By Kayla Healey
This is my open letter to everybody who has found themselves living in an unsafe home.
You are not alone and people care.
I want to share my experience with unsafe damp and mouldy housing with the world for two reasons.
The first reason is to send a message to people living in undesirable rented housing at the moment. I want you to know that you have rights, that you are not alone and that it will end. No matter how hopeless it all seems your situation is not forever, it will end and you will learn from it.
The second reason is to spread awareness. There are two types of Wellingtonians: people who have had their own bad renting experience and people who have not. If you are one of the “have nots” this story is for you too. The negative effects of a bad housing environment can seep into every corner of your life. I hope that my story will encourage people to rethink how they view renting and renters’ rights even if poor housing does not affect them directly.
The story that I have to share with you is one of unsafe housing and the impacts of unsafe housing on both physical and mental health.
I want to begin with a quick background to my story.
Last year was the final year of my Bachelor’s degree. Five friends and I found ourselves scrambling to find a flat in late January. When the summer holidays end and students flock back to Wellington in their thousands, there begins a kind of “Hunger Games – flat edition”. Losers ends up homeless, or alternatively, in a flat like mine.
When things get desperate you take whatever you can get, and what we found didn’t seem so bad. A six bedroom place at the bottom of an old apartment complex in the CBD. As our property manager showed us around our future home no warnings were given. As far as we knew the flat was in great shape, nothing to worry about. We hastily signed the lease and the deal was done.
It didn’t take long to realise something was not quite right with this new home of ours.
Immediately after moving in, I noticed a strong mouldy smell in my room. Even though it was still summer, the room would become extremely damp during the night, so much so that the walls in my room would drip with condensation, from the roof to the floor.
So I got in contact with my property manager. The next day the apartment’s maintenance man and my property manager both came around to see what all the fuss was about. I was informed by both of them that in fact the room did not smell at all and that such levels of condensation were totally normal. They even shared a laugh and recalled times where they too lived in damp flats, just to reassure me that everything was fine and normal. When they left they almost had convinced me I was making a big deal out of nothing.
So I bought a dehumidifier and tried to move on. This sufficed for a short time. But when winter hit, an unwelcome guest began to creep into my room. Mould began to grow, rapidly and relentlessly. Black mould on the walls, blue mould on my furniture and green mould on my clothes. My room displayed a colour spectrum of mould, and despite all efforts, there was nothing I could do about it. My dehumidifier was taking out anything between one to two litres of water a day, yet the thick, cold air in my room never quite seemed to lift.
So once again I got in contact with my property manager, a little more desperate and a little more determined this time. I explained both my attempts to combat the problem on my own and the severity of the issue. Again to no avail.
I have asthma and at this stage I was experiencing a very noticeable decline in my respiratory health. It was during the winter that my room really began to take a toll on my mental health, as well.
Home is where you go home at the end of a long day, a sanctuary away from the rest of the world. Living in this house, I no longer had that place. Going home became a chore and I can speak from experience that getting into a damp bed at the end of the day does not make for a happy student.
To get an idea of just how bad things had become, imagine going to turn on your dehumidifier to find the dehumidifier covered in mould. Bad? Well, try finding that the spacer prescribed to you because you no longer had the respiratory capability to use your asthma inhaler also has mould on it. This was my predicament.
Eventually I sought outside help. With the help of the Victoria Student Advocacy Service and a letter from my doctor at Victoria Student Health, the property managers reluctantly agreed to let me out of my fixed term lease early. They insisted that they were doing me a kindness by letting me out of the lease, and it really was all my fault for not scrubbing and wiping down all walls and surfaces daily.
Although I was able to end my lease early, it took months of waging a one-woman campaign against a team of property managers, and threats of Tenancy Tribunal action, before any action was taken.
The real problem is right now there is another tenant in that room. Maybe facing a similar battle as me.
Maybe our organisation, Renters United, could give them the validation they need to fight their own battle. And maybe one day, with your support, we could stop nightmare homes like this being a reality here in our city.
A version of this story was featured on the Sunday programme on Radio NZ National:
About the author:
Kayla Healey is a Wellington renter. She shared her story at the launch of Wellington Renters United.