19 Oct 2022

Nearly 60 council flats for elderly residents remain vacant in Auckland

8:31 am on 19 October 2022
Lorraine Moon (left) and Pauline Sheddan have bought flats in Sandringham as part of Auckland Council's 'own your own home scheme'.

Lorraine Moon (left) and Pauline Sheddan have bought flats in Sandringham as part of Auckland Council's 'own your own home scheme'. Photo: RNZ / Amy Williams

Close to 60 council flats for elderly residents are sitting vacant in Auckland - some in dire disrepair - amid an affordable housing shortage for those over 65.

The vacant flats make up more than a third of Auckland Council's 'Own-your-own' home scheme set up in the 1970s - where council buys back the flats when owners vacate, then onsells to a new owner, all at a discounted rate.

Now council is selling its share and residents are worried.

Pauline Sheddan, who bought a well-kept unit in Sandringham two years ago, said at least seven units in the block of 35 were unoccupied.

"They're deteriorating rapidly as all vacant units do," she said.

"They're left empty and there's leakage and there's rotting wood ... and of course there are also overgrown plants in some places, that are creeping into the units, which is great we'll have our own little haunted houses."

The steps to one unoccupied unit in the block are obscured by a creeper that has made its way to the front door. A peek through the window reveals tired '70s decor.

Auckland Council has repurchased more units than it has sold in recent years. More than a third of the 150 flats across 14 villages sit vacant, and the council has run out of funds to refurbish them.

Sheddan said she could understand why they were empty, especially when they were sold at 80 percent of current market value.

Pauline Sheddan says at least seven of 35 units in the Sandringham block of council flats for elderly residents are unoccupied.

Pauline Sheddan says at least seven of 35 units in the Sandringham block of council flats for elderly residents are unoccupied. Photo: RNZ / Amy Williams

"I think it's highly disingenuous to say there's no interest. There would be huge interest if people knew about the scheme."

Fellow resident Lorraine Moon bought a council flat four years ago and completely refurbished the unit at her own expense.

She was concerned existing homeowners, all 96 of them across the city, who bought into the retirement villages would be left with either vacant flats or renters moving in - and few legal rights.

"If these units that are empty are sold, depending on who they're sold to, they could be onsold and there's no legal requirement for anyone to live up to the standards that we've had to sign up to with the Auckland Council."

She learned of the planned sale in June and sought more information from the council but felt let down.

"We've had letters going back and forth ... there's been no transparency, they just want to ride roughshod over where we live, why we live, and how we live here."

The council agreed to sell its stake in the scheme earlier this year, and its finance arm, Eke Panuku, is overseeing the sale on behalf of the council.

Eke Panuku assets and delivery general manager Marian Webb said it was seeking "an appropriate socially minded organisation" for the council's share in the scheme.

"This involves firstly inviting expressions of interest in the portfolio, followed by an in-depth look into whether the interested parties have the experience and required skillset to continue the scheme."

The first stage is under way for 12 of the 14 villages. Eke Panuku is engaging with organisations with experience in such portfolios and is working with Bayleys to seek expressions of interest.

"Council's divesting of its equity share will not have any day-to-day effect for anyone who currently owns their own unit," Webb said.

"All homeowners will be able to remain in their home with the assurance that all existing contractual obligations will remain until the homeowner no longer requires their unit."

Council documents showed a new buyer would be required to invest in each unoccupied unit to provide safe, warm housing, ensure the units were occupied by people needing housing who were compatible with existing homeowners, preserve the original intent of the scheme, and develop and intensify the sites once all units were vacated.

Planned meetings between council and the homeowners have been delayed, now earmarked for November.

Property lawyer Joanna Pidgeon said the scheme documents showed it was entirely at council's discretion to select a buyer and set the terms.

"It could be a community-minded social housing provider who has a vested interest in continuing the arrangement or it could be a developer who's hoping they can activate those rights to acquire as soon as possible so they can develop the site for a more commercial development," Pidgeon said.

The council had a moral obligation to continue with the intent of the scheme, but it was not clear how that would be enforced, she said.

"How will council enforce that commitment and be accountable to them to ensure that that commitment is honoured?"

Sheddan said residents had bought into a retirement community with the expectation that would continue.

"We, as owners, have had no input at all and our major concern is who will they sell it to and how will that impact our lives," she said.

"Who's going to monitor what the new owners are doing, it's just impossible to do."

Moon said she would not bow to any future pressure to move on because she bought into the council flats to see out her retirement.

"How long's a piece of string? I'll be here until they take me out in a box, I don't want to move, I have no intention of moving," she said.

"I like living here, everything is at hand - there's a bus stop down the road, shops down the road, St Lukes round the corner, and a library. It's perfect for me."

She and Pauline have asked newly-elected mayor Wayne Brown to halt the sale process to allow residents to have a say.

"I'm one of the younger ones here so both Pauline and I feel that we should stick up for the ones that can't speak for themselves."

A spokesperson for Brown said he had received the letter and would respond.

"He [Brown] expects the council to do the right thing by the people affected, while also ensuring that council land provides sufficient value for money to Aucklanders to keep rates low," the spokesperson said.

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