Queenstown’s housing shame: Why is it 'not the job' of these CEOs?

by Peter Newport - Jun 27, 2023


Looking at these photos of Queenstown’s two main Chief Executive Officers the first thing that jumps off the screen is comfort. It’s easy to tell that these two people don’t go home to an over-crowded, under-heated, over-charged and under-regulated ghetto.

That might sound like the opening line of a script for a low budget B Movie – but it’s the sad and terribly inconvenient truth that Queenstown, the town with arguably most wealth per capita in New Zealand is also, in all likelihood, the town with the most grinding poverty per capita.

And that’s not just your “regular” poverty of trying unsuccessfully to make ends meet. This is Queenstown’s own special brand of poverty where even if you can afford a roof over your head you either can’t get one – or it’s a complete dump that threatens both your mental and physical health.

It’s been like this for decades. It’s been tolerated because in previous years a rotating army of reasonably wealthy backpackers could survive the hardship, and the exploitation of sub-survival wages, because they were essentially on holiday – albeit a working holiday. For the tourism and hospitality industries this situation was like all of their Christmases had arrived at once: cheap high-quality labour that did not complain about living in what have always been Queenstown ghettos run by very dodgy landlords.

Post covid though it’s a much different story.  

Just before the pandemic the middle-class US, Australian and European backpackers had been slowly replaced by migrant workers from South America and Asia. These workers also came here prepared to tolerate the slum like rental houses, but they were not on holiday. They were here in search of eventual NZ residency, desperate for a better life, saving for a first step on the crazy local housing ladder, often while sending money home to their families.

Covid saw around 7,000 of these workers unceremoniously sacked and effectively sent home. "That’s life" said our community leaders. It was “thanks and goodbye.”

Now as mass tourism starts to boom again the need for local labour is as great as ever. Our local Council and Chamber of Commerce yelled for Government support. More cash, faster visas, shovel ready construction projects. And the money started to flow again – just like before, just like it always does when you are selling mountains and lakes that nobody had to build or finance.

But this new workforce needed better wages to meet higher costs and new Government visa rules helped deliver that requirement. But – and this is the big but – there was nowhere for the new workforce to live.

The reasons are actually well understood and there’s not even disagreement on these two causes. Empty $2 million holiday houses and expensive short term visitor accommodation.

So, what are the two biggest and richest influencers in Queenstown – the Chamber of Commerce and the Queenstown Lakes District Council – doing to fix these two basic problems?

Well – judging by the results so far – the answer would have to be very close to a big fat Nothing.

In fact, it’s worse than nothing.

The QLDC remains obsessed with losing as much ratepayer cash as possible on near pointless vanity projects such as Lakeview and the Arterial Road. In these tough times the losses on these two truly useless projects are spectacular; well past $100 million and heading towards $200 million. Then there’s minor pointless losses like $14 million on the toxic mouldy house and unused land on Ladies Mile.

Plus, all the “usual” inefficiencies like using overpaid former QLDC staff consultants for everything except attending council meetings and rubbing the noses of the ratepayer into the dirt by embedding $500 pounamu tiles into the footpath of the new $60 million CBD that looks exactly as it did before work started – except for the shops that have been forced into bankruptcy by botched council construction management.

The Chamber of Commerce has a new and seemingly smart CEO but she’s working for the same old Board of Directors who hired mega-consultant Ruth Stokes as Chamber CEO fresh from her highly paid stint helping spend $600,000 of ratepayer money on some fairly pointless (and unbudgeted) council bylaw reviews after very, very difficult time at the Dunedin City Council.

So where does that leave us? Mayor Glyn Lewers appears to be everybody’s worst fears come true – a clone of previous unsuccessful mayors but without the ability to speak in public, be an advocate for our community or make any sort of difference at all – he’s truly invisible. We understand he doesn't even speak to his own councillors.

That leaves everybody’s favourite public servant, council CEO Mike Theelen. Mr Teflon, to whom nothing seems to stick.

He’s turned failure into the new success with skills that would put any self respecting professional alchemist to shame. Black into white, losses into profits, rules into loopholes, disasters into triumphs and terrible news into good news. He's even turned unfathomable, dark financial secrecy into golden shiny charitable transparency. Theelen's own peculiar magic extends to broad-based economic diversification and climate mitigation resulting in "more mass tourism."

And we – the ratepayer – are funding all of this as we sail merrily onto the rocks of council debt, mismanagement and local economic failure. We truly feel for the 95% of council staff who don’t understand why nobody loves the council, nobody trusts the senior managers and nobody appreciates the hard work of the majority.

The answer lies behind a firmly closed and locked QLDC door with a “CEO” nameplate attached.

Our response? Let’s start to make a noise. Hold our mute councillors to account. Ask where the missing hundreds of millions of council dollars went – and continues to go. Demand safe, warm housing and fair rents for the people that keep this town going.

Let’s make a lot of noise. After all, the rest of the country has gone from hating Queenstown to feeling a strange mix of anger and sorrow for