QLDC failed to notice missing smoke alarms, dodgy power at slum rental

by Lauren Pattemore and Peter Newport - Jun 30, 2023

As the Government calls on councils to document fire risks at local boarding houses the Queenstown Lakes District Council has confirmed to Crux that missing smoke alarms and a malfunctioning electrical system were not spotted during a 2022 council inspection. The urgent Government request follows the death of five men in the recent Wellington Loafers Lodge blaze.

Crux has reported on the dangerous overcrowding of a house in Johnson Place in Queenstown where up to 30 people are being charged a total of more than $7,000 a week to live in squalid conditions. However, the property has been inspected at least twice by the QLDC, the most recent visit being in September 2022.

The new Government register asks councils, by July 7, to detail the the fire systems in each building and if they have any concerns about a building or how it was complying with the rules, "and whether actions taken have been sufficient to address these concerns".

Some of the rooms seen by Crux at the Johnson Road rental.

Crux asked the QLDC, Did your September inspection last year note an absence of smoke alarms or the fragile state of the electricity supply - had it been tampered with?”.

The reply from the QLDC was, “There was no specific reference to smoke alarms or electrical supply as part of Council’s investigation of this property last September”. 

We then asked: “Can we please see the QLDC report that was written when council staff visited Johnson Place in September last year following a complaint?”.

QLDC: “We’d consider releasing this document under LGOIMA. Please let me know if you’d like to go ahead”.

LGOIMA is the official information legislation that takes 20 days to complete and can result in the QLDC deleting many parts of a document or refusing the request altogether.

The QLDC had also visited the property in December 2019 but took no further action after being assured by landlord James Truong that all of the overcrowding and unconsented room additions had been fixed.

When Crux reporters visited the Johnson Place property last week we asked to see smoke alarms in the communal kitchen and it appeared none had been fitted. Our visits also noted the power supply cutting out every couple of minutes due to what tenants said was constant overloading and faulty fuses or circuit breakers.

The owner, Mr Truong, was then seen by a Crux reader the next day buying four smoke alarms and four heaters at a local retail store.

In the meantime, more tenants have contacted Crux with details of Mr Truong's bizarre behaviour and the reasons for why they are choosing to leave the rental property.

One tenant has vacated his room citing his mental health as the reason.

Crux was copied in the email to the landlord that detailed his departure, as was an MBIE investigator, an action he felt was necessary for his own safety.

In the email, he mentions four recent illegal actions by Mr Truong contributing to him wanting to leave, these include twice conducting an inspection without adequate warning, and two attempts to hand him a 28-day eviction notice.

After receiving the first 28-day eviction notice, this tenant called Tenancy Services for advice, and he was told him it was illegal for landlords to give eviction notices whilst the property was under investigation by authorities.

Mr Truong illegally evicted the five tenants living in the garage last week, telling them at 7pm on Thursday (June 22), they needed to leave the next day.

In the email, the tenant also says that Mr Truong had been constantly sending him messages, sometimes as early as 7am, asking to speak with him, blaming him for news coverage and for having “passive-aggressive” behaviour in the house.

The tenants says Mr Truong’s recent action “makes me feel unsafe and worried about my situation living in that house”.

He says his health has been suffering as a result, and he has been experiencing “high levels of stress and anxiety affecting my sleeping, working and normal life”.

Prior to the news coverage, this tenant had never met Mr Truong, but now the landlord is almost permanently parked at the property and present inside the house.

Two to a bunk: Vince Lowry called this shed home in 2017 and not much has changed since then.

A former tenant, Vince Lowry, now living in Christchurch, came across the first Crux story on Facebook, thinking to himself that the situation sounded like that of his former Johnson Place residence.

Then, reading further articles, his suspicions were confirmed; it was the same property.

He lived there from September 2017 until December that same year, sleeping on a bunk bed in the garden shed.

Even though it was six years ago, he says he remembers the place, and slumlord James Truong “vividly”.

“You couldn’t talk to him about any issues of any kind. It was like complaining to the bully not to bully you.

“It's quite sad to think, like six years later, that nothing's changed at all.

“From what I understand he's there now [at the property], he keeps intimidating and harassing. In six years, how many people have been subjected to that?”

He estimates, there’s “comfortably hundreds” of people who have lived at the address since he left at the end of 2017.

He says there were at least 50 tenants residing at the property whilst he was there, because each room had a bunk bed, he says.

In his room, he paid $200 a week for the top bunk, while another tenant – who he met upon moving in – occupied the bottom bed, and they “had to make it work”, Mr Lowry says. 

“There was no space…I would keep half my belongings on me on the bed itself, when I would sleep I’d have my clothing on top of me so I would just have to try and lay still, otherwise they would just go flying around the place.”

He remembers when the garage was first converted into accommodation, it was completely bare, apart from three mattress on the floor, which three blokes from South America paid $200 for.

“He would take every opportunity to make a dollar,” Mr Lowry says.

This included charging visitors whilst they were at the property - friends of tenants had to pay $25 if they were staying the night.

Mr Truong would tell them how much to pay towards the power bill without sending receipts, and he was aware some tenants paid their rent in cash.

Similarly, Crux has discovered that Mr Truong collects rent from the current tenants via different bank accounts, as evident from viewing multiple tenancy agreements and seeing different bank numbers.

Some are sent to ASB, others to an ANZ account.

Mr Lowry describes taking complaints to Mr Truong as “talking to a brick wall” because he would never listen.

For example, Mr Lowry says that Mr Truong saw no issue with having potential tenants view the property at late at night, and opening the doors of sleeping tenants in the process.

“He would either downplay or make it sound like it's nothing, or essentially tell you off.

“We raised that issue with James saying that's really not appropriate to have people come to look at the place at the middle of the night and he downplayed the  issue saying, ‘oh, no it’s all right, fine’.”

He says that at Johnson Place you got used to living in a state of uncertainty.

With no locks on their doors, and no knowledge of who was living there, the place had no privacy, security or safety, he says.

“I remember I had one person question who I was, and I said, ‘I live here. I've been here for a month’. They had no idea.”

Mr Lowry says Mr Truong would appear at random times at the property, describing his demeanour as similar to a vampire or a “suspicious shoplifter”, because he was always lurking around and “peering into things”.

Other unusual behaviour included bringing his own karaoke machine and trying to get tenants to join in. Mr Lowry always refused. 

Tenants and Crux failed to find evidence of any smoke alarms in the kitchen and lunge area of the house last week.


“He would just show up uninvited, there was no warning, nothing at all.”

The lights used to flicker whilst he lived there, but power problems weren’t as severe as experienced by current tenants – who lost power for more than nine hours one night.

Living there was “chaotic, confusing and hopeless”, and Mr Lowry says Mr Truong needs to be held accountable. 

One current tenant passed onto Crux on Monday that Tenancy Services had informed to them there would be a court case.

Mr Lowry has put his hand up and said he’s keen to get involved, and give a statement if it goes to trial.

“He would take advantage of a lot of vulnerable people obviously coming in from overseas.”

After three months in the crowded rental, he secured accommodation through his employer and stayed for a few more years in that place.

“Even though six years ago, I still remember what it was like living there. [Now] life is great for me, I've been living in a great place, great job, things like that. But I remember what it was like being back there. I know exactly what those people are experiencing now.

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