Unaffordable housing putting refugees into 'hardship'

Home of refugee family in Wellington

Concerns are growing over whether New Zealand can provide affordable and adequate housing for refugees.

The alarm has been raised by advocacy groups, as the government seeks to fulfil its yearly refugee quota of 1500, which it failed to do during the pandemic.

In the 2020-2021 year just 263 refugees were brought to New Zealand, in the 2021-2022 year 754 arrived, while in 2022-23 643 have settled here so far.

Gary Sutton from the Newtown Budget and Advocacy Service says more and more refugees are struggling to pay market rate rent in private housing.

"They are thankful, don't get me wrong, but they are landing into a difficult situation linguistically and culturally, then you have an additional challenge like housing they can't afford," Sutton says.

"We have sent five or six letters to say, can you rehouse these people? But there is no stock. They only have private housing as an option. The situation is not working, it is putting people in hardship."

Refugees receive a grant when they arrive in Aotearoa, but after that they rely on Work and Income payments like beneficiaries.

1News spoke to a refugee family from Syria, who want to remain anonymous, who say they have very little left after paying their Wellington rent.

"After the power bill, the internet bill and the rent, we have about $450 for food, clothes and transportation, and anything for the kids. We are a family of five," the mother says.

Her husband also has a disability, which means he cannot lift his leg to use the bath, and she has to wash him in the kitchen.

She says she didn't ask questions when she was given the house, despite it being unsuitable as well as expensive.

"I trusted they were finding us a house to meet the needs mentioned in the doctor's report. They didn't say it has a tub. They said it was one floor, gave me a contract and said the rent would be $720 a week."

Not alone in paying high rent

The family is not alone when it comes to paying high rent in the private housing market.

According to Immigration New Zealand, 93 per cent of refugees currently live in private rentals, while just seven per cent are in public housing.

When the government increased its refugee quota in July 2020, extra funding was allocated to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development to build more public houses.

In a statement, the Ministry said these houses will be delivered over three years, from 2020-2021 to 2022-2023 in 14 refugee resettlement locations.

They include Auckland, Hamilton, Whanganui, Palmerston North, Masterton, Levin, Wellington, Nelson, Blenheim, Christchurch, Ashburton, Timaru, Dunedin, and Invercargill.

It added the additional public homes are not specifically houses for refugees, but are accessed through the Public Housing Register and usual processes.

Sutton says he is yet to see any evidence of these public houses being available for the refugees who are struggling.

He says he has one refugee client who has been on the public housing waitlist for seven years.

"Housing is an important issue, not just for refugees. But the refugee one is one the government has more options on. They could pause the programme until their ducks are lined up."

The Syrian family say while they are grateful to live in New Zealand, having more affordable accommodation would drastically improve their situation.

"It is really hard. I tried to get a car, but on my benefit I cannot get one. I have to take my husband by bus when I go to physio, but that is hard on me physically," the mother says.

"But I have to cope for my kids. We, the adults, have to survive, for the sake of our children."