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Negligence at Housing New Zealand

OIA requests reveal Housing New Zealand knew it was letting tenants wallow in dangerous, leaky conditions for at least seventeen years before its hand was forced and the flats demolished. The tenants were mostly disabled, solo mothers, or elderly, abandoned in damp conditions for over a decade. When the vulnerable tenants finally fought back, HNZ acted underhandedly to avoid responsibility.

This story is long. But it is worth telling for the victims.

OIA-released maintenance documents have revealed that for the Britomart flats in Berhampore, Wellington, HNZ recorded water leak issues for seventeen years, as far back as the mid-1990s, but the flats were not demolished until after 2012. HNZ fought attempts to remedy the tenants’ horrific conditions through the tenancy tribunal, positioning itself as an adversary to their concerns. Even when a building report funded by HNZ had been released showing the presence of health-endangering mould, HNZ left tenants in uninhabitable flats over winter, and sat on the report for months.

Mould Spores and Poverty

Tenants faced slum-like conditions. One described how when her daughter woke up in the night, she stepped into a flood puddle on the floor and screamed with fright. Another had carpet with mushrooms growing up out of it. According to his family, tenant Sione’s* wife died of a heart attack triggered by asthma. Eventually a building report would show mould spores presenting a danger to health were endemic. Sione’s flat was one of the worst. Soon, he too died. He was a Labour Party supporter for over thirty years, but the local Labour office did nothing about his living conditions. Later Annette King would claim surprise at Sione’s predicament, but a party insider had picked him up from his home and driven him to meetings for years. Labour, like all others, had simply left Sione behind.

Housing New Zealand knew the conditions at Britomart broke the law. But institutions move slowly and are averse to self-reflection. The bureaucrats who know what needs to be fixed move on, replaced by people who do not.

Part of this story has been once in local media. But it was a whitewash: The Dominion Post ran an article showing conditions in Sione’s flat after being professionally cleaned. Photographs show what Britomart looked like prior.

One of the lower flats.

A top flat, which received sunlight, with cladding stripped.

Almost all the 30 single-bedroom flats had boarders or unofficial stayers. Tenants needed boarders to supplement their income to merely live, out of necessity. And this not even to live with dignity, forced into the squalid state of the housing.

The necessity of boarders at Britomart created a culture of fear. If an outsider knocked, boarders were to hide or not open the door. In some cases, both resident and boarder were elderly and incapable of hiding, meaning HNZ likely knew about boarders. Despite the obvious fire hazard and other dangers to health, nothing was done. It was to be a theme at Britomart.

Taking on the Government

Most of the tenants could not afford to and would not want to fight back. They feared if they did, they would be without a home. One disabled tenant, Carol*, decided enough was enough. In 2011, she discovered her flat had been leaking even before she moved in. HNZ had let a disabled woman move into squalor. So, having had enough of the abuse, she went on rent strike, and told HNZ she had had enough, having complained about individual leaks for ten years. In March, they took her to the tenancy tribunal.

But Carol made a mistake – she trusted HNZ representatives. Before the tribunal hearing, she claims Bob* told her if she only left it to them to sort things, she would have her say. The truth was that she needed to file a cross-application, otherwise the tribunal would look only at rent arrears and not at the leaks, and HNZ knew this.

The tape makes for hard listening. Carol tries to speak about the reason for her rent strike, about the suffering at Britomart, but for lack of correct procedure, for trusting HNZ, she is not allowed. “I can’t do anything about this,” the adjudicator explains. Then more bluntly, “Look, I haven’t got a cross-application in front of me.”

The tribunal declared Carol evicted. An aged Māori woman who had trouble walking and lived with constant neuropathic pain was booted onto the street.

After the hearing, she confronted Bob.

“We needed to get our rent,” he said simply.

That same afternoon she looked for a lawyer. They quickly put through a stay of proceedings. Then, a counter-claim. This time they were taking Housing New Zealand to tribunal. HNZ were to do a building report on Britomart in preparation for the August hearing.

Hampton-Jones were employed to carry out the building report. But the investigators were hired by the people they were meant to investigate. All questions to be answered by the building report were dictated by HNZ. Carol told me the story of what happened when the inspectors came.

When asked, inspectors admitted they were told where to test by HNZ. Instead of testing the flats most obviously derelict, they tested only a couple. Flat 31 was on the top floor, in the corner getting the most sunlight year-round. Inspectors did not continue testing downward. Flats like Sione’s, which were the worst were not even given a look-in.

Professor Julian Crane and leaky homes expert Dr Philippa Howden Chapman from Otago University note that while it may not occur to a building inspector to check in the places a mycologist would, and though there’s not much direct research on the question, sunlight would likely make an enormous difference. They added it would be disingenuous to test only in such places.

Hampton-Jones claimed later to have tested Carol’s flat, yet no data whatsoever for her flat is in the reports, and she alleges no inspectors ever came to hers.

Hampton-Jones did not even care about the health of its investigators. Some tenants wondered whether there was a likelihood asbestos was present in the flats. One tenant tried to warn a young worker not to drill in without safety equipment, but he followed orders and did so. It turned out there was asbestos at Britomart, as BRANZ and the Dominion Post later reported.

Through all attempts to weaken it, the report’s results were damning. Britomart had “unacceptable levels of… spore clusters, hyphal fragments and other spore types.” There was moisture ingress and “the presence of toxic mould in the form of Stachybotrys as well as Cladosporium” in the walls. The report notes that otherwise healthy individuals, when exposed to spores, can suffer “significant health problems”.

