Call on government to help Maori out of unsanitary homes: ‘It’s actually killing our people’

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The government must prioritize getting Maori into their own warm, dry and affordable homes as they continue to be disproportionately affected by the housing crisis, a public health expert has said.

Photo: Supplied / Massey University

This follows criticism that bureaucracy and banking barriers prevent whānau from building houses on their own land.

Chris Cunningham, professor of public health at Massey University, said while most Maori tamariki are born healthy, too many are born into risky home environments.

He said the housing crisis was severely affecting Maori, with some facing mold and respiratory illnesses while living in rentals.

“Either they have very poor quality housing, where it can be overcrowded, where it can be damp and cold and where there can be danger in the house in terms of things being broken. Either they have unstable housing, mum and dad have to move around and rent in different places or maybe share a house with whānau.”

Data from 2018, from Stats NZ and the Census, showed that Maori were more likely to live in unsuitable and overcrowded homes and homes affected by damp and mould, compared to the European and total population.

RNZ flagged the additional hurdles Maori have to jump through to get a mortgage to build on ancestral land, but Cunningham said Maori also find it difficult to move out of unhealthy tenancies and back into their own homes as they tend to have younger families.

“We don’t have the ability to save for a deposit, finish college, get a mortgage, buy a house and have all of that in place before we start having kids. We have tend to have our children first and so we need stable housing much earlier.”

Te Matapihi general manager Wayne Knox stands in front of a wharenui wearing a white collared button down shirt and beige blazer.

Te Matapihi chief executive Wayne Knox said housing stress has an impact on mental wellbeing.
Photo: Sarah Sparks

Maori are disproportionately affected by the housing crisis, accounting for 33.4% of those severely homeless and more than half of those on the waiting list for public housing.

Good quality housing has played an important role in the good health of Maori, Cunningham said.

“We have a broad policy in New Zealand of ‘Whānau Ora’ and homes are where whānau spend most of their time. So homes and homes are really the best setting for whānau ora, I think it’s something we have to think about.”

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Wayne Knox, chief executive of Maori housing advocacy group Te Matapihi, said that as the cost of living rose, more Maori were looking to move to their ancestral whenua.

But some whānau returned home to substandard housing or no shelter at all.

“We have dozens of whānau living in stables, under tarps, with no running water, no waste water. It’s not healthy, our whānau are doing fine, but it’s not healthy. And in many of these situations people also have chronic health issues before they end up in these scenarios.

“Research tells us it is actually killing our people,” Knox warned.

Knox said housing stress impacts mental well-being.

“If you can’t afford the rent today, if you can’t afford to put food on the table, you’re going to choose to feed your kids because you’re paying the rent and that’s is stressful.”

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Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi echoed this and said the party wanted to see the government push to remove barriers to whenua Māori construction, in order to improve Maori health outcomes.

“If you have damp and leaky houses where our whānau live, that will of course affect the health disparities in the Maori Health Index. It will make a huge difference to health outcomes.”

Cunningham also said that building papakāinga – community dwellings built on ancestral land – enhanced the cultural and mental well-being of Māori, for whom time and identity were intertwined.

“You have the cultural transmission of the language and the tikanga and that kind of stuff. It all works really well. The difficulty is always the financial barriers to making it happen.”

There is a high level of interest in papakāinga construction, with online inquiries about Te Puni Kōkiri papakāinga funding applications more than doubling in 2021, to an average of 148 per month, from an average of 25 per month in 2020.

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