afford current rents.

"People are sleeping in their cars because they can't find a place to live. They're in there overnight, but then the next morning they're off to work."

In Northland, finding a rental was often a case of "who you know" - which made it difficult for families moving to the region for employment.

Anyone who had missed payments in the past, or who had been the subject of noise complaints, found it almost impossible, she said.

Stratford said she knew the effects of rental insecurity from personal experience.

Her family had rented the same home for the past four years, but before that they had been forced to move seven times in two years.

"It causes anxiety. Children just don't settle. It's really good if children can stay with the same school, but that's a challenge if you move out of the area, because you have to fork out for bus trips or car travel. Not everybody has the ability to do that. So they change schools and that impacts on education," she said.

"It impacts on health as well, especially if they move so far away from their doctor they need to register with a new medical provider, and you know how difficult that is."

Stratford said the council was not about to start building homes, but it would work more closely with iwi and hapū, housing agencies and developers to reduce barriers to building affordable homes.

"The goal is to help get people into homes faster. Although the strategy won't be completed for a couple of years, we've already identified resource consenting and building consenting processes we can change."

The strategy would also look at the issue of empty homes.

In Russell, for example, up to 70 percent of homes are said to be occupied only a few weeks a year - despite the town's dire shortage of worker accommodation.

Stratford said the strategy would try to quantify the number of empty homes in the district, and explore ways to encourage owners to allow them to be tenanted.

"There's the carrot approach or the big stick approach. We'll investigate incentivising them to help address the housing crisis rather than run Airbnb or Bookabach."

Relaxing consent rules could provide quicker builds - housing commentator

Hamish Abercrombie, general manager of Kerikeri-based construction firm Site Scope, said the government could make affordable homes more accessible by removing the requirement for building consents for homes under 60 square metres.

Currently sleepouts of up to 30 sq m did not need a consent, but that was only if they did not have plumbing.

"We see smaller homes as a solution for a range of whānau across New Zealand, mainly because the cost of housing has increased so much in the last few years," Abercrombie said.

"The barriers we're facing to try and get affordable housing to these whānau are massive. We can see that with the social housing wait list - there's over 30,000 people on there at the moment - and a lot of these people just need one- or two-bedroom homes."

"With a smaller home obviously there's a lot less to go wrong than, say, a 400 sq m home, yet the regulation is much the same. Taking a risk-based approach would ease some of that, and make it faster and more affordable to build houses."

Abercrombie said he'd pushed that message with government ministers during a Housing Expo at Waitangi in February.

Councils could also make a difference by changing their planning rules, he said.

The price of land was a major factor in the overall cost of any home, especially given the minimum lot sizes enforced in many parts of the country.

In the rural Far North, for example, a house lot had to be at least 3000 sq m.

Reducing the minimum size would make land, and hence housing, much more affordable, he said.

Health effects of housing issues pressing - iwi

Meanwhile, some iwi organisations in Northland are reinventing themselves as housing providers in an attempt to address the problem.

One of those is Kaikohe-based Te Hau Ora o Ngāpuhi, originally a health service provider.

Chief executive Tia Ashby said the organisation branched into housing after realising there was little point fixing people's health if they just kept getting sick because of damp, cold, overcrowded homes - or because they lived on the streets or in their vehicles.

"Being an iwi Māori health provider we naturally have a holistic model of healthcare. We wanted to stop being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We needed to focus on prevention," she said.

"Housing is a key social determinant of health, meaning that living conditions, including quality, affordability and stability, significantly impact health and well-being."

Investing in housing was also more cost effective in the long run, Ashby said.

A child that developed rheumatic heart disease as a result of poor living conditions, for example, would likely require lifelong medical treatment and eventually open-heart surgery.

The cost to the health system, not to mention the toll on the child's quality of life, was enormous.

Ashby said her organisation provided a range of housing options based on people's needs.

That included helping people into tenancies, and providing transitional housing for men coming out of prison so they didn't end up back on the street.

Te Hau Ora o Ngāpuhi, in partnership with council-owned company Far North Holdings, was also building social housing on Kaikohe's former RSA site.

Ten affordable rental units opened last year with 50 more under construction.

The organisation's next goal was to build 100 owner-occupied affordable homes, catering to working families shut out of the property market by high prices.

"We call them the working poor. These are families where both parents are working but they're still struggling to make ends meet. The goal of home ownership keeps on sliding away due to rising living costs," Ashby said.

"So we're not just catering to people in emergency situations, it's the whole continuum. We're empowering people with tools to get them out of homelessness and into home ownership."

Ashby said the government could help by making sure it continued to invest in community housing providers - "because they're the ones at the coalface" - and cutting red tape around resource consents.

Monika Welch just hoped change would come soon.

She felt worn down by the scale of the problem and the desperation of families needing somewhere to live.

"It's just terrible. It makes me sick and sad inside. It's quite overwhelming really."