Eight moves in eight years: What unstable housing is like for children

Kapiti mum Alexandra Saunders knows the hell of renting. Here she talks to her daughter about the impact eight moves in eight years had on their family.

Back in May, 2016, I was interviewed by TVNZ about renting substandard housing in Wellington. The resulting story said I had “moved [my] young family eight times in as many years because of cold, and damp houses…” but that line was slightly disingenuous. Was I unable to recognise the signs of mould, rising damp and rot in these rentals that I simply bounced from one to the next? Nope. Not on your nelly.

Like many renters seeking competitively priced homes, I was forced to take what was available, and affordable. And in 2015, after a winter of $400 power bills, it became clear “affordable” wasn’t within our means. We made an extreme decision to try and buy a “do-er upper” with our families’ support – outside of Wellington. But that extreme option isn’t there for most Wellingtonians, and it’s kids like ours who are the invisible victims of rising rents.

This photo is from 2015. This is our house. It had an almost non-existent kitchen and a dodgy bathroom. And it was a better option for our family than the Wellington rental market.

In the raging debate over rents we often hear from the same voices. Students, young working professionals – people we expect to be renting – voicing concerns over the extreme rents for inferior properties. But we don’t often hear from those who are also stuck in the rat race of rental nightmares and might never get out: low income people, disabled people, solo parents, parents living in poverty. And we almost never hear from their kids. So I asked my eldest daughter what it was like:

What do you remember about renting?

We rented a lot. Like, lots of houses. I liked the houses, but sort of didn’t like it because we couldn’t paint them the colours that we wanted.

What houses do you remember? (We have lived in five different rentals with stints at my parents place in between).

The Newtown house and the Southgate house.

What was different about the houses we rented and Nana and Grandpa’s house?

Nana’s was better. It was good, like she has good things. It was warm and stuff. I liked my room there when it was just mine.

What was your favourite thing about the houses you remember?

There were stairs [in the Southgate house] and a big backyard with a gate that went to a park and I got to have my own room. And Newtown? I liked the kitchen. It was nice when we had breakfast and stuff.

What were the worst things about those houses?

I could hear my little sister through the walls and the sun came in my room at bedtime and it was so hot! And Newtown? It was really cold in winter. I didn’t like the cold.

How did you find moving?

It was a bit sad. I liked my ceiling. And I missed my neighbours.

Do you think families should rent or own homes? And why?

Families should own homes. It is really cool. You can paint it any colour; like, inside and outside any colour you want and you can decorate it and leave it messy! And there are gardens in most houses and you can have a veggie garden and a backyard you can play in. You can have pets! I like that I can walk to the shops and school.

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Despite moving frequently and having a low family income we tried to give our daughter the stability she needed through set routines and a stable education. Remaining in the school zone through multiple moves was an expensive exercise. Despite this, she had issues with anxiety and the financial stress made being a part of our community challenging. It’s hard to join in when you can’t afford to.

Belonging, being a part of a place, was important to us and is something she hints at herself. When she mentions she “… got to have [her] own room” and “you can decorate it and leave [it] messy!” she’s talking about mana whenua. It’s built into our early childhood curriculum as one of its four core strands – teachers, more than anyone, understand its importance for kids. It’s something highly valued in our new little village outside of Wellington and it obviously has resonated with her too. She knows she can “walk to the shops and school”. She’s connected to her community here. The benefits of having stable housing are vast, far beyond being able to paint the place or own a pet. It’s increased our food security. We can make active choices about how we heat our home and how we manage that financially. We have connections and roots throughout the neighbourhood and feel safe here.

But best of all it’s given us a home.

This is our “after” picture. We now have a warm home with a new kitchen, bathroom and a dog.

But we all know it’s not as simple as “families should own homes.” The housing market is just as unattainable as finding a warm and dry three bedroom in Newtown for less than $700 a week. In the winter of 2015, after being pushed out of our last rental due to rent increases and facing unaffordable power bills in our new one, we found that a mortgage of $225,000 in a town outside of Wellington would cost us just a little under $300 a week, compared to our rent in Wellington of $520 a week. To put that rent into perspective, my partner’s take home pay for the week was $517.

The problem is, the bank wouldn’t even lend us that much. With a 10% deposit, the lending criteria is strict and our little house failed five of the six required checks. But my parents were able to access the required lending and bought the house instead. Purchasing as an investment, the banks didn’t give a hoot about the condition of the house.

My parents could have let it rot, renting all the way.

So what can we do to help families who rent? Should we look overseas to Germany or Ireland, where tenants have the right to long term leases? Long term leases are a core element of secure tenure – being able to choose when and if you leave your home instead of your landlord making that decision for you, either by selling the property (this happened to us twice) or by increasing rents to an unaffordable level (again, twice).

The constant, shifting population of renters is great for private landlords’ pockets, but it’s costing our country – and our kids.

The Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study states that “Whether by choice or necessity, regularly moving house may lead to problems accessing social services like education, benefits and healthcare, and affects families’ support networks and friendships”. Beyond long term leases, other options to improve security of tenure include the implementation of rent-to-buy schemes and building more state homes for our most vulnerable families. In her book Pennies from Heaven Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw says that “home ownership in low-income families [is] associated with more positive education outcomes for children, probably due to greater social cohesion and security for the children”. She also discusses the long-term benefits of the security that state houses in New Zealand once offered – a security fast declining as successive governments sell them off.

We need to start recognising that the regular Wellington renter isn’t just a young professional or student – that parents unable to afford $120,000 house deposits and their children are renters too. And we need to change things to allow these families safe and secure homes.

Alexandra Saunders is a writer and mother of two. She runs the Little LEGO Library and girls only STEM group Lego GO Club. She is a passionate advocate for low-income families, kids with special needs and girls in STEM.

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