It was too late for Sione’s wife, who his family have said died of a heart attack triggered by an asthma attack. It was too late for the children at Britomart who had been inhaling the spores for years – a toddler suffered asthma attacks for two years. For the elderly there, for the stowaway boarders, or for the disabled tenants it was beyond uncomfortable. It was a danger to their lives.

Workers were warned to take precautions. Biodet, the testing lab, recommended they use facemasks and gloves when dealing with the mould and fungi. Yet tenants had been forced to live in it for years.

The decrepit state of Britomart was avoidable. The report notes that the cladding was “not well maintained”, and this was the main cause of problems, which had built up over years of neglect. Another section of the report estimates high moisture had been present for around ten years. As maintenance documents reveal, in reality it was at least seventeen years.

Though the Hampton-Jones report was crucial evidence, HNZ deemed it legally privileged. The only people allowed to see the report were Carol and her lawyer. None of the other tenants suffering from Britomart’s effects were. And Carol could only read it in a lawyer’s office, and there alone. Tactics like these were to become a feature of Housing New Zealand’s battle against tenants.

Underhanded Tactics

To take HNZ to the Tenancy Tribunal, Carol needed OIA documents. When she finally received them, they were in miniscule 8 point font – she describes this as a punitive measure against a heavily disabled person, since HNZ were aware of her situation.

Housing New Zealand had tried much to avoid having to do anything. Their claims were muddled and contradictory. They claimed at tribunal Britomart had already been fixed multiple times to the best of the tradespeople’s abilities, and simultaneously that they had no idea the moisture ingress was so bad going back years. A tape of this hearing reveals the Area Manager told the tribunal Hampton-Jones took a “whole of building” approach, that it was comprehensive, an “overall picture”. That was misleading at best, and perjury at worst.

Another long-time tactic HNZ tried was attempting to bribe complaining tenants. One solo mother at Britomart, Michelle*, had been trying to get moved for two years. She wanted to escape the mouldy conditions that were harming her child’s health. Hers was the toddler suffering asthma attacks. HNZ claimed repeatedly there was nowhere else to put her. When she threatened to go to the media with the story, they miraculously offered her a flat in Kilbirnie.

At an earlier tribunal hearing that Michelle and Carol had together, Housing New Zealand posted two hearings an hour apart, so that when one was postponed, they were forced to miss another. Both felt it was underhanded and dirty.

Carol experienced similar cajoling and wheedling from the first March hearing to the August hearing.

“Bob told me I was lucky to have anything,” she says. “Then it changed to good cop Rebecca. She said, ‘We have ones out in Tory St… lovely flats.’ It was all, ‘don’t do this, look after your health’, and so on. ‘You can have this, but don’t do that.’” Carol refused to move; if she did, she reasoned, the tenants remaining at Britomart would continue to suffer there.

But there was far more suggesting HNZ engaged in a cover-up.

It was a student helping Carol who noticed OIA-requested maintenance records and contact records did not match up. A maintenance record showed a send-out of a contractor to Britomart to remedy leaks in Carol’s flat; she claims she rang HNZ which is why they came. But any such contact records about that call were missing. How HNZ knew to fix a leak unless Carol contacted them remains a mystery. The records may well have been omitted or even deleted.

Housing New Zealand spared no effort nor expense in fighting its tenants. They hired a lawyer from Auckland to litigate at tribunal, which reportedly cost around $18,000 of public money.

In the end, the tribunal ruled Britomart needed to be torn down, and the tenants moved out. The decision came out 20th November. HNZ came in the week before Christmas and gave a 90-day notice that the flats were uninhabitable, and the tenants were to be relocated. Christmas is one of the busiest and most stressful times of the year, and HNZ had sat on the building report for five months. Tenants were angry, at HNZ and Carol as well.

HNZ promised a later tribunal that Carol would only be in an alternative flat for six months. She had tried to refuse five before that for being unsuitable, but finally gave in. It was a fixed term lease, signed in front of witnesses, to ensure it would only be six months. But no, she was made to live at the Granville St flats for eighteen months – a flat which she needed to climb two levels of stairs to get to. With a permanent injury that made it difficult to walk, she feels it was punishment.

Housing New Zealand had tried to save face after gross negligence and mistreatment of tenants, and they had failed.

Britomart Now

Today, it is rebuilding the Britomart flats. At a site near schools where it would be helpful, and with family poverty at record highs, HNZ is planning blocks of all single-bedroom flats with no possibility of housing families in need. Britomart may be one example, but it represents the wider corporatised public sector and the poverty resulting from a gutted welfare state.

Carol was unequivocal on the damage of fighting: “I thought this would cost me $20,000 in fees or something, or maybe getting evicted. Instead it cost me my health,” she says. “It cost me my relationship with my kids. Sometimes I wish I’d chosen that two-bedroom house they offered, that I hadn’t fought them. I’d have better health, I wouldn’t have stress and debt from fighting them, I’d have my kids in my life. But then, everyone would still be living in scummy housing, Third-World housing. I lost everything, but it had to be done.” She paused for a moment. “Geez, if people saw my notebooks from over the years, how they treat disabled people, them and ACC, they’d be shocked. People just don’t know.”

These Housing New Zealand horror stories are wherever you care to look. One man I was told about lived in a flat behind a BP. For ten years, whenever it rained, his flat flooded. The stories are wherever you care to look, but that is the crucial point. In New Zealand, we no longer look. And we hope that when we shut our eyes, our most vulnerable will disappear.

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

Simon Monrad Gough is a student completing an LLB/BA(Hons) at Victoria University of Wellington, and has worked on both sides of this story, at the Ministry of Social Development and as a home carer seeing how Housing NZ policy affects ordinary lives.

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