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‘We just want a place to live’

Finding a rental property is increasingly difficult in today’s market – especially for New Zealanders with disabilities. PHOTO/STOCK.ADOBE.COM

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

The struggle to find affordable, accessible accommodation has left a Carterton whanau in “a world of a pain” – and appealing to the community for “any help they can offer”.

2022 got off to a stressful start for *Lucy and *Tom – when, on January 5, they received an email from their property manager, informing them their rented home was going on the market.

The most pressing concern for the couple, foster carers for three of their grandnephews, was finding a property that was suitable for a family of five – particularly for 17-year-old *Wiremu, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and relies on an electric wheelchair.

To enable the family to stay in their current home, which has several accessibility features to accommodate Wiremu’s needs, Lucy turned to crowdfunding – setting up a Givealittle page to raise the funds to cover a deposit on the property.

Eight weeks later, without enough money to secure a home loan, the whanau is still on the hunt for new rental – and have so far been unable to find an accessible property which fits within their budget.

With a March 31 deadline to vacate their home, the family is staring down the barrel of homelessness.

As Lucy wrote on the Givealittle page, “Our family is in a world of pain, desperately seeking … somewhere else to live.

“Rental properties around our neighbourhood are very scarce and crazy expensive. We are concerned that we will be unable to find something else suitable for our very special family.

“We need to secure a home [that will] help us keep our family together in a safe and secure environment.”

The family’s situation is far from unique in Wairarapa.

Due to many rental properties being sold to realise capital gains in the post-covid market, and a general shortage of housing stock, the number of rentals available in the region has rapidly decreased over the past 12 months.

Throughout the country, disabled people are particularly disadvantaged by the housing shortage.

Although about a quarter of Kiwis identify as disabled, only two per cent of New Zealand homes have been built with accessibility in mind.

For Lucy and Tom, finding an accessible home is crucial for the children’s well-being.

Without a new place to call home, the couple fear the boys will be placed with other carers – potentially separating the brothers from one another and uplifting them from the stable family environment they’ve known for the past six years.

“We’re fighting to prevent that from happening. For the boys’ safety and security, the family cannot be split up,” Lucy said.

“The boys will be devastated if they have to leave us. We are the family they know – we are mum and dad to them.

“We’re getting desperate now. We don’t want to point the finger at anyone – we just want to find a place to live.”

Lucy and Tom have been living in Carterton, in the same rental property, since 2014.

The couple had been based in Australia, but relocated to Wairarapa to be closer to Tom’s parents and extended whanau.

In 2016, the couple received the call that would change their lives – asking if they would consider being foster carers for their grandnephews, then aged five to 11.

At the time, the boys’ previous foster care placement had “broken down”, and they were staying with temporary carers in Woodville, their future uncertain.

“It was a pretty serious situation – and they had no idea what was going to happen next,” Tom said.

“We wanted the siblings to stay together – we didn’t want to see them scattered to the four winds.

“So, we took them in. We were pretty much all they had.”

At first, the new family unit took some time to adjust to one another.

“As well as muscular dystrophy, Wiremu has some developmental delays – and he didn’t talk much at all at the start,” Lucy said.

“We weren’t familiar to him, so he was very cautious and reserved around us.

“*Manaia, our youngest, has ADHD – so he was all over the show.

“It was full on. We just needed some time to connect with each other.”

Lucy said she was “shocked” to receive the email from their property manager, giving them 90 days to find a new property.

Naturally, she and Tom’s biggest priority was finding a liveable home for Wiremu: for example, a one-storey house, with no-step entrances, wide doorways, space to accommodate portable ramps, and accessible bathroom facilities.

In their present home, the family were able to renovate one of the showers to fit a ramp and are prepared, with support from a landlord, to do the same in a new property.

However, they said a wet room bathroom – where the shower is not enclosed by a screen – would be ideal for Wiremu.

Lucy said their property manager invited them to view a three-bedroom home which had a wet room – but the property was leased to another tenant.

“We were so excited – but, for some reason, that place wasn’t for us.

“We found a couple of other [accessible] houses that we were very keen on, but they ended up going nowhere.”

While house hunting, Lucy noticed there were very few properties available to rent, compared with the number up for sale.

In January, for example, there were 111 houses for sale in Wairarapa on the TradeMe property site – and three for rent.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.

“One afternoon, I sat down and sent about 22 emails out to different estate agents, explaining our situation.

“I thought surely some of them might sell to an investment buyer who could take us on as tenants.”

Lucy did get some replies – including an invitation to view a property in Carterton, which she said was “just about perfect”.

However, at $760 a week, it was unaffordable on the couple’s income – Lucy’s part-time wage, and the individualised funding Tom receives as Wiremu’s caregiver.

Aside from rising housing costs, the family are concerned Wiremu’s needs may be a stumbling block for landlords – and wonder if they may be reticent about the cost of potential accessibility modifications, or internal damage from his motorised wheelchair.

Another concern for the family is being able to remain in Wairarapa – vital if they want to stay to close the boys’ schools and Tom’s elderly father in Gladstone.

“We’ve got Wiremu at the Supported Learning Centre at WaiCol, and he’s absolutely thriving,” Lucy said.

“He’s very much a man of routine – he likes things to stay the same every day.

“Manaia has started at Carterton School, and he’s really happy. So we need to stay close, if we can.”

Despite the setbacks, the whanau remains resolute.

Lucy has kept the Givealittle page open – and plans to use any donations to fund relocation costs or any future accessibility renovations needed.

The whanau are keen to hear from anyone who may have a suitable house to rent or can assist with emergency housing.

“We’re hoping there’s someone out there that may be able to help,” Tom said.

“If anyone can help us in any way they can, we’d be so grateful.”

To get in contact with the family, or donate to their Givealittle page, go to: https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/my-place-to-call-home

*Foster families legally cannot be identified in media. The names have been changed.

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