27 Jul 2016

Families housed in garages, cramped rooms, face eviction

9:43 pm on 27 July 2016

A woman who has been renting garages and single rooms to entire families in South Auckland is kicking her tenants out.

The Salvation Army says it believes up to 150 people who have been living in Debbie Iskandar's properties now face homelessness.

A garage in South Auckand

A file photo of a garage in South Auckland Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Ms Iskandar was charging her tenants hundreds of dollars a week to live in garages and cram into single bedrooms.

She got at least some of her business from Work and Income, which loaned clients money for bonds. The agency said last week it had not referred anyone to her for more than six months.

Checkpoint with John Campbell has now learned Ms Iskandar has been serving tenants 90-day eviction notices.

She had been running a housing trust of sorts, dubbed Sanctuary Homes.

She would meet people by bus stops in South Auckland then give them forms to take to Work and Income, which would pay the bond, and often the rent, straight into Ms Iskandar's account.

Some families were living five to a room; others were paying up to $400 a week for garages.

Salvation Army policy advisor Alan Johnson said Ms Iskandar was kicking out her remaining tenants.

"It's feasible that there was perhaps 45, or maybe 50, separate tenancies.

"From what I've seen most of those were single people, but there were some families with children, so I would estimate there would be somewhere around 150 people involved in this."

Mr Johnson said those people had nowhere to go. Many would have to go back to living in cars, or makeshift shelters on the street, he said.

That was where many tenants had been living before moving into Ms Iskandar's properties.

"It's our view that the government has, to a huge extent, created this problem both by not recognising the extent of unmet housing need, and secondly, facilitating the sorts of outcomes where people were paying $400 per week for a garage," Mr Johnson said.

Checkpoint understands Ms Iskandar took tenancies out in her own name and then sublet out the individual rooms.

One woman, who lived with her three children in a property Ms Iskandar herself owned, and paid $460 a week, was being allowed to stay.

"I know for sure that she actually owns this house, and wasn't renting or subletting this house, so we should be safe.

"She charges sky-high rent... but at the end of the day, people are willing to pay that just to get into a house."

The evictions raise a thorny issue.

Ms Iskandar was charging well above market rent for her properties - hundreds of dollars for a room in a house, with shared bathrooms and kitchens.

Social agencies and some former tenants seem to agree that she was running a scam and ripping vulnerable people off.

But, on the other hand, the alternative for many was the street.

Mr Johnson said many of her tenants had defended her work but her operation still needed to be shut down.

"If we do not to draw a line somewhere and say, 'that's not adequate, that's not appropriate, and needs to stop', and if there is then some sort of fall-out from that, then that's for the government to have to address.

He said it was not enough for the government to deny responsibility for poor housing situations.

"That has been the hand-washing that MSD [Ministry of Social Development] senior staff have done over this issue, and I think they should be called to account for it."

Checkpoint has been told Ms Iskandar feels "used and abused" by her tenants.

She has not yet responded to RNZ's requests for an interview.