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‘I started to get sicker. And sicker.’ What it’s like renting from a slumlord when you’re a chronically ill parent

Think your rental situation is tough? Try living with a chronic medical condition in a dark, mould-infested dump – and with a child to care for. One anonymous renter tells her story.

Renting a shit hole when you’re 15 is an adventure – especially when you’re paying shit hole prices of 60 bucks a week. When you’re 30 and paying most of your income to live in the same shit hole it definitely starts to lose its appeal.

I’ve worked full time since I was 15 and I’ve always been a grafter. Despite having chronic pain issues and the poor health that goes with that I’ve always worked. I’ve always just pushed through the pain. I’ve discharged myself from hospital when I thought I was missing too much work. I have always been the one that is the first to arrive and the last to leave, going far above and beyond, doing my best, doing my work. I coped with the occasional hospital visits, I took them in my stride.

But about five years ago the rental market started to change in an astonishing way. My wages just weren’t going as far. I live with my three- year-old son and my best friend. When we started looking for a rental it didn’t take long to realise we were going to have to drop our standards significantly.

We couldn’t be fussy and expect a clean, warm house without mould. Insulation? Pfft! You may as well ask for a working oven, a decent landlord and the moon while you’re at it!

The flat we settled on was a ‘score’: a basement flat with few windows (although the ones we had did let in a hell of a lot of water, so perhaps it was for the best that we only had a couple). There was of course a mould problem and oh so many flies. And all of this we managed to get for a stellar Auckland price that would make anyone else in New Zealand cry.

But it was central, close to the hospital, university, my work and my son’s pre-school and, later, school. So, in this market, it seemed like we had hit the jackpot.

And at first we had.

But with the benefit of hindsight I can see that the dingy little flat was where it started.

I started to get sicker. And sicker. My hospital admissions went up. Winter was the worst. I started getting pneumonia and flu and every other bug that went around, including one memorable occasion when the bug turned out to be swine flu. My pain was getting worse (so much worse that on one occasion my lung spontaneously collapsed due to it). I was hospitalised more frequently and for longer.

I couldn’t just discharge myself because I was just so much sicker. I ended up having five surgeries while living in that dump.

Eventually it became too much.

The constant hospitalisations and specialist visits were just too much. The surgeries and recovery times felt relentless and constant. The medications had strange side effects it was never ending. People just don’t understand how much energy it takes to be chronically ill and to not be getting better despite doing everything right.

I just couldn’t work any more. This was absolutely devastating to me.

So I went on the ‘sickness’ benefit and things went rapidly downhill.

I couldn’t afford the rent and got further and further into debt, which made me stressed which translated to more hospital visits. I was put under a specialist team out in Greenlane around the time the rent was going up again. And I couldn’t do it. I was facing homelessness with my child and I truly believe that would have been what would have happened if I wasn’t one of the lucky ones.

A family friend had a house in West Auckland and her tenants were moving out. We could have it for cheap (Auckland cheap, anywhere else and the price would still make you faint). So we moved out West.

We now have a house with insulation and my health has been improving.

After a year on the waiting list I have now been transferred from Greenlane to the Waitemata DHB. Good news right? No more monthly trips across town to see a pain team?

Nope.

Because in our wonderful city, the WDHB pain team is based on the North Shore. So now it takes half a day to get there and back, with multiple bus and train transfers. I can’t afford a car (even with a car its over a hour outside of rush hour).

And I’m still paying 90% of my income on rent, which means once bills are paid and my son is fed, there is nothing for me.

I survive on his leftovers and the odd snack thanks to a truly wonderful flatmate. You can imagine the wonders this does for my health.

I’m searching for work, but being disabled is a barrier to that even without an employer looking at the year and a bit gap on my CV. And the reason I have been out of work is a direct result of the lack of rental standards in Aotearoa. The cowboy slumlords who won’t do anything to fix up the dumps.

All a landlord has to supply is an electricity outlet, access to hot water, and something to cook on. I’ve lived in flats that literally supplied just those.

I truly feel that in my case at least, and I’m sure in others too, Auckland housing is contributing to people being on the dole.

When you’re spending all your money on rent, you can’t afford to run a car or catch the limited public transport to get to interviews. When you’re spending all your money on rent so that you are literally suffering from malnourishment and your doctor is seriously worried and puts you back in hospital just so you can eat, well – try job hunting as well. When you are constantly getting sicker because of your damp shack that you are forced to call home you aren’t particularly employable. Our employment laws aren’t strong enough to protect you. When you’re sleeping the day away so you don’t eat or so you save the little energy your health affords you for when your kid gets home from school, looking for work seems like an insurmountable struggle.

We need a rental warrant of fitness and we need it soon.

We need landlords who care and we need them to be forced to care by laws that protect the vulnerable if they don’t.

And I’m one of the lucky ones.

The truly truly lucky.

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