21 Jun 2022

Rotorua's emergency housing problem

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 21 June 2022

Motel owners in Rotorua are raking in millions of dollars by taking in emergency housing tenants – but locals say it's a blight on the city’s image. The Detail visits the city's once-bustling tourist accommodation quarter. 

The Boulevard Motel in Rotorua, which the government bought for $8.1 million in 2021 as part of a Kāinga Ora development.

The government bought the Boulevard Motel in Rotorua for $8.1 million in 2021 as part of a Kāinga Ora development. Photo: Sharon Brettkelly

Fenton Street used to be Rotorua's Golden Mile. 

Now locals call this stretch of road 'MSD Mile', for the dozens of motels housing hundreds of homeless people. 

"It became a bit of a cash cow for the moteliers," says Kelly Makiha, a senior journalist at the Rotorua Daily Post

"The word has quickly spread that if you're in need you can come to Rotorua and get a motel. 

"Some of these moteliers are making millions a year." 

But locals are heartbroken, Makiha says: they're too afraid to drive down the road at night as people openly deal drugs; cars are broken into, tipped onto their roofs and set on fire; neighbours' properties are vandalised and people are abused. 

Trevor Newbrook of Restore Rotorua, a group pushing to revive the city's reputation as a premium tourist destination, takes The Detail on a drive along Fenton Street. He points out motel after motel that's been converted from tourist accommodation to emergency housing. 

Trevor Newbrook, Chairperson of community group Restore Rotorua.

Trevor Newbrook from Restore Rotorua Photo: Sharon Brettkelly

Last week the Ministry for Housing and Urban Development applied for resource consent to turn 12 motels into transitional housing for more than 1000 people. 

The ministry already contracts those motels to house homeless people, but the resource consent will make it legal to run them as emergency and transitional housing for up to five years, with wraparound services for the residents, including 24-hour security. 

"What's to stop them from doing it for another five years?" Newbrook asks.

"It all seems quite permanent as opposed to emergency temporary housing." 

Rotorua Lakes Council recently took legal action against nine of the 40-odd motels being used for emergency housing, for failing to comply with the district plan. Under the district plan rules, the motels are only allowed to have visitors on a temporary basis, but some of the residents are staying for several months. 

The council has since dropped the legal action, but it's told the motels they must comply with the plan if they want to continue with emergency housing. 

Makiha says some of the motels "won't cut it". 

Makiha's met a lot of people who are genuinely in need of accommodation, but she's also met a couple from Gisborne who had left their children with grandparents because they wanted time to themselves. 

Many people feel the government has made it too easy to get emergency housing, Makiha says, and people not from Rotorua should go back to where they came from. 

Newbrook says the motels are no place for families. He points out one where traffic cones block the driveway, cars park on the grass verges, and there's no space for children to play. 

"In the end, the government's paying the bills. They are responsible for it and they've created this situation and they need to do something about it," says Newbrook. 

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