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Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

AucklandMarch 23, 2017

Race and renting in Auckland

Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Finding a safe, secure rental is hard for anyone of limited means in 2017. But the ugly truth is that it is often that much harder for Pasifika and Māori. Emmaline Matagi tells the stories of three such whānau, whose names have been changed to protect them against further discrimination.

The Auckland housing crisis has so many parts it’s almost impossible to talk about as a whole without swearing. You feel hopeless. I’ve watched so many of my friends and whānau struggle with the housing market, struggle with the reality of being Pasifika and Māori whānau renting in Auckland in 2017. These are some of their stories.

Whānau 1: Va’iga and Amy

An engaged couple in their mid-20s of Māori and Pacific descent, with one child. Both have managing roles in companies, stable income and little to no debt.

This whānau has been renting since they left their parents homes a few years ago. They currently pay $500 a week for a two-bedroom home in West Auckland. Their son is in a good local school but they have moved several times – due to rent rises, the houses they were in being sold, or the houses not being maintained to a healthy standard for their boy.

Now they’re looking for a new place, because their current home is too small and expensive for them to live comfortably. “Comfortable”, by the way, they define as: being able to pay the bills including rent, power, water and phone, run a car (to get them to and from work), pay for bits and pieces for their son and buy food. They have a ‘middle income’ and almost all of it goes on rent and bills.

Previously Amy was in charge of finding a place to live, filling out all the application forms and dealing with the agents. Each time she applied they would get a viewing almost immediately. On arrival, however,  they would be ignored or left alone. That’s not uncommon for a busy house viewing when there might be 10 or more people trying to fight for the house. But at some viewings the agents wouldn’t talk to them or even greet them.

Now Va’iga is doing the searching. He’s applied to over 30 places and they’ve been given only a handful of invitations to view. Why? Is it because Amy’s surname suggests she might be Asian, whereas it’s obvious from Va’iga’s name that he’s Pasifika?

At one of the few viewings they’ve had they got out of their car in front of the property. The agent walked out to the end of the driveway and, just as they were about to say hello, said, ‘Oh, we don’t like loud music here, the neighbours are very quiet and they don’t like loud rap music here.’

Va’iga and Amy were embarrassed and angry. They did a quick walk through the property, got back in their car and drove around to see me. They hadn’t had music playing in the car. The agent didn’t ask them about their income, their lives or even their child. They simply saw the brown skin and jumped to a conclusion. It was the kind of racism that happens all the time and it made the couple feel awful.

Another problem Va’iga and Amy face is finding a suburb that allows them to be functional. They both need to be close to a motorway for their jobs, but many of the suburbs which offer that are not cheap. People say things like, ‘Why don’t you just move out of Auckland?’, but if you have stable jobs and incomes you can’t do that.

Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

Whānau 2: Marika and Tāne

A couple of Māori and Pacific descent, early 20s, no children. Both are working full time. Marika has just finished university and Tāne is a storeman on minimum wage.

Marika and Tāne have been lucky, they’ve been able to live at home with extended whānau. But it hasn’t been a free ride: they’ve paid all the bills you would expect and have tried to save. But when most members of the whānau are on minimum wage there’s always something else that needs to be paid for and, with the combined rent totalling almost $600 a week for a modest three-bedroom home, they have few savings.

However, after two years they’ve saved enough to cover start-up costs for a new flat. They’re currently looking for a place of their own. They have a budget and know they can be self sufficient.

In the last month they’ve been to six house viewings, for homes ranging from one to three bedrooms with rental of $380-$500.

At one viewing there were more than 50 people standing in line outside the property. It took over an hour just to get in the door. At another viewing, for a place they really liked, they were about to fill in the paperwork when they saw a woman handing a large amount of cash to the agent. Thirty minutes later they were told the home had been rented.

For their most recent viewing they filled in the pre-viewing forms and were then called by the property manager to a ‘meet the owner’ meeting. They went, excited at the chance to introduce themselves and talk their way into their own place. It’s worth noting that Marika is a fair-skinned Pasifika with blond hair and blue eyes while Tāne is an olive-complexioned Māori, tall and stocky, with a ta moko on one arm.

The owner pulled out a piece of paper on which she had analysed their income and expenses. Then she asked Tāne about his work history and why he had dropped out of university. She wanted to know if he was drug tested at work. She asked what type of car he drove, because the number plate on the application form (it’s personalised) made her think a certain way about him. (For the record it’s Marika’s plate, not Tāne’s.)

Marika says the whole time they sat there, a good 40 minutes, the owner didn’t ask her a single question. All the focus was on Tāne and it was condescending and accusatory. They both felt the owner might as well have drug tested him and asked for his criminal history (which is clean, by the way).

Whānau 3: Leilani and Iosefa

A married Pasifika couple in their early thirties with two children.

Leilani and Iosefa have low-to-middle incomes and have recently moved into a two-bedroom house where they pay $480 a week. Their last house was so terrible – mouldy and falling apart – that everyone in the family got sick and had to keep taking time off work and school. The younger child, aged five, was frequently in hospital with bronchiolitis and asthma.

Although last year was very hard they managed to get through it and to find themselves more stable jobs and a better home. But it’s still a struggle every single week to make ends meet. Leilani says she constantly finds it difficult to balance the automatic payments for power and car with buying the children fresh food. They don’t drink or smoke, buy frivolous items or go on holidays. Leilani and Iosefa themselves have often gone without food so the children can eat. They’re grateful to both WINZ and KIDSCAN for helping them not drift further into poverty.

Iosefa says in their last house they found it impossible to deal with the mould. It didn’t matter how often they opened up the house to the fresh air or how much they cleaned, the mould kept growing back.

Now, their biggest worry is whether they’ll be able to keep the kids settled in school, because they can’t really afford to live in this new house. They’ve moved eight times in the last three years and the kids have changed schools three times. They struggle to keep up with the schoolwork.

Twice, those moves were with very short notice, because the owners were selling. More often, the houses were just not up to standard. One was an amazing home in summertime, hot and breezy with the windows opened, but when winter came the mould grew and the house smelt damp all the time. They ran dehumidifiers and bought DampRid boxes but nothing would take away the smell – or the mould.

In the past when they’ve decided to move, they learned agents wouldn’t call them back, so they usually went to the agent’s office to try to convince them personally. To put that another way, Leilani and Iosefa have to keep begging to get a roof over their heads, just because they’re on a low income.

The stories I’ve told here are just a small slice of everyday reality for three Māori/Pasifika families. I’m a teacher, and I see children who are here one week then gone for two terms. Then they return for a couple of weeks before again. It’s not their fault. It’s for reasons far beyond their control, and usually beyond their whānau’s control. The consequences for their education and therefore their life prospects are likely to be devastating.

The government has to step in now. These people are hard working, honest and kind – and they are all taxpayers. It’s unfathomable to me that we cannot provide them with adequate housing at affordable prices. We know people like this are among the most vulnerable in our society, and yet the government and some of the public seem unable to grasp that help is urgently needed.

I don’t have the answers to our housing crisis, especially in Auckland. But I know this for sure: if we don’t fix the housing crisis, we will have a whole generation of dispossessed young people. They will be much less economically productive than they should be. They will be despondent. But they will also be very angry.

Poverty ravages the people who suffer it, but it also affects us all.

This post is part of Rent Week, our week-long series about why the experience of renting a home in NZ is so terrible, and whether anything can be done to fix it. Read the entire series here.

The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.

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