Desperate housing need

HOMELESS: Visiting the Ashburton Dog Park with SunEJim (left) and JudEJane is the highlight of Ash Watters’ day.
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Increased stocks of Kāinga Ora homes will not be enough to fulfil a desperate need for housing, says an Ashburton social justice advocate.

Warren James at Anglican Advocacy said the situation for some was ‘‘dire’’, as they slept on the street or lived in their cars.

His concerns are echoed by an Ashburton property manager, who said she found it ‘‘gut-wrenching’’ to see so many applications for rentals.

The number had more than doubled in the last five years, to an average of 30 each house. She had recently turned down a pregnant woman and her partner and their two children who were living in their car.

‘‘I couldn’t give them a home,’’ she said.

Among Ashburton’s homeless is Ash Watters.

The 67-year-old bachelor has lived in his old car in the town with his two terriers, 13-year-old SunEJim and 15-year-old JudEJane, for about 12 months.

He had been on the Ministry of Social Development’s (MSD) housing register waiting for public housing over that period, alongside applying for about six rentals.

‘‘The difficulty is finding somewhere with the dogs. I’m buggered without them, they are my main reason for living. I want a home for us, the three of us,’’ Watters said.

Fellow Ashburton resident Tanya Wilson, and her four children, also have no house to live in. They are in a caravan on a friend’s lawn.

She said she had applied for more than one dozen rentals since she left her husband in October last year.

‘‘I get turned down basically straight away on every rental I apply for. I don’t know why,’’ Wilson said.

She had been on the MSD housing register for about three months. She needed to be in a home by winter, as it would be too cold in the caravan.

Tanya Wilson and her four children, including (from left) Carter, 12, Milekka, 7, and Jewel, 10, live in their caravan on a friend’s lawn.

Kāinga Ora is increasing its housing in Ashburton, by buying hew homes and replacing older homes on large sections with higher density housing.

It has 220 homes, to increase to 295 by mid next year.

James said when it came to new and renovated Kāinga Ora homes coming on stream, this would not solve the problem for homeless Mid Canterbury residents. Demand was high as the population increased. In addition, residents had to compete with people around the country. This was because eligibility was based on need. Someone with a higher need from the North Island could be considered before someone in Ashburton.

‘‘I do feel that can be a problem, not saying people miss out altogether, but they can basically be competing with people from outside.’’

MSD decides who qualifies for public housing, based on need.

Kāinga Ora regional director Canterbury Liz Krause confirmed Kāinga Ora placed people into its homes from the register based on need nationwide, however community connections were taken into account.

‘‘Before placing a customer in a Kāinga Ora home, we talk to them about both their housing needs and connections to the community, and other groups, to help us make a suitable housing match.’’

James was aware of about five homeless men in Ashburton, either sleeping in cars or sleeping on the street. They were ‘‘very good at staying under the radar’’. There were others who needed better housing as they put up with perilous conditions such as unsanitary properties or violent households.

Anecdotally he was aware of one three-bedroom unit on the rental market recently attracting about 200 in-person viewings.

‘‘That’s in general what’s happening, we have a large number of people coming to town and people within town looking for places.’’

This made it ‘‘virtually impossible’’ for people in situations of hardship to get a look-in.

Landlords and property managers sought tenants who could demonstrate an ability to pay, references and good credit ratings.

‘‘Some of those moving to town for jobs, they are quite well resourced.’’

The property manager at an Ashburton real estate agent echoed his concerns. She did not want to be named as she was not sure if she had clearance to speak to the media.

She said she got ‘‘quite emotional’’ seeing homeless people desperately seeking rental properties.

‘‘There are not enough houses here, there are so many incoming people from out of town because of the work, it’s a growing town but the housing is not keeping up.’’

Watters is from the North Island originally. He moved from Nelson to Ashburton about 12 months ago. He has had a lifestyle of non-permanent accommodation – living in his vehicle, a tent, or camping ground rooms – for more than 10 years.

The highlight of his day is taking his dogs to the Ashburton dog park each morning where both he and his canine companions have made many friends.

‘‘I have a lot of people I love, I come down here when not feeling (great), SunEJim has a few girlfriends floating around here.’’

Watters is a member of an Ashburton gym, where he goes each day for a shower. He often cooks lunch and dinner at the outdoor barbecues at the Tinwald Domain.

He loved Mid Canterbury due to its wide open spaces and availability of the type of rural work he did in truck driving and freight handling. He said as a hard worker with a good attitude, he did not think he would have trouble finding a job, but he wants to find a home first.

While in good health, he was on regular heart medication after having had a quadruple bypass some years ago. ‘‘I can’t put in a good day proper without the sleep I’m not getting,’’ he said.

Ash Watters lives in his old car with his two dogs.

Krause said Kāinga Ora was a pet-friendly landlord, however in some situations it would not provide permission for a pet.

‘‘This includes if the property is unsuitable for a pet, subject to body corporate rules or council bylaws that prohibit pets, if a dog is classified by the local council under the Dog Control Act as dangerous or menacing, or the customer is disqualified from owning a pet,’’ Krause said.

Meanwhile, Wilson said she was desperate to find a rental property or be placed in a Kāinga Ora home by winter, when it would be too cold in the caravan.

MSD had told her there was no available emergency accommodation in Ashburton, so she feared she would be forced to accept emergency housing in Christchurch. But she did not want to leave her Ashburton job, as a motel cleaner, or take her children out of Ashburton schools.

MSD regional commissioner Canterbury Blair McKenzie said emergency housing was available in Ashburton, but finding accommodation quickly could sometimes be challenging in smaller towns where there was less supply. People with complex needs or unique requirements, for example if they owned dogs, could have to look further afield.

‘‘We encourage anyone sleeping rough or in a car to contact us and we discuss how we may be able to help,’’ McKenzie said.

Emergency housing was a last resort, the priority was to look at other options first.

‘‘This could include exploring private rental options they can afford, financial support to help them stay with family or friends, help with rent if they’re behind, help with paying bond for a new property, help negotiating with landlords to retain a tenancy, paying bond and rent in advance for a new place, financial assistance with moving costs, or offering a landlord tenancy costs cover.’’