Q'town housing crisis: our homeless people who are not poor

by Kim Bowden - Jan 24, 2023

Here, they’re called freedom campers – elsewhere in the country, people living out of the back of a car because they can't put a roof over their heads are considered homeless.

The shortage of accommodation in the Southern Lakes is a perennial issue, with house hunters and would-be flatmates competing against holidaymakers for a place to stay.

But, right now it’s harder than ever for long-term locals and newcomers to find a home.

Danna Burton’s one of them.

Freedom campers aren't welcome in much of the district, but living out of the back of a vehicle isn't a fun holiday choice for some residents - it's a last-resort for a roof over their heads.

She’s been “bouncing around” looking for accommodation for more than six months.

“I’m over it...the reality is there’s just not enough housing.”

Ms Burton has her own business, and even her own home – but it’s in Invercargill, and Queenstown’s where the work is.

Up until a few days ago, she was house-sitting for a mate. Before that, she was a long-termer at a central backpackers. Now, she’s on the lookout for a place to stay again.

“I’ve got a place to look at today and I’ve got three more to look at this week, but I’m not holding my breath, you know.”

It’s not uncommon to be one of hundreds vying for a potential rental, she says.

Fede Cetani agrees competition is fierce at viewings.

“We’ve been looking for a place and it’s been really, really hard.”

He’s Argentinian, but Queenstown’s home.

“Some people I know, they’ve just left Queenstown. They have the opportunity to do it, so they move somewhere else.”

But that’s not what he wants.

“We’ve been living here for five, six years...we feel local.”

For the first two years, it was “really nice” to live in the same house, he says. 

But, since then, he’s shifted nine times in four years – only two moves were his choice.

Ironically, he’s set to be kicked out of his current rental as his landlord is keen to make space for their own friend, who’s had their rental sold from underneath them.

“I know Queenstown is a place for tourists, but to operate a business you need people, and all of us need a place to stay.

“They are building new hotels and new places, but there is no place for people to live.”

This week Crux talked with another house hunter, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Her family of four – her husband and two children aged five and three - has been living in one room, in a small home with extended family, for more than seven months.

“My situation is getting very hard...I’ve been struggling so much.”

Homeless with a gym membership - Danna Burton says some longer-term locals are juggling van life and work shifts, showering at gyms and local pools.

Sleeping in cars - the new solution to our housing crisis

Another worker says he’s sleeping in his vehicle, dodging freedom camping fines as he juggles work shifts with van life.

Yet another, that she’s sharing a bed with a female friend, while holding down a job at a cafe.

Ms Burton says more needs to be done to acknowledge there’s a housing crisis very specific to Queenstown Lakes, and to address it.

“I’ve engaged with the local MP and the Minister of Housing and tenancy services.

“The government needs to step in.”

She’s using social media to help mobilise a protest against what she says is a lack of support for those without a home in the district.

In most circumstances, around the country, there’s community services that can kick in when someone needs emergency housing, she says, but in Queenstown Lakes, there’s not that same support infrastructure – here the person without a home isn’t necessarily without money.

Plenty of people she’s been in contact with who are homeless have gym memberships to give them a place to shower, Ms Burton says.

She’s paired up with another campaigner, and together they’re canvassing local employers to try and gather some solid data on the size of the problem.

“We’re asking how many of their staff are facing a housing crisis siutation, how many are facing homelessness, how many are sleeping rough, how many are sleeping in their cars.

“It’s astounding the answers I’m getting.”

People are often working more than one job and “ridiculous hours” because of staff shortages, she says.

“And then they’re going home and sleeping in a car or they’re going home and sleeping on a couch.

“Yet they show up at their restaurant or whatever kind of job it is that they’re doing with a smile on their face to contribute to the Queenstown experience for the tourists that come here and spend a shitload of money for the New Zealand economy.”

People in power may not want to wade in on the issue now, but they will when “people stop coming”, Ms Burton says.

“If people start saying ‘oh yeah, Queenstown was really beautiful but I won’t go there again because I couldn’t find anywhere to eat’.

“These tourists are coming and being told their rooms aren’t going to be serviced every day, they’re going out for coffee, if they can find a place that’s open, and waiting in line for half an hour.

“The people who make this town a town are the workers...And if they can’t have a place to sleep, it sucks.”

Mr Cetani says his own living situation isn't that bad compared to many others in the town, but he feels a responsibility to speak out about the problem because he's aware those in more vulnerable situations can not.

Renters are desperate - they don't want to rock the boat

It's the same for Ms Burton, who says she'll continue to rally whether her own house hunt is successful or not.

“Just because I find a place, it doesn’t mean the problem is solved - it’s solved for me, at least temporarily."

She says there's plenty of people in town in dodgy living situations, sometimes being taking advantage of by opportunistic landlords, afraid to speak out.

"Because Queenstown is serviced by migrant workers, peope are coming here on a working holiday visa – they don’t always know what their rights are.

“Because people are here, they are grateful, they don’t want to rock the boat.”

She says she turned up at one viewing to find a makeshift renovation - a woman had turned her house in two, and converted a garage into a second kitchen.

She didn't get the place: "The reason is I'm educated, I'm a permanent resident, and I speak English." 

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