Housing with issues attached

Boarding houses may help to keep people from living rough on Dunedin's streets but also present challenges in the community. Shawn McAvinue investigates.

The Landlord: Ted Ottrey
Landlord Ted Ottrey owns several boarding houses in Dunedin.

He has been renovating two of his Maitland St boarding houses for the past year.

The renovations include replacing weatherboards, adding insulation, painting and building storage in the rooms.

The work would ensure an occupancy rate of more than 90%, he said.

''We'll get a better class of clientele, fewer vacancies and fewer problems. Everyone should be happy.''

In the past, tenants included recently released prisoners and mental health patients, but he was tired of police visiting and tenants destroying property.

More women were living in the renovated houses but the tenants were mainly older male beneficiaries.

''I try not to keep young guys. They tend to be trouble. They party too much. As soon as you get above 30, they tend to have a little bit more respect.''

The rent per room in the seven-bedroom house, with two bathrooms and a kitchen, was about $150 a week, depending on its size.

''It's supply and demand. If you charge too much for your rooms, people won't come. It is reasonably simple.''

To take a room, a person needed a week's bond and a week's rent. Anyone who continually missed a rent payment was evicted.

''If they keep missing it, I can't afford to have them here.''

Trouble-making tenants struggled to get a room in a Dunedin boarding house, he said.

''In the past, a few landlords would have taken them, but everyone's just getting sick of the real troublemakers ...

''They end up disrupting the other tenants, owing you money and are just really painful to work with, so there's no point having them.''

Trouble still visited the boarding houses and recently he was called when a disturbance involving a drunk tenant with mental health problems attracted several police officers.

Mr Ottrey moved the tenant to his larger, more tired, boarding house with 23 rooms, four bathrooms and three kitchens, where the selection criteria for tenants were more lenient.''

He gets another chance up there.

''If he can look after himself for a while, I'll see about putting him back.''

When he bought the Maitland St house 10 years ago, it was full of rats and Mongrel Mob members.

''You end up buying these [houses] cheap because no-one else wants them.''

Some landlords bought and tenanted boarding houses and did not maintain them, waiting for capital growth before selling, Mr Ottrey said.

Money could be made from boarding houses, but few would want the work, he said.

''Not many people could do what we do, dealing with the type of people we deal with.

''It would drive them nuts.''

He had ways to control tenants' behaviour, he said.

In his bigger boarding house, he provided a TV in the room for $5 a week, and for another $5 it came with Sky TV.

''I'm trying to use it to manage my tenants a bit better.

''If they cause me problems then I'll take the Sky off them.''

If tenants stayed for two years, they owned the TV, but many left before two years and stole the television, he laughed.

The tenant: Dylan
Invalid beneficiary Dylan (20) moved into Alva House about a year ago when his relationship with his fiancee broke down.

The couple had rented a two-bedroom dwelling in Dunedin for $170 a week, but when the couple separated, he moved into the 30-room Alva St boarding house with shared facilities.

''After the break-up, I was really struggling for money.''

Dylan is autistic and with help from Pact support staff he moved into a room which cost $160 a week, including power.

''For what you pay, it's really not worth it.''

In the house, a hand-written sign on a room door reads, ''If you are going to ask for a cigarette, or anything else, then stay away''.

Dylan said being ''harsh and abrupt'' was the best way to talk to tenants wanting handouts.

''If you give something to someone they'll come back.''

He stayed in his room and kept to himself to avoid trouble.

He wanted to move out and was doing work experience at a computer store six days a week, hoping it would become paid work.

''I don't want to be here any longer.

''My support worker is helping me find a better alternative, another boarding house, until I can get myself a proper job, with more income, and I can afford my own space.''

The manager: Win
Alva House manager Win said she had been a tenant at the boarding house for six months before she became the live-in manager in 2002.

She reluctantly took the role because the manager she succeeded left due to the relentless stress of the job.

When she first entered the house, tenants were abusive, aggressive and threatening, she said. But when she became manager - rather than fighting fire with fire and escalating the tension - she explained to tenants why their behaviour was unacceptable.

The tenants were mostly beneficiaries because the first landlord would not allow tenants with mental health issues, but the past two landlords had allowed anyone, she said.

The balance between being understanding and strict was a constant struggle. She believed she was a good manager because she did not fear tenants' threats and refrained from getting involved in mind games with them.

Sometimes, she wondered if her payment, free rent, was worth the stress, but she feared if she left, the house would revert to its violent past.

If a manager had too much heart, it made them vulnerable and the job became dangerous, she said.

Some tenants were still aggressive but she was different from previous managers because she evicted troublemakers.

''I say 'pack your s*** or I'll call the cops'.''

A firm approach was necessary, but each tenant had to be dealt with differently.

''Some you can yell at, others you can't - you don't even breathe.''

She interviewed prospective tenants and the landlord allowed her to refuse potential troublemakers.

On average, about half the rooms in the house were filled, and the landlord wanted more tenants.

Each room had a bed, wardrobe, set of drawers, heater and fridge. The rooms once had toasters which were removed after some tenants used them to start fires.

She had seen inside three Dunedin boarding houses and Alva House was as good as most, she said.

The community worker: Dave Brown
Dave Brown, who ran a Friday night drop-in centre and was chairman of Dunedin Night Shelter, said he had visited many substandard Dunedin boarding houses.

''I've turned up at some looking for people, and you can smell urine and they [the landlords] charge quite a bit.

''Over the years, I've seen some pretty lousy boarding houses.''

Many tenants were incapable of looking after themselves and were often messy and missed rent payments.

''It must be pretty hard on the landlords. Do you kick a guy out?''

The landlords provided a housing service and the market set the rent. If the boarding houses were closed, more people would be living on the street, he said.

The neighbours
A frustrated neighbour wants a South Dunedin boarding house demolished because she says it houses antisocial tenants.

The neighbour said the tenants of the house often changed and included released prisoners and mental health patients, some of whom had urinated in the street and intimidated neighbours.

She would prefer the tenants lived elsewhere.

''But there's nowhere else for them to go.''

A resident of the boarding house was reluctant to talk to the ODT, but he said he paid $165 a week to live in the five-bedroom, one-kitchen, one-bathroom property.

He said the rent was expensive but finding accommodation was difficult.

In Clyde Hill, a neighbour of another boarding house said tenants regularly knocked on his door asking for money for food.

The neighbour stopped giving money after a tenant spent $20 on tobacco and returned asking for food.

The policeman: Steve Aitken
The police were visiting boarding houses less often than in the past, Senior Sergeant Steve Aitken said.

Years ago, police visited Alva House every day, but now the visits were more often for routine bail checks rather than offending, he said.

As landlords had become more selective about tenants in the past few years, police visits were unnecessary.

''We used to have a hell of a lot of trouble with [a city address] and we don't get called there now.''

Many prospective tenants rejected by boarding house landlords moved into central Dunedin flats, such as in Arthur and Duncan Sts, and around Corstorphine, and were attracting more police visits than boarding houses, Snr Sgt Aitken said.

- shawn.mcavinue@odt.co.nz

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