The human cost of living next to neighbours from hell

Photo: RNZ
Photo: RNZ
Failed marriages, deteriorating mental health and terrifying threats of violence and death. These are the harrowing stories from innocent Kiwis whose lives are being destroyed by nightmare state house neighbours.

A New Zealand Herald investigation has highlighted the plight of countless homeowners and renters around the nation whose once peaceful lives have been turned into living hells.

Gangs, drugs, obscenities, police callouts and savage beatings have become daily fodder for hardworking families or law-abiding state housing tenants unlucky enough to be living next to our most unsavoury and anti-social citizens.

Some have spoken of armed police callouts, murder investigations and chronic drug use. Others have detailed grievous threats, unbearable noise, hygiene issues and hoarding.

At the heart of the problem is a government policy to "sustain tenancies" rather than turfing people out on to the street. It has resulted in just three Kāinga Ora evictions since the Labour Government came to power in September 2017.

Those who endure the consequences are going without sleep, suffering severe stress and mental anguish, with some seeking court-ordered restraining orders for protection, and others selling their homes to escape.

The policy has been panned by political opponents, who say it breaches the Government's legal responsibilities as a landlord to ensure its state housing tenants are safe and free from being terrorised by other Kāinga Ora clients.

The policy also emboldens rotten apples and lets them off the hook, National claims.

The Tenancy Tribunal has ruled the no eviction stance is at odds with the state's legal obligations, ordering Kāinga Ora to pay thousands of dollars to affected claimants.

There is now talk of a class action to hold the Government to account and there is no shortage of people keen to sign up.

Under growing pressure, Public Housing Minister Poto Williams this week announced the sustaining tenancies policy was being reviewed. This followed a national outcry over Kāinga Ora's handling of a Whangārei case in which two pensioners who received death threats from their state housing neighbours were forced to cower in their home during a Black Power party.

And Kāinga Ora chief Andrew McKenzie says in light of the Herald's coverage, his agency is bringing in new measures to tackle the "totally unacceptable situations that have drawn public concern this week".

Poto Williams. Photo: NZ Herald
Public Housing Minister Poto Williams. Photo: NZ Herald
They include using tough new provisions in the Residential Tenancies Act to address disruptive behaviour by transferring people to alternate housing, reducing the case load of frontline staff, and beefing up a new review group to "escalate and respond" faster to challenging tenancies.

The Government argues it has a duty to house the most needy and many come with complex baggage, including addiction, domestic violence and mental health issues, not to mention innocent children.

This is true.

But what is also clear is the current situation where highly abusive individuals can enjoy the privilege of a subsidised state home without fear of sanction or consequence for their actions cannot continue.

Too many Kiwis are becoming collateral damage at enormous personal cost.

Here are some of their stories...

'It just consumes your life'

A desperate Te Awamutu homeowner says debilitating stress and years of harassment from his abusive Kāinga Ora neighbours has left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, devalued his house and cost him his marriage.

The man says he has called police dozens of times, attended numerous court hearings, had endless correspondence with state housing tenancy managers and written repeatedly to government ministers trying to have the antisocial tenants evicted or moved on.

"It's been going on for more than four years and it just never ends," the man - who asked not to be identified for his own safety - said.

"You get to the point where it just consumes your life.

"It's cost me everything."

In a 2019 incident, the man says his house was "smashed up" at 3am by a meth-crazed man linked to the Kāinga Ora property who tried to break into their home.

The homeowner chased the intruder down the road with an umbrella to protect his petrified partner and later discovered a discarded knife.

The couple then spent thousands of dollars building a fortress-like 2.5m metal perimeter fence and installing security cameras for their protection. The fence has since been repeatedly vandalised by the tenants - who have Mongrel Mob links - costing thousands in repairs.

The homeowner found a knife discarded in grass after chasing a meth-crazed intruder who was...
The homeowner found a knife discarded in grass after chasing a meth-crazed intruder who was trying to smash his way inside. Photo: Supplied
The man suspects the Kāinga Ora property is operating as a "tinny house". He has witnessed savage beatings on the road, and has footage of the neighbours abusing him, firing an airgun at his home, hurling large river stones on to his roof and smashing a car windscreen with a brick.

And despite the man sharing the footage with Kāinga Ora and fearing for his life due to regular threats and intimidation, his neighbours remain in the taxpayer-funded property.

"They have more rights than I do."

Before the couple broke up, the man had to leave work early each day as his wife was too scared to be at their property alone.

The couple engaged a lawyer and were preparing a case against Kāinga Ora for negligence, damages and mental distress.

They also wanted the state landlord to purchase their home as real estate agents warned they were required to inform prospective buyers about the neighbours, significantly devaluing the property.

But they abandoned the proceedings this year due to escalating costs and stress. Their marriage ended soon after.

A psychologist's report prepared as evidence says the man had symptoms associated with a PTSD diagnosis, linked to the difficult living situation he and his wife had endured, which was affecting his mental health.

"He reports experiencing a wide range of symptoms including disturbed sleep, intrusive thoughts/images and intense emotional reactions/distress including fear of harm.

"[The man] has been verbally abused and threatened with physical assault by his neighbour and this contributes to his ongoing fear and distress."

In response to their pleas for help, former Housing Minister Kris Faafoi wrote to the couple in 2019, promising the situation was being urgently addressed by Kāinga Ora.

However, a second letter in 2020 said the agency had "identified service delivery shortcomings in the approach used to address your complaints and manage the tenancy in question".

Faafoi wrote that he was disappointed but had received a "strong assurance" that Kāinga Ora was committed to addressing the complaints, and the situation was being "monitored very closely by senior staff".

Sixteen months on and the man says nothing has changed other than his marriage ending.

"Every day is bloody terrifying living next to them."

He was shocked to read of other similar cases highlighted by the Herald and disgusted that unruly tenants were abusing the privilege of state housing and terrorising innocent homeowners with little or no consequence.

Kāinga Ora Central Region deputy CEO Daniel Soughtton said no one should feel unsafe in their home.

Multiple agencies were trying to resolve the "complex case" with "dedicated people" working to support the customer and neighbours.

"We understand the behaviour in this situation has been difficult and upsetting to live beside.

"We are moving as quickly as we can and expect a solution very soon.

"We recognise this has taken longer to resolve than all involved would have liked, and fully understand how difficult, upsetting and stressful this has been."

Kāinga Ora CEO Andrew McKenzie is introducing new measures to tackle antisocial tenants following...
Kāinga Ora CEO Andrew McKenzie is introducing new measures to tackle antisocial tenants following coverage of "unacceptable behaviours". Photo: NZ Herald/File
Soughtton said neighbours could be seriously impacted by anti-social behaviour. Some situations were unacceptable and "if there's a place for police action, we support that".

"But there are always going to be challenges around anti-social behaviour that doesn't break the law, and we are always working to address the challenges that go with the role we fulfil."

'Kāinga Ora has made us homeless'

A terrified Waipa couple who fled their home after months of intimidation from neighbouring gang members say they've been made homeless by Kāinga Ora.

The woman only wants to be known as Jane Anonymous because she fears retaliation for speaking out.

"I always half expected a brick to come through the window or find my cat nailed to the door."

The couple, in their 30s, have moved in with relatives. They are too scared to return to their family-owned property and plan to list it for sale.

The woman said they had endured extreme anti-social behaviour for over a year linked to neighbouring Kāinga Ora tenants, one of whom wore an electronically-monitored ankle bracelet.

They had been subjected to burnouts and reckless driving, parties and loud music, rubbish dumped on their lawn, vehicle break-ins, intimidation and threats.

They watched as a man was "viciously beaten and kicked" on their front lawn by a neighbour.

"The attack was so violent we feared the victim could be killed, so my partner tried to intervene."

They witnessed a screaming man attack a state house with a shovel, damaging the property and smashing windows.

They had also received violent threats, and a patched gang member had gone berserk at the couple for looking out their window to see who was "screaming and yelling and doing burnouts" in the street.

A youth had invited the couple to enter their dog in a dog fight, and they had found a baby in nappies crawling across the road.

One of the Kāinga Ora properties was a "prolific tinny house", with a constant stream of vehicles, the woman said.

"The tenant openly discusses deals loud enough for us to hear, and sometimes has her children pass the goods out of the window."

She had lost count of the number of police callouts they had made, but estimated it was upwards of 30. The local constable had now stopped returning the woman's calls.

She said they had become "targets" and were now too afraid to live at their property.

"My partner refused to leave me at home on my own. It became so stressful, I would begin to get anxious whenever I was returning home from somewhere else."

Kāinga Ora's no eviction policy was unfair and counter-productive, the woman said.

"Why do innocent, law-abiding residents have to be terrorised out of their own home? Why the f*** do I have to go, when I'm not the one causing the trouble?"

"They've broken so many rules that would be part of any standard tenancy agreement, yet there are no consequences for it. There is no incentive for them to stop doing what they are doing.

"In their dogged determination to house crappy tenants, Kāinga Ora have made us homeless. We have nowhere to go."

Soughtton said Kāinga Ora was concerned to hear about the case and encouraged anyone who felt unsafe to contact police and support agencies.

Staff were working hard to support customers and local communities.

Balancing act

The sustaining tenancies policy was introduced by the National Government in 2017 and expanded under Labour.

It aims to keep people in tenancies by providing support services to the most needy clients to address social, financial and mental health issues they may have.

Williams says evictions remain a last resort, but when a tenancy becomes untenable, Kāinga Ora prefers to try to relocate tenants to another property.

The agency has relocated 159 tenants for "disruptive behaviour concerns" in the last year.

There are more than 200,000 people living in Kāinga Ora homes, nearly half of them children.

While cold comfort to affected neighbours, turfing troublesome families into homelessness may simply make matters worse, leaving vulnerable people without a home or family support, and making children transient and uprooted from education.

These families may end up being recycled through emergency housing at greater cost, without ever solving their underlying problems.

"Rather than throwing people out on the street, often including children who are blameless in the situation, we have made a conscious choice to actively manage difficult tenants, providing wrap around support from a range of government agencies and other community health providers," Williams said.

She reiterated that much of the behaviour reported was unacceptable, and everyone had the right to feel safe in their home.

McKenzie says the overwhelming majority of Kāinga Ora clients are respectful and build good lives in their local communities.

But some cases are challenging and pose huge demands on people directly affected.

"No one wants to live next door to the extreme cases described this week.

"We acknowledge more can be done. We have listened to calls for us to act sooner, and we are introducing more changes to make this happen."

While no policy would ever make the tough challenges Kāinga Ora faced go away, he hoped the new measures would help to address unacceptable behaviour, while balancing the agency's purpose of ensuring the most needy New Zealanders had homes.

 

 

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