Rotorua mayoral candidate and former NZ First MP Fletcher Tabuteau Photo / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post
By Felix Desmarais, Local Democracy Reporter
A Rotorua mayoral candidate says the city is "sitting on a precipice" and being "destroyed" by its emergency housing in motels issues and is calling on the government to act immediately.
The candidate, Fletcher Tabuteau, also believes tiny houses on land near the city's airport could be used to house people, and says the government needs to pay less to motels to make it a less attractive option for moteliers.
It comes as Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick confirms she had a "very positive" meeting with two ministers about the issues in Wellington on Tuesday, and says there has been a "recent" drop of about 10 percent in the total number of people in emergency housing in the city.
The topic has been extensively covered by the Rotorua Daily Post since the practice began in 2020, and reached nationwide attention earlier this month following a TVNZ Sunday programme documentary.
The issues are particularly acute on the city's famous motel mile strip, Fenton St, which has been referred to by some as "MSD mile".
Fletcher Tabuteau, who announced his candidacy for the district's mayoralty in July last year, has taken aim at the government about it, saying it is "literally destroying" the tourist town.
He said tourism leaders had challenged him to "push harder" on the "Fenton St debacle".
"Rotorua is being literally destroyed by a government who is taking us for granted.
"They need to stop and fix this mess up today.
"Rotorua is sitting on the precipice, but New Zealand's international reputation as a travel destination will be compromised too and soon, if no action is taken immediately.
"It's not just lazy Kiwi sitting on their backsides living in these motels, but that is a lot of them, and the sooner the government stops apologising for them and to them, the sooner we can hold them to account and send them packing."
Tabuteau said motels were not the place for people with mental health issues and drug addiction.
"They should not be there. It is destructive to the individual and destructive to the community."
Tabuteau said there were also "good people who genuinely need help and support" and the district was willing to support them to "find their feet again".
"We have plenty of jobs and support networks for people who want to be part of the answer to their circumstances.
"We need to send people home, back to their whānau and support networks."
Tabuteau said mental health and drug rehabilitation services were needed, but not just in Rotorua.
"I have been engaging with and supporting this iwi housing kaupapa for nearly two years and they have made progress ... watch this space, there will be iwi solutions."
Tabuteau believed temporary housing in tiny homes "away from our golden mile" was an option.
"I am referring specifically to the land that has been emptied of homes to accommodate the non-existent larger planes that were supposed to be flying into our airport from international ports.
"Williton Rd [in Hannah's Bay] is an example of a site that used to have houses on it. It is ready to go. We could place tiny homes that would be so much nicer than the motels on these sites, create real liveable conditions that are actually healthy for families, mum and the kids, actual communities that can be contained and managed."
He said the solution would be temporary but would happen "swiftly while public housing was built both nationally and locally.
"This would be quick and easy and still provide a better standard of living."
A Rotorua Lakes Council spokeswoman said all of Williton Rd was within the airport air noise control area in the District Plan, and in that area housing was prohibited.
"Our planning team is always happy to discuss development options with developers, and how and where they would more appropriately fit with the District Plan."
Tabuteau also said the government needed to start paying motel owners "real market rental".
"Not the massive sums that incentivise foreign or absent property owners to maximise their commercial return by housing as many homeless as possible, in a town they didn't live in prior to their relocation and don't give a rat's derriere about.
"It is being made appealing in a gross way."
He said Rotorua "demonstrably" could not cope with "this disproportionate load", was "being asked to do too much" and its "famous local hospitality was being taken advantage of".
"There are solutions here in Rotorua for those that actually belong to us. Solutions that would see people housed, supported and provided real service solutions and allow Fenton St to become a place for international jet setters once again."
On Wednesday, Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said she met with Housing Minister Megan Woods and Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni in Wellington on Tuesday, calling it "very positive".
"Progress is being made towards addressing the current emergency housing situation in Rotorua.
"We do have the attention of the government and its agencies and there is an appreciation of Rotorua's issues and the need for change."
Chadwick said she would use every opportunity to reinforce and "be emphatic" about the "need for urgent measures to improve the current situation, an end to the intensification of emergency accommodation on Fenton Street and for public safety to be a priority".
"We are working together to see an end to the current emergency housing in Rotorua."
She said the council was "working very hard to get the changes we need", including an end to mixed-use motels and "better management" of Social Development clients in motels.
"We need to see a change in the referral system to ensure people are only going to places that are safe and are appropriately located - and that means not all down Fenton St."
Chadwick said there was agreement between her and the ministers "regarding the active management of those coming to Rotorua from elsewhere".
"I understand there has been a recent drop of about 10 per cent in the total number of people in emergency housing here.
"It will take time to build more houses so we need to ensure that emergency accommodation in the interim is safe, appropriate, well managed and dispersed rather than concentrated in one place."
A spokeswoman for Housing Minister Megan Woods said Woods didn't comment on "council matters", but would speak on Rotorua's housing situation.
Woods said ending homelessness "just simply isn't something that can be fixed in one day".
"It needs multiple actions, multiple agencies, multiple organisations working together, and we need to partner with Māori. That's exactly what we've been doing.
"It's disappointing to see critics who, for example, claim we are not working with iwi, not taking the time to look at the detail."
She said Housing and Urban Development and Kāinga Ora were partnering with local hapū Ngāti Uenukukōpako and Ngāti Whakaue, and 11 Māori housing providers to "develop capability" in Rotorua to grow the supply of public and affordable housing, progress consenting, lease land, and support iwi aspirations to acquire land to develop,
It also partnered with iwi through its Community Housing provision, she said.
She said the Ministry of Social Development contracted Te Taumata o Ngāti Whakaue Iho Ake directly to operate Te Pokapū, which assessed and triaged all new people looking for emergency housing support and provided wrap-around support.
That wrap-around support could include mental health, drug addiction and rehabilitation needs, she said, as well as budgeting support and help to access government services.
Woods said the government was "building as fast as we can" to address the "acute shortage of public housing" and was "pouring resource into the city", including 210 new public homes with 300 more under way, and $85m for housing infrastructure.
"Our task force is working with the district council to look at actions we can collectively take to reduce and ultimately end mixed-use motels, with some promising indicators.
"Since April there has been a decrease of 55 whānau receiving emergency housing benefits in the Rotorua region with some people moving into public housing."
"As regards Rotorua's international reputation. The kind of accommodation we're talking about, at the two and three star end, is not typically what high value tourists choose and moteliers decide whether to take [emergency housing] clients based on their own commercial decisions."
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air