Every time I entered my room at Malcolm’s, the smell of mould hit me: an overpoweringly damp, fetid, vinegary odour that seemed to infect everything it touched. It was a good match for the room itself, a sad amalgam of dirty, mould-spotted walls, filthy carpet and decrepit furniture. It made me feel beaten, broken down, already depressed – even though, unlike anyone else in the boarding house, I had an escape route. I was, thankfully, there for just three winter weeks, researching a book on New Zealand’s rich-poor divide, and trying to understand something about the places where the unfortunate fetch up and, in doing so, get stuck.
Malcolm’s, in the inner-city Wellington suburb of Brooklyn, had been recommended to me as a typical boarding house. To ensure I fitted in, I had stopped shaving for a week beforehand, and had pulled out my worst clothes: a shapeless old padded coat, some ripped jeans and a pair of trainers coming apart at the seams. Thus prepared, I walked up to Malcolm’s, a large and –outwardly – rather handsome three-storey 1930s villa. I knocked on the front door, and it was opened by Malcolm, an immensely tall fellow, stiff, upright and rather faded, like an old British colonel fallen on hard times. His long face was bruised-looking, with sunken, bleached-white eye sockets. He had one room available, at $150 a week. After I’d given him the money, he made out a vague receipt, in the wrong name, and we had a desultory conversation. Then he gave me a padlock for the door, warned me the room leaked a little – adding, cheerfully, “but you won’t drown!” – and that was that. No tenancy agreement; no real paperwork; no bond; no checks or references or meaningful questions; nothing other than a room for $150 cash.
The room was in the basement level, beneath the road, along with seven other rooms, two toilet blocks and a kitchen. It was foul-smelling, dirty and damp. An attempt had been made to clean it before I moved in, but already the mould spores were spotted all around, and on the ceiling were strange patches of a yellowish liquid. The rest of the house was much cleaner, but somehow even more depressing. The toilets were bare concrete and very cold. There was no hot water in the hand-basins, and no toilet paper in the toilets. Only one shower out of four worked, and it had a cracked concrete floor. The kitchen had nothing more than a sink, a tub, a bench and an oven. There was no microwave, no fridge, no pots and pans and no washing machine.
Nobody knows exactly how many boarding houses exist, but there are at least 500 across the country, each housing six or more people. They are not widely advertised, or signposted. Run by private landlords, they provide a home for people who, in their own minds or in reality, have no other options: a strange mix of vagrants, alcoholics, drug addicts, people with mental-health problems and those simply down on their luck. Some are cycling through the various stages of homelessness; others have been in their boarding house for decades. At Malcolm’s, many of the 14 tenants – 13 men, one woman – were 60ish and quietly alcoholic. Most had fallen off society’s radar, voluntarily or otherwise. One had had a steel-fitting business that collapsed some time ago; one had been a construction worker; one was simply retired, and drifting. Most had been at Malcolm’s for a decade or so.
The other tenants included people with mental-health problems (one man upstairs could be heard shouting to himself at all hours) and those who had lost jobs, relationships and family ties, sometimes as the result of physical accidents. No one I met there worked, and because there was no communal living space, they had long ago got into the habit of spending virtually the whole day in their rooms, generally with the TV running, and in the evenings drinking the cheapest possible beer. They varied this routine only with the occasional trip, in a slow, shuffling tread, to the supermarket or the TAB. Above all, they were resigned to living at Malcolm’s. One night it rained hard, and I thought I was badly off because my room leaked a little. The next morning I saw one man coming out of his room with a cloth and bucket, and he explained that, because of a fault with his window, every time it rained the water “just comes hosing through”, and he had to mop it up. But because one can’t live somewhere for a decade and hate it every day, he had accepted this clearly appalling situation. The others were the same. “It’s okay,” said one. “It’s a place … It’s a place.” Malcolm was “a decent old guy”, he thought.
Another one said, “I’ve got nowhere else to go”, and to an extent, it was true. Private rental was certainly out, as most landlords would have discriminated against them; and any flats cheaper than $150 would have extra bills, and bonds and two weeks’ rent to pay upfront, or be so far from the city centre as to make transport prohibitively expensive. Of course, they could have applied for Wellington City Council or Housing New Zealand flats, but given the long waiting lists, their various personal problems and the lack of someone to pilot them through the system, that prospect had long since vanished. Some of them, I think, also welcomed the total anonymity of places like Malcolm’s. Despite it all, they were extraordinarily generous. One man gave me a pot and a frying pan and, in a moment of supreme kindness, a large if somewhat dirty sheepskin rug, “to make the room a bit warmer”. That same day, Malcolm told me I looked “cold”, and advised me to buy a hat.
After I left Malcolm’s, I discovered other, far worse stories. Social services workers, speaking anonymously, told me of a man they had managed to get out of Malcolm’s; he had been living in conditions of terrible squalor, in a room thick with dirt, smelling of human excrement and with flies buzzing around. He had been confined to bed, and lived on little other than cask wine. (Eventually, he was moved to a city council flat.) At the end of my second week at Malcolm’s, I challenged him over the state of the room, especially the leaks. His first response was to give me a basin to catch the drips. When I then threatened to lay a complaint, his response was telling: “Well, you do that,” he said, contemptuously. “You do that, boy … Good on you, Max – you do that.” And with that he walked off. He had, I later discovered, been running this boarding house for 50 years; he had clearly heard many tenants threaten to make complaints – then never do it.
