26 Jun 2023

More than 25 people sharing facilities at one house, charged $250 each a week, migrant says

7:37 am on 26 June 2023
South Island residents are waking up to a white blanket of snow as a cold blast works its way up the country.

A housing shortage in Queenstown is leaving migrants vulnerable, they say. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

A Queenstown migrant worker says she is being charged $250 a week to live with more than 25 other people in a poorly kept, overcrowded property.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told RNZ their landlord was taking advantage of desperate people.

The migrant worker lives with her partner in one of seven cramped bedrooms, each shared by two to three people.

A further 15 people live outside in illegal cabins or in the garage, sharing the house's kitchen and two bathrooms, and each paying $250 a week.

The worker said their landlord illegally evicted the tenants in the garage after the housemates complained about the poor living situation.

This month, the workers spent two days without electricity - unable to use heaters, cook or have a hot shower - as the property could not cope with the number of people who lived there.

When they complained, she said their landlord told them they should turn off the heaters, in a town that could experience sub-zero temperatures.

The woman arrived in Queenstown two months ago, and started off living in a hostel.

This house was one of the few rentals available - they are in high demand and difficult to find.

While she does not want to live in cramped, overcrowded and poor quality property, she does not want to live in a car either, which she says others have resorted to.

For now, she and the other tenants are trying to work out how to improve their situation.

Another migrant worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity said she was given 28 days' notice to leave her rental due to the landlord undertaking renovations.

She has been living in Queenstown for a year as an accredited worker.

"My fear came true," she said.

"It's scary because obviously I have been living here for a year. I would like to live here longer. I have a job and I don't want to leave.

"It's winter. The conditions are cold, and I know many people living in their vans, in their cars. I don't have even a car. It brings a lot of instability and fear."

The Residential Tenancies Amendment Act 2020 said that a landlord may terminate a periodic tenancy by giving at least 90 days' notice if they planned to carry out extensive renovations.

While she planned to try and fight for the notice period she was due, she wanted to see more controls put in place to avoid this from happening to others and to keep a cap on rental rises and landlords from taking advantage of their tenants.

In some cases, she knew people paying $300 to $400 for a room.

"People come here to create a life, to have a life, to have stability, and suddenly their landlords kick them out and they have to live in a hostel after living five years in Queenstown, is something that literally blows my mind."

The Queenstown Lakes District Council and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment have confirmed they intended to launch new probes into the property.

Meanwhile, Queenstown Lakes District councillor Matt Wong said the housing crisis - while it has been building for decades - was the worst it has ever been.

"We know there are enough houses being built and there's enough free, available housing, it's just not accessible," Wong said.

The council was working with organisations supporting tenants and workers while also lobbying central government, he said.

"If there was an easy solution, if there was an easy lever, it would have been pulled well in advance. It would have been done by now."

Instead, he said it was time for central government to intervene.

"Central government needs to step up, give us some powers - even for three to six months, just to get us through this winter, get us through this really hard time so we can start building on the long term fixes that we need."

Hundred of people were looking for a place to live while plenty of houses sat empty, including some council properties.

He said many of them did not meet the government's Healthy Homes standards.

The Healthy Homes standards include minimum requirements for heating, insulation, ventilation, dampness, drainage and draught stopping.

More than 30 cabins owned by the council on the Lynch Block site are among those sitting empty.

The cost of getting the properties up to the government's Healthy Homes standards was a barrier, he said.

He urged the government to help to fund bringing them up to standard so they could get homeless people out of their cars and into a home.

Wong, who supported the standards, said he did not understand why rental properties had to meet the standards, but short-term rentals and holiday homes did not.

Council, MBIE launch inquiries

The Queenstown Lakes District Council confirmed the property had been investigated in the past and issued with a Notice to Fix under the Building Act 2004.

"Matters were resolved in 2020 to our satisfaction. Council staff undertook another site visit in September last year after a separate complaint but did not identify any non-compliance," the council said.

It would launch a new investigation into the property following media reports.

The council said there were no other complaints of overcrowding at other properties in the last month and only this property was under investigation.

"We will consider enforcement options where a breach of the Act is discovered as part of an investigation. Generally, complaints arise from members of the public coming directly to council. If anyone is in a similar situation, we'd encourage them to contact our customer services team with their concerns."

Tenancy Services advised that tenants did not have to leave a property if the landlord was illegally terminating a tenancy, the council said.

Instead, tenants should make an application to the Tenancy Tribunal about the illegal notice.

"We sympathise greatly with anyone who finds themselves in a situation like this through no fault of their own. Council does not have emergency housing provision and we would advise people in this situation to contact Tenancy Services and/or other social support agencies in the first instance.

"Any concerns about potential unlawful activity by a landlord should be reported to the relevant authorities such as Tenancy Services or the police."

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment compliance and investigation acting national manager, Dan Herlihy, confirmed a ministry investigation was also underway.

Its Tenancy Compliance and Investigations staff visited the property last week after receiving information while in Queenstown for pre-planned visits.

Staff met with a team from the Queenstown Lakes District Council last Friday about the property, Herlihy said.

"The Tenancy Compliance and Investigations Team undertakes reactive and proactive investigations of rental properties to check their compliance with the Residential Tenancies Act.

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