Te Tuhi Walker (left) holding Jaxson-Hayze Walker, and Levi Williams (right) holding Jazmyne Walker; with housing advocates Leah Jacobs, Dee Puhipuhi and Hope Jones outside the empty Kāinga Ora home they "broke into" in a desperate effort to find a home. The house, however, is a possible health and safety risk. Kāinga Ora has found a temporary home for the family. Photo: Liam Clayton / Gisborne Herald
By Matthew Rosenberg, Local Democracy Reporter
Desperation has forced a young Tairāwhiti family to break down the door of an empty Kāinga Ora home and take up residence this month, even though utilities were disconnected.
The stay was short-lived, however, after the Crown agency informed the new occupants the house was being tested for methamphetamine contamination.
The couple and their two children have been given a temporary home through Kāinga Ora but a housing advocate says the issue highlights a broken system where people are forced to extreme measures to find suitable places to live.
Kāinga Ora acknowledges there are not enough homes in Tairāwhiti and says it won't be pressing charges against the family.
On July 13, Levi Williams and partner Te Tuhi Walker broke into a house in Kaitī with the help of housing support workers operating separately from government agencies.
The house was owned by Kāinga Ora and had been untenanted since June.
Stuck in motel room
Before moving in, Williams and Walker had been living out of a single room for the past two and a half years at transitional housing complex Eastland Motel, which was bought by the government in 2017.
"That's just what it's come to. Nowadays we have to take things into our own hands," Walker said.
"It's hard to see them - our babies - running around in one little square."
The relief they felt having a larger space to call home did not last long, however, when that afternoon they received a visit from Kāinga Ora to inform them they would need to move out immediately. The house had been vacant since June 9 because of a possible health and safety risk and was being tested for methamphetamine contamination.
"Kāinga Ora staff have been in touch with the whānau and alerted them to this risk. The whānau made the right decision to move out of the property immediately," Kāinga Ora regional director East North Island Naomi Whitewood said.
Vacant home found
"Note there are very few vacant public homes in Tairāwhiti. Apart from the one home being tested in Huxley Road, all the others that are unoccupied are in the process of getting maintenance work done."
On Thursday, the family moved into another Kāinga Ora home that was vacant for maintenance as a temporary measure. The organisation told Local Democracy Reporting it would work with the whānau to find a suitable long-term solution.
While it ended well for the couple, housing advocate Tuta Ngarimu said the events painted a picture of a broken system.
Before the Huxley Road move, the couple had been living in transitional housing where they felt micromanaged and wary about letting their children go outside.
The arrangement had created mental health issues for both of them, Williams said.
Ngarimu said if they had not taken action and broken into the Huxley Road address, they would still be living in that "box".
"Although we've had a good result, we had to take an extreme measure for them to get to where they are now," he said.
"Because all of a sudden ... a house dropped out of the sky. This is the second time we've done this and it's the second time they've come up with a home.
"So something is definitely wrong in Kāinga Ora for whānau to have to take that extreme measure to get them a whare. It's not good enough."
Ngarimu said his team were unaware the house was contaminated when the family moved in but knew the history of the place and believed there was "no way" it was a cookhouse.
"We weren't too concerned about that anyway," he said.
Kāinga Ora regional director Naomi Whitewood said she was aware many people in Tairāwhiti were in desperate need of safe, warm, comfortable homes.
High Gisborne shortage
According to Ministry of Social Development data for the quarter ended March 31, some 120 Gisborne families - 129 adults and 108 children - were living in emergency housing at the time of the report's release.
A total of 675 emergency housing grants were given out across the three-month period at a total of $2,931,733.
Data provided by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development for the same period showed 607 applicants were on the housing register at the time the report was released.
There were 1270 public housing occupied homes in the Gisborne district and 34 transitional housing places.
"There are just not enough houses in Tairāwhiti," Whitewood said. "That is why this area has been identified as one of eight priority areas in the New Zealand Public Housing Plan."
Under the government's public housing plan, about 170 additional public housing places are expected to have been delivered in Tairāwhiti by 2024.
In the two years up to June 2022, Kāinga Ora delivered 40 new public homes in Tairāwhiti. Another 151 are in progress (construction or procurement).
Kāinga Ora also has contracts with housing developers to buy another 66 homes in Tairāwhiti once the homes are built, some for supported housing.
For Māori housing, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development and Te Puni Kōkiri has funded Toitū Tairāwhiti iwi to build 150 affordable homes (to rent and rent to buy) on Māori land by 2024/2025, and to complete the building of another 51 affordable homes in 2022.
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air