25 Apr 2024

Residents seek answers after years of abuse, poor behaviour from Parnell lodge tenants

9:47 am on 25 April 2024

A "street of hell". That is how residents have described the past few years living on the same road as two lodges housing guests they say have constantly threatened and harassed them.

The residents are now seeking answers from Suresh and Seema Chatly - who own several backpackers' hostels, one of which is the City Garden Lodge, which caught fire earlier this month.

While the Chatlys have declined to be interviewed, residents said the couple had not shown any sense of social responsibility by housing highly hostile people, causing them to live in fear.

After years of reaching out to police and government with no response, they wanted an assurance the fire-damaged building would not be rebuilt.

Many of the residents of St Georges Bay Road had lived here for decades, and remember when it was once a part of a quiet suburban neighbourhood.

But since the Covid-19 lockdowns, they said things had taken a drastic turn.

Parnell's City Garden Lodge is seen on 8 April, 2024, the morning after it caught fire.

City Garden Lodge in Parnell the day after a serious fire this month. Photo: RNZ / Jordan Dunn

"The Chatlys have turned a family street that was utterly safe, that was totally functioning, into a street of hell and fear," said Christie, who had a loved one who lived on the street.

"People crossing the road constantly to avoid people who are seriously unwell, who aren't wearing all of their clothing, who aren't wearing shoes, who are yelling abuse at them," she said.

Christie, like others RNZ spoke with, did not want to give their full name or where they lived, out of fear of retaliation by the former guests at the lodge.

She said some residents of the former backpackers' wore home detention bracelets, while others needed serious help and were too dangerous to be living around young families and the elderly.

"The reality is, that if you don't put criminals in prison, you turn everybody else's street into a prison. And that is not good because people of the street are serving the sentences for the criminals that harass them daily."

Christie says the Chatly's have transformed St Georges Bay Road into a street of, "hell and fear," by housing hostile guests

Christie says some of the tenants needed serious help. Photo: Marika Khabazi

Christie said it was it a case of the locals being NIMBYs (not in my backyard), but rather a street full of caring, kind people who were fed up with being afraid.

"Everyone deserves a place to live, but everyone deserves neighbours who have a place to live that is appropriate to their needs in their situation, and this is so fundamentally not appropriate."

Christie was baffled the owners could make huge profits by housing hostile people, while the residents were left barely able to sell their homes.

"Would you bring up your kids here? No. Would you put your mum here? Of course you wouldn't. Nobody would do that in their right mind."

The burnt City Garden Lodge in Parnell, Auckland, with a 'do not enter' sign on the fence outside.

Barricades are now up at City Garden Lodge. Photo: RNZ / Jordan Dunn

RNZ has tried to reach Suresh and Seema Chatly on multiple occasions since the fire a fortnight ago. A person who answered their phone on Wednesday said they were busy and unable to speak until next week.

Two addresses linked to the couple were also visited but got no response.

Gillian has lived on St Georges Bay Road with her family for eight years. Like Christie, she didn't want to disclose any more about her identity.

During recent years, she had feared for her children's safety, enough to warn them not to go out on the street alone.

"There's been threats of rape of young teenagers. There's been break-ins, there's been a a car driven through a house front door, you know, all this sort of stuff that's gone on over the last few years," she said.

"We are incredibly lucky that one of us hasn't been killed."

In the eight years Gillian has been living on St Georges Bay Road, she has watched it transform from a friendly neighbourhood to one now unsafe for young children

Gillian fears for her children's safety. Photo: Marika Khabazi

Gillian believed the owners had been driven by the income they had received from the property, at the expense of the street's safety.

"I know where your daughters go to school, you know, it's the same school my daughter went to. How would they feel if it was their daughters being threatened with rape?"

"Just think about your investment property and your social responsibility to the community."

She said police were too overworked to help, and the owners didn't care enough to change anything.

Years of pleas to council and local politicians, including ACT leader David Seymour, had fallen on deaf ears.

Natalie lived closer to the other property owned by the Chatlys, Lantana Lodge, where she said there was still a threat.

"There is some responsibility there that they need to take on, but the police won't come. It's a waste of time for them unless somebody is murdered or there's a fire," she said.

There was a systemic problem which had to be addressed, she said.

"It's whatever government policy that is allowing them to operate in this way, and the owners will find a loophole."

Asbestos found on the property

To compound matters, the property which burnt down has also been flagged for containing asbestos, something Fire and Emergency told RNZ they were not aware of when first responding.

Dozens of residents were on the street at the time of the fire, watching it catch ablaze.

Gillian said she was incredibly angry the property wasn't on a register, and neighbours were not alerted earlier.

FENZ said it was told about the presence after the insurance investigator came back with a positive sample.

A spokesperson said: "It is general practice to assume there may be asbestos materials in buildings of this age, and appropriate health and safety precautions were carried out.

"At the time of the fire, tenants of neighbouring properties were advised to close their windows due to smoke."

Health New Zealand's website said asbestos inhalation was dangerous in high quantities, and it was higher in "degrading asbestos cement clad buildings, or former sites of such buildings, or a waste site where asbestos is disturbed or not properly covered".

"National Public Health Service Northern region was not alerted to asbestos on the property at the time of the fire or subsequently," a Te Whatu Ora spokesperson said.

"Private property owners manage asbestos clearance, but are obliged to alert WorkSafe NZ if there is a risk to workers or the public," they added.

David Seymour and police respond

ACT leader David Seymour

David Seymour Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Seymour, who is the local MP, told RNZ his hands were tied.

"It remains true that it is not illegal to run a boarding house, nor for people to stay at them," he said in a statement. "It is not possible for any MP to stop people from doing things that are legal, even when they are causing immense distress as I'm well aware has been the case with these hostels.

"My office has been aware of this issue for three years and worked extensively to provide information to raise concerns with the relevant authorities," he said.

Seymour said his office had worked with FENZ and police on a regular basis, and helped the ministry of Social Development identify "bad actors at the hostels so they could be removed to enhance public safety".

Police said they were limited in what they could say for privacy reasons, but Inspector Dave Christoffersen said, "in general, police are aware of incidents involving residents at two addresses in the Parnell area in recent months".

"Our staff also regularly conduct prevention patrolling through Parnell alongside other demand in central Auckland," he said.

Christoffersen said the residents have a right to feel safe in their own neighbourhood, and he could appreciate the frustration from residents.

However, he said they would still investigate and respond to offending and the community can assist by being the "eyes and ears."

The investigation into the cause of the 7 April fire is still underway because of a partial scene examination only being possible at the time.

Christofferson said police were awaiting reports around the fire's exact cause.

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