Rotorua 'ripped apart' by emergency housing crisis - Mayoral candidate

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By Felix Desmarais, Local Democracy Reporter

A city "being ripped apart" is how one mayoral candidate has responded to the nationwide exposure of Rotorua's emergency housing crisis.

It follows media coverage on the Sunday programme that showed what another mayoral candidate describes as "a drawn-out gut punch" on the alleged conditions in some motels and alleged treatment of some clients.

The housing issue has also been extensively covered by the Rotorua Daily Post.

Housing Minister Megan Woods said the Government was "reviewing" the emergency housing system but it was "a significant undertaking".

A council candidate has announced an idea to boost social housing in the district, while Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick says she wants the Government to temporarily pause emergency accommodation vouchers to out-of-towners to unmanaged motels to allow a "reset".

Mayoral candidate Rania Sears said Rotorua's heart was "being ripped apart" and called for an urgent independent review.

She believed solutions should come from iwi and the Government had "enabled" the problem "without a clear exit plan".

She said the council needed to "take ownership" which, in her opinion, it was "not currently doing".

If elected mayor, Sears said she would call an urgent hui with the council, government officials, service providers, iwi and community leaders and "offer a very clear vision that provides a smooth and efficient pathway to be adopted with urgency and work together in agreement to set clear actions".

Local Democracy Reporting asked the seven mayoral candidates what they believed should happen, how they would make that happen if elected mayor, and what the council could do that it was not already doing.

Candidate Raj Kumar said he wanted to see the Government cancel all motel contracts, saying it wasn't "humane".

The city was "already haemorrhaging" from the Government's "mismanagement" of emergency housing.

He said the Government needed to stop "sending" people to Rotorua to motel housing and if elected mayor he would work with community providers and landlords to "get money directly from central Government for rental housing".

He said the council needed to contribute to assessing who was most vulnerable and could be "vetted safely into housing with families as a stop-gap measure".

Candidate Fletcher Tabuteau said watching the Sunday programme was "like a drawn-out gut punch".

He wanted the Government to "work with Rotorua homeless only" and understand it was "not a binary problem" between sleeping rough or staying in motels.

He said if elected mayor he would "work with iwi, individuals, housing groups and government to provide real housing alternatives". He believed those alternatives could be enacted quicker than the current system.

Tabuteau said the council needed to, with central government, enable temporary housing "as a solution that takes victims out of Fenton St and allows tourists to return".

Candidate Reynold Macpherson said he felt "deep shame and then anger" about the damage emergency housing was doing to the city.

The Government should "reverse the inflow of homeless people" into Rotorua and put "so-called 'wrap-around' services on a professional basis", and "encourage homeless people to return home", he said.

If elected mayor he would "aim to dismantle" emergency housing in motels to accelerate the recovery and growth of hospitality, accommodation and tourism.

In his opinion, the council had not been enforcing the district plan on the length of stays and needed to "withdraw support" for five-year resource consents for motels.

He said the council should develop a "plausible" housing policy.

Candidate Tania Tapsell called on Housing Minister Megan Woods to stop motel contracts immediately.

She said the council could do a report on the socio-economic impacts of emergency housing to provide a "strong case" and proof of increased crime rates, negative impacts on nearby residents and businesses and Rotorua's reputation.

She said she'd consistently advocated to stop out-of-towners being housed in Rotorua motels

Tapsell said she had requested the council use regulatory powers to investigate all buildings used for emergency housing and issue those with known dangers with a notice to close.

Candidate Ben Sandford said poverty was a major issue and he wanted to see better co-ordination between Government agencies, service providers, iwi, motels and the council.

He wanted the Government to provide "better oversight and regulation" of motels and providers, more services for homeless people.

He said the Ministry of Social Development should only pay for accommodation in "suitable" motels used solely for emergency housing - not mixed use.

If elected mayor, he would "advocate and present solutions".

"I would ensure [the] council is doing everything it can to enforce regulations and do the work to allow more homes to be built. I would work with our communities to make sure we are resilient and supporting people to stay in homes.

