‘It can be quite Dickensian’: life in New Zealand’s boarding houses

After a fire at Loafers Lodge left at least five dead, attention has turned to Wellington’s hostels and the housing crisis they embody

On the street outside the hostel, Chris skirts thin ribbons of police emergency tape, stepping sideways as they snap in the wind. Holding a small bunch of white plastic flowers, he carefully hangs the stems from a metal voltage box. “For the bros,” he says. “The ones that didn’t make it out.”

Looming behind him are the charred walls of Loafers Lodge. Some of his neighbours still lie in the building, their bodies unable to be safely retrieved by police and firefighting crews. Five bodies have now been retrieved, but more may have died – up to 10 people remain unaccounted for after the flames ripped through the 92-room boarding house, collapsing parts of the building and sending residents leaping from the upper story windows.

Chris, 48, had lived there since November 2022. He said smoke alarms were a frequent occurrence – set off as people burned toast or their cooking – so he paid little attention when he first heard the familiar sound ring out on Tuesday evening. A few hours later, he was woken again. This time, he heard yelling.

New Zealand hostel fire survivor Chris hangs a tribute at the scene.
New Zealand hostel fire survivor Chris hangs a tribute at the scene. Photograph: Tess McClure/The Guardian

“My neighbour’s screaming, ‘Fuck, the building’s on fire!’,” he says. “I opened the door to go out there and have a look, and there’s just black smoke everywhere. You could hear the bros on the other side of the building screaming ‘Fuck, help us!’”

He speaks quickly, shaking his head, his voice sometimes cracking. Two days after the fire hit, the reality is sinking in. “[Earlier] everyone was just on adrenaline – today’s the day that, you know, realisation of what actually happened is kicking in,” he says. “I keep getting emotional. I was trying to hide – hide the tears.”

Taking a seat a little way down the street, Chris stretches his feet out in front of him: they’re pinched and painful. The shoes he’s wearing are two sizes too small, but for now, they’re all he’s been given. He escaped the fire barefoot, with nothing except his phone and a vape in his pocket. “That’s just material things though,” he says. “There’s others that lost their lives.”

In his mind, Chris keeps a tally of those he believes have died: certain neighbours he’s sure didn’t make it out. The building housed a diverse set of people: some elderly, some with disabilities, some placed there by the criminal justice system, some sent by homelessness agencies, others who were nurses or shift workers at the local hospital. But what united them was one thing – a chronic lack of affordable, high-quality housing in Wellington city. “I’ve read online and on social media saying that, you know, it [the hostel] is a place for the vulnerable,” he says. “I think that is the wrong word. Because sure, most are unemployed, or most of them are elderly – but it doesn’t make us vulnerable. I don’t consider myself a vulnerable person, you know – it’s just at the moment there’s a struggle with housing.”

Chris believes some of his neighbours died in the hostel fire.
Chris believes some of his neighbours died in the hostel fire. Photograph: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

‘The elephant in the room’

That struggle was what sent Chris, along with thousands of other New Zealanders, to a long-term stay at places like Loafers Lodge. February figures from the online marketplace TradeMe recorded New Zealand’s capital city as the most expensive place for tenants to live; median weekly rent was $660. The shortage of affordable housing is national: more than 29,000 people are on state housing waitlists, and more than 3,000 families have been placed by the government in “temporary” motel or hostel accommodation – stays that often stretch to months or years. Boarding houses sit at the bottom of the accommodation ladder: offering bare rooms, a bed, and shared access to facilities. The fire at Loafers lodge has thrown a spotlight on both New Zealand’s housing crisis and the network of boarding houses that house those who can’t afford places of their own.

“Housing is the elephant in the room: the actual problem behind all of the other problems,” Paul Clutterbuck says. “If we can solve the housing problem and accommodation problems, then we solve lots of other problems as well.”

Clutterbuck, 50, has spent much of the past 12 years living in Wellington’s boarding houses. He wasn’t a resident of Loafers Lodge, but has lived in many places like it, converted apartment blocks or old commercial buildings, transformed into packed human warehouses. Clutterbuck has long-term disabilities, including chronic kidney failure that mean he lives with help from a government benefit – a tight income, which leaves most other options for a home out of reach.

Fire and police investigators inspect inside the Loafers Lodge hostel in Wellington, New Zealand.
Fire and police investigators inspect inside the Loafers Lodge hostel in Wellington, New Zealand. Photograph: George Heard/AP

His current home was once a retirement village, now transformed into a private, 70-room boarding house. His tiny room fits a single bed, the floor space largely taken by a stack of boxes of dialysis equipment. A4 paper notices have been pasted to many of the walls, noting things that are broken or recent rule-breaking: “Lift out of order,” one reads, “This shower out of order,” says another. In the communal kitchen, one has been thickly underlined in felt tip pen: “All elements are to be TURNED OFF AFTER USE … No exceptions – this is a fire hazard”. This morning, the fire alarms went off twice. Paul worries about the possibility of fires, particularly when hooked up to nightly dialysis.

“If someone wanted to destroy the place, I’m just a sitting duck really,” he says.

Still, this is one of the better boarding houses in which he has lived. Over the years, Clutterbuck has spent time in rooms with holes in the walls, rodent and bug infestations, windows that were stuck permanently open. At one property, Clutterbuck left after witnessing a neighbour assaulting his partner.

“Sometimes it can be quite Dickensian,” he says. Boarding houses group together people with varied needs and backgrounds – those with disabilities alongside those released from prison on community sentences, people with chronic mental illness alongside shift workers or deportees. Most of the time, things go fine, Clutterbuck says. But sometimes those mixtures can become toxic.

“We’ve got to start re-thinking that acceptance that these places are not great but they’re the best we’ve got to offer so that’ll do,” says Murray Edridge, the head of the charity Wellington City Mission, which already worked with many residents of Loafers Lodge. “I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t exist at all, but there should be acceptable levels of standard in them which shouldn’t be the bare minimum.”

He and other advocates have long warned government agencies that many private owners of such accommodations don’t have the resources or training to meet the social needs of residents – and stress can be compounded when people are housed together with little support.

Across the non-burned side of Loafers Lodge building stretches an enormous billboard, advertising one of the city’s highest-profile real estate agencies, and their recent support of a local homelessness charity. The advertisement showcases the different sides to New Zealand’s housing coin. On the one side, years of rising house prices and untaxed capital gains have made the housing market the primary mechanism of wealth accumulation for New Zealanders: housing now accounting for almost 60% of the country’s wealth, and has produced enormous, often untaxed sums for many long-term property owners, speculators and investors.

Loafers Lodge after the fire in which at least five people have died.
Loafers Lodge after the fire in which at least five people have died. Photograph: Masanori Udagawa/AP

On the other side, a chronic shortage of homes has produced an interwoven crisis of homelessness, poverty, insecure housing and thousands living in emergency, temporary accommodation like motels.

“I think we all know that Wellington is facing a housing crisis. And in the long term, temporary solutions, such as that behind us are just not acceptable solutions moving forward,” says mayor Tory Whanau, at a press conference outside the cordon. Asked if the building behind her should have been a permanent home for anyone, her answer is “No.”

“I think everyone deserves a more long-term, warm, dry home,” she says. “I don’t see that as a long-term solution for anyone.”


Tess McClure and Charlotte Graham-McLay in Wellington

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