Pete Bryant, a Wellington man in his late forties who lived at Malcolm’s last year, told me later this attitude was typical. He claims Malcolm refused to let him put a couch in his room, and tried to stop him having friends around to celebrate his birthday. Malcolm also declined his offer of a free washing machine for the boarding house, on the grounds it would get broken. (And so the tenants keep doing their washing in a small tub, even though one, who has two broken fingers, finds it extraordinarily painful to wring out washing.) In the end, Pete left after nine months and some “rip-roaring” arguments. But, as he says, many people will stay there uncomplainingly. “They accept it because they don’t know no different.”
As it turned out, Malcolm was right to be complacent; although he houses some of our most vulnerable people, he operates in an almost unregulated environment, in which the laws that in theory should constrain boarding-house landlords are in practice largely ineffective. Although the Residential Tenancies Act was amended in 2010 to give some protection to people who have been in a boarding house for more than 28 days, anyone short of that mark has no rights at all, and no recourse to the Tenancy Tribunal. Even those who’ve stayed longer than 28 days can still be evicted immediately in certain circumstances. The tribunal process itself is slow, complex and uncertain, and costs money. And tenants, who often have no idea of their legal rights, live in an isolated, confidence sapping environment that discourages complaint.
For all these reasons, and because tenants have, or feel they have, nowhere else to go, no one will take the risk of being turfed out – and with good reason. Clare Aspinall, a University of Otago health researcher, says she knows of cases where tenants have complained about their boarding house and have been duly evicted – even though their complaint was upheld by their local council. Unsurprisingly, since the Act was amended in 2010, the tribunal has had just four formal complaints from boarding-house tenants, most of them about bond repayments.
LOCAL AUTHORITIES POWERLESS
Boarding-house buildings are subject to even less regulation than their owners. Other than obtaining an annual fire safety certificate, they face no specific minimum standards or inspections. Local authorities are virtually powerless to act against them, as I discovered when I complained to the Wellington City Council. The council couldn’t prosecute Malcolm under the 1991 Building Act, because the building wasn’t actively dangerous or insanitary, and given its age, the leak was deemed to be a maintenance problem, not a structural fault of the kind covered by the Act. In the end, the council could only send him a strongly worded letter telling him he should get the mould cleaned off. And because it could act only on individual complaints, it had no power to examine the rest of Malcolm’s.
These problems have prompted growing calls for the whole system of boarding-house regulation to be overhauled. Aspinall, for one, advocates a licensing and inspection scheme, as in the UK, in which boarding houses have to be registered and inspected, and those that fail to meet stringent minimum standards are refused a permit. Regular, proactive and building-wide inspections then help ensure tenants are decently housed. After all, as she points out, most of them are getting the accommodation supplement – “so it’s the taxpayer’s money that is being invested in really substandard housing”.
Suzanne Townsend, a deputy chief executive at the Department of Building and Housing, admits the conditions at Malcolm’s are concerning. “It’s not our idea of a perfect boarding house,” she says, with some understatement. However, she says the 2010 amendment has already made a difference by affording tenants some protection, and she is now running an education campaign to make tenants more aware of their rights. “Do I think we have quite got it right? No. But I think we have made vast improvements.” Even though there have been just four complaints? “It’s something we are going to have to look at – around whether we have got the enforcement right,” Townsend says. But, she adds, “I think the fact you can call us and talk to us about it is a huge step forward.”
A licensing and inspection regime is also a possibility, she says: her department has discussed the idea, and it is now being investigated by Parliament’s Social Services Committee. However, the education campaign is more important than amending the law, which is “not a top priority”. Licensing certainly has the support of Stephanie Cook, the Wellington city councillor in charge of social affairs. She wants tougher minimum standards and more inspections. The danger, of course, is that boarding-house owners will simply shut up shop, “and the Government will be left to deal with it”. So, ministers will need a plan for rehousing tenants. But, she says, “at least we’d be looking after people properly”.
CLOSE TO FALLING DOWN
At the end of my third week, having had enough, I told Malcolm I was moving out. As usual when things were going his way, he was kindly, almost avuncular. He insisted we “part as friends”, and we shook hands. As I did so, I asked him: what on earth did he get out of running a house that was so substandard, so close to falling down? He leaned his tall frame against the doorpost, and said: “Well, Max, I’m falling down myself, too, you know. I’m 85 next birthday. It’s either this or I go into a retirement home, and I don’t want that. It gives me something to do … It’s not even a profitable business … but it gives me something to do.” And with that, he turned away and shut the door.
This was not the whole story, of course. If all 14 tenants were paying $150 a week, that would total nearly $110,000 a year, for a start. And the house and its land were worth over $1 million.(But he hung up on me when I rang back to explain what I’d been doing in his house and to ask for comment, so I was never able to confirm this.) Nonetheless, Malcolm was living onsite, in conditions not much better than those of his tenants, and hardly enjoying the high life. As I was leaving and looked back at the house for the last time, it struck me that its polite veneer and revolting interior were a fit metaphor for a society that abandons people to their own bad luck, and leaves landlords to pick up the pieces.
Max Rashbrooke is a freelance journalist based in Wellington. He has previously written for the Guardian, as well as various New Zealand and UK media.