Candidate Kalaadevi Ananda said the media coverage had "revealed a dysfunctional and criminally-negligent system" in her opinion.

"We need to move from knee-jerk reaction to responsive solution strategy."

She said the Government needed to understand emergency motel housing was a "bandaid to the pandemic and its mandates".

"Now we need a compressive strategy bigger than infrastructure."

She said alternatives - such as "a housing development that runs like a marae" - was needed.

Ananda wanted the Government and the council to "dismantle each motel, one at a time".

The council could "leverage" the Government's use of motels for funding to reinvest in the local tourism industry.

"The time is now for [the] council to act and set up a committee of wise people."

This included mana whenua, "people of faith", non-government organisations, "psychiatrist, developer, social activist", the council and the Government.

Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said it was a "complex challenge" that needed "brave leadership".

"The only solution is to keep working together with government agencies and iwi as we have over the last two years.

She encouraged a "temporary stop" on the issuing of emergency accommodation vouchers to out-of-towners to unmanaged motels "while a reset can occur".

Housing Minister Megan Woods was asked whether she would take up Chadwick's suggestion, and what her view was of the safety of people living in Rotorua's motels and near them.

A spokeswoman said Woods could not speak on "council matters".

Woods said she had "heard the concerns from locals about out-of-towners coming into Rotorua" and the Government would now begin monthly reporting on placement and exit numbers.

She said the Ministry of Social Development routinely asked for a valid and clear reason for relocation for emergency housing support, "like having your family or support networks in Rotorua, or when someone is a victim of domestic violence".

She said the ministry did not proactively move clients to Rotorua and was "currently looking at" quality assurance for emergency housing properties with Rotorua Lakes Council.

Woods said the Government was "reviewing" and redesigning the emergency housing system but it was "a significant undertaking".

"It is important we get it right. The work we have under way with the council will also feed into this."

The redesign would focus on improving the emergency housing clients' wellbeing, and access to suitable accommodation and other support.

"While new housing is being built, we accept that motels will continue to be used for emergency housing but in the meantime the taskforce is working with the district council on the issue of the use of motels for mixed use and we are looking at actions we can collectively take to reduce and ultimately end this."

She believed the reliance on motels would become "minimal within five years" due to growth in consents, and public houses were being built as quickly as possible in Rotorua.

Ministry of Social Development Bay of Plenty commissioner Mike Bryant said he knew the issue was "a high priority in Rotorua".

"Demand for emergency housing in Rotorua is a symptom of the long-running shortage of affordable housing.

"We know motels aren't ideal, but we're committed to making sure people have somewhere to stay while they search for somewhere to live."

Council-established housing trust could address woes - candidate

One councillor candidate says the council could establish a community housing trust to manage and build more social housing.

On Monday last week, councillor candidate Ryan Gray announced his "ambitious" housing policy, aimed at ending "Rotorua's emergency housing nightmare".

The trust would act as a community housing provider "at arm's length" from the council, with appointed councillors, iwi and independent trustees. Under Gray's plan, existing council social homes would be leased to the new trust.

Homes would be "scattered across the city - not dumped in a single area", he said.

The policy would "help Rotorua take control of its own housing destiny and stop children growing up in motel units".

Creation of the trust would give it access to the Government's rental income-related rent subsidy, he said.

Under that scheme, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development pays a subsidy to community housing providers to cover the balance between a tenant's rental payment and the market rent of the property.

Tenants usually contribute about 25 per cent of their net income. Generally, to be eligible for public housing a single person with no children has to have a net annual income of under $36,000, according to the Ministry of Social Development.

Gray said under the existing setup, it was "simply unfeasible" for the council to build more homes, but his plan would make it possible as well as reduce ongoing costs for ratepayers, with any surpluses reinvested into increasing supply.

Asked the source of funding for setting up a trust, Gray said there were "details to work through" such as what support - including financially - the community would be prepared to give a housing trust.

"If elected I want to work with our community on solutions which work for our city in a Rotorua-centric way, not what Wellington thinks is best for us."

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air