5 Sep 2022

Rawiri Waititi calls for inquiry into emergency housing

5:36 pm on 5 September 2022
Rawiri Waititi speaking to media at Parliament

Rawiri Waititi Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi is calling for an investigation into Rotorua's emergency housing, saying millions has been spent but people are still living in fear.

An investigation by TVNZ's Sunday programme raised serious concerns about the sub-standard quality of the motel accommodation that's costing millions each week and the treatment and wellbeing of tenants.

The MP for Waiariki said some of our most vulnerable people were being put at risk of sexual, emotional and physical abuse.

"Let's have an inquiry and make sure that inquiry is independent then we can make out if [the government] can stand behind their words, but at this particular time I'd be very cautious to say everything is ka pai after the expose on Sunday last night," Waititi said.

He had personally stayed in one of the hotels and said he witnessed the "dysfunction" tenants and neighbours speak of.

"I'm hearing from people in Rotorua who live near Fenton St - they are fearful, and we just have to start doing something about this. It's been three years now and there's been millions and millions of dollars spent on this particular space. Where is the end of the tunnel for these people as they head into transitional housing?"

Serious answers were needed about what is being done to ensure people eventually won't need to be placed in emergency housing, Waititi said.

"We need to be looking at what are the solutions the government has? Well, are they going to just continue to spend more millions of dollars of tax payers' money into housing? When do we start seeing the transition into houses and what does that look like in the future?"

No one else should be referred to emergency housing in Rotorua, Waititi said.

"The government has had three years to come up with a solution to start transitioning these people into homes. My question to the government is in these three years that you've spent millions and millions on emergency housing, how many have gone into transitional housing, what is the plan to get more into transitional housing, what is happening with social housing developments and where do we start to break down the list of those who are waiting for houses?

"There are families that have stayed in those hotels for three years now, and you can't continue to say 'well, yeah, it's better than a vehicle'."

There had been no accountability for hotel and motel owners running emergency housing to ensure tenants were "dry, warm and safe", he said.

The inquiry needed to look at a range of issues "to ensure those people who are in emergency housing know that they are going to be safe, they are going to be warm and able to look after their families in a safe environment.

"In this particular time, the expose showed they are not safe and many of the people I've spoken to, who have been in emergency housing and live around Fenton St, know that there is a lot of work to be done here but it's a very unsafe environment for those people at this particular time - and we want answers."

'We've worked hard to build the houses they need'

In a statement, Housing Minister Megan Woods said she heard of complaints of a potentially serious nature on the 4 April.

At that time, police told the ministry it had the "mechanisms in place" to take care of people using the services - and police advised no further action was needed.

A month ago a Queen's counsel (QC) checked if there was anything more that should be done to review the actions that had been taken.

The draft findings determined the ministry had taken "reasonable steps" based on the information available at the time.

The government is building public houses as quickly as it can and there are nearly 300 homes under construction across Rotorua, Woods said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the government was focused on housing people safely.

Relevant agencies were working with Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to ensure complaints were appropriately processed.

"We do want to make sure that when people raise complaints that they are being looked at appropriately. People should be safe in their housing - particularly when it's provided by the government... HUD has brought in a QC to take a look at that process and check that it is operating as we would expect that it should.

Longer term stays were sometimes resulting in unsafe environments, particularly for people with children, she said.

"That's where of course work was done to try and then make sure we had accommodation where there was greater control over placement and therefore greater control over safety.

"Here there's been concern that even where security was being provided there's been concern that wasn't appropriate. Where that's been raised we have to act on it."

Rotorua had particular circumstances, Ardern said.

"Since 2013 the population there grew by 9000 people, in that time we had 1500 homes consented, and over that period of time we had 44 fewer public houses until 2017 when we came into office so right there you can see there was an immediate gap in meeting the accommodation needs fo the people of Rotorua.

"We've worked hard to build the houses they need, we've had 300 built, another 300 under construction, and we have the infrastructure enabling fund... which will deliver thousands of homes.

"The emergency Housing Special Needs Grant which the National Party brought in was designed for small scale and short term. We know it's been neither while we tackle this housing crisis."

The government did not want to apply its Rotorua model everywhere before knowing it would work, and some of the circumstances would not be applicable in other places, she said.

"We haven't always got things right, but we have not allowed a situation where people for instance continue to exist in their cars while we continue to build proper housing for them."

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