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Region’s vulnerable feel the pain more than most

A blind solo mother with a heart condition and old-age pensioners are among those hit by massive rent hikes from Wairarapa social housing provider Trust House.

Michelle Russell is one of almost 500 social housing tenants whose rents will be increased in April. The increases are about 60 per cent on average but range from 15 per cent to 153 per cent.

Russell is a 41-year-old solo mother of seven-year-old George Heata. She is unable to work because of her disability.

“I’m legally blind, and I have a heart condition. I’m on the invalid’s benefit. They know all this,” she said.

She moved into the rental – a modest, two-bedroom unrenovated house in central Masterton – when she was pregnant with her son. The rent for the house, which has mould growing on the walls of one bedroom, will rise on April 3 from $200 to $437 a week – a 118.5 per cent increase.

Russell said Trust House had made few improvements to the home over the years, and she was advised to wash the mould off the walls herself.

“My son suffers from chronic asthma. He got really sick this past winter because of the condensation.”

Nonetheless, the two have made the house a home, growing vegetables and rhubarb in the garden and installing a trampoline.

“The whole seven years we’ve lived here, it’s been pretty rough,” Russell said.

“I try and stay positive for my son, but it’s so stressful wondering if I will manage with the rent going up. Are we going to be all right? The price of food at the moment is already pretty high. A bag of potatoes is $20, cheese is $14. It’s put so much stress on me.”

So much stress, in fact, that she had to be treated at Masterton hospital after receiving the letter about the increase because her heart rate went up to 180 bpm.

“I’m at risk of having a heart attack,” she said.

Russell’s been told she’s entitled to an increased accommodation supplement from the government, but she also needs to top it up by applying for another benefit called Temporary Additional Support.

“I’m worried about the Temporary Additional Support I must claim as extra to cover the rent because as the name says, it’s only temporary.

“I’m just so worried. I hope it works out and we don’t have to move because it’s been our home for so long.”

It’s unclear whether Russell is among those Trust House tenants who have just received a rent rise reprieve.

Before Trust House’s late announcement yesterday afternoon that increases for 189 households were being put on hold, Age Concern Wairarapa manager Chris Clarke told the Times-Age the organisation was deeply worried.

“There are elderly living in Trust House social housing units, and we have had some indication they will not be able to pay the increase,” he said.

“Trust House is Wairarapa’s only registered social housing service provider and promotes itself as community-owned with strong values such as empathy and commitment.

“Where is that commitment, and how does the decision to increase rentals by such a massive amount enhance the wellbeing of its tenants?” Clarke asked.

“These rent increases fly directly in the face of its own stated purpose, vision, values and position as a social housing provider and ‘good landlord’.”

Clarke noted community members were already suffering from the economic impacts of covid and the cost of living crisis, and he hoped Trust House would “reconsider its ill-timed and damaging decision”.

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