The poor pay more: How housing problems are costing our kids

Marie lost her favourite blanket in a move that happened so quickly it was left hanging on the washing line.

Her family had already lost most of their belongings in a house fire, the start of a series of moves into homes that were increasingly smaller, colder and further away.

She only realised no one had packed her yellow blankie from Nana when they were on the motorway headed to another city. A relative was doing them a favour driving them, and they couldn’t ask to turn around.

“It’s the nana on Dad’s side, and she’s no longer with us. I just bit my tongue and cried silently.”

Marie (a pseudonym) captures some of the experiences of 12 young women in a study that shows how the poor paid more for housing in New Zealand.

In a paper published in the New Zealand Population Review, University of Otago researcher Louisa Choe writes that “the poor pay more in all forms, not only in financial costs but also in opportunity costs and security. Almost always receiving a lesser return on their investment. In other words, the poorer you are, the more things cost.”

It’s a poverty penalty that is discounting the young women’s physical and mental wellbeing to the point of “evicting” them from their childhoods, Choe argues, calling for policies specifically targeting young people’s housing needs.

Homelessness is disproportionately affecting the young in New Zealand. Nearly half the 41,724 people identified as severely housing deprived on Census night 2018 were under 25.

The booming house market is exacerbating the problem of housing unaffordability for the poor, writes Cho. Rising property values have prompted landlords to sell, squeezing the private rental market and driving up rents.

Demand for social housing has grown every year – 23,688 applicants were on the Housing Register in March, up 45 per cent from the same time last year.

Housing affects educational outcomes, and many of the 12 participants in Choe’s study left school at or before they turned 16. This is not new, but research shows that school-going young people are not spared from housing troubles.

Nearly a third of high school students experienced some form of housing deprivation, according to a survey brief from Youth19, a large-scale survey of adolescents in 2019.

Housing deprivation takes many forms, from worrying about paying the rent, sleeping in a garage or on the floor, sharing a bed, couch-surfing, to sleeping in cars, hostels or emergency housing.

“Most people would be astounded that so many young people turn up to school every day facing serious housing problems outside of school,” says University of Auckland associate professor Terryann Clark, one of Youth19’s lead investigators.

Marie stayed with an aunt after the fire that destroyed her family’s rental property. She slept in a room with her sister and four other cousins, while her aunt slept in the lounge with two of Marie’s brothers.

Another aunt and her partner slept in the uncemented garage, which got wet when it rained. All together, two families and 11 people lived in the three-bedroom rental. Marie’s mother and stepfather had to live somewhere else because there simply wasn’t enough room.

Marie and her family finally saved enough to move to their own rental after six months, but it was short-lived. A rent increase forced them to move again.

Rangatahi or youth experiencing homelessness often experience a lifetime of trauma, says Aaron Hendry of Lifewise, a charity that provides housing for between 35 and 50 youth at any one time.

Demand for the service exceeds supply. “We’re turning away young people every day basically, because we don’t have enough housing.

“I ask them ‘when was the last time you had a stable place, a home?'” he says, “and the most common answer is, ‘I’ve never had that’.”

Like Marie, Talita’s story on and off the streets is a composite of the 12 women in Choe’s research.

Talita had never met her parents, who were also homeless. She grew up moving between relatives, friends and foster care, and at the time of the research, relied on couch-surfing, staying overnight at fast-food outlets, night shelters and emergency housing. She also slept in cars.

“It can get bad when I have my period. You know, no shampoo, no underwear. It can be a real pain.”

Research points to housing deprivation affecting Maori and ethnic minorities more frequently, “reflecting larger issues of housing unaffordability and ethnic discrimination in renting practices”, according to the Youth19 brief.

Youth with disabilities and Rainbow (takatāpui) youth were also likely to fare worse than others, it said.

Covid-19 is worsening the already poor outlook. The Child Action Poverty Group estimates that 18,000 more children were pushed into poverty in the first year of the pandemic. Its recent report highlighted the lack of emergency housing for homeless young people under 18 without families, “leaving some in situations where they were likely to be sexually exploited”.

Current housing strategies and plans focus on family housing, but there is also a need for specific housing policies to address the needs of young people, Choe says.

Hendry agrees. “We could build all the houses we want, but if young people aren’t considered in these plans, then they won’t be provided for.”

What does youth-centric social housing support look like?

“It’s not just dumping someone in a house,” says Hendry, or putting young people together with unwell and struggling adults.

He describes wraparound care with on-site youth workers, connections into education, employment, training and therapeutic interventions. More intensive than the average housing solution but necessary, he says.

“A lot of our whānau who have lived rough began their homeless journeys at a very young age, so if we end youth homelessness, that will go a long way in preventing and ending chronic homelessness.”

Youth19 researchers call for broad measures including rental regulation to protect tenants, and disincentivising private investment in rental properties.

“Change the housing market so it’s not so difficult for my family to pay the rent and actually have a roof over our heads,” says a 13-year-old Māori girl who took part in the Youth19 survey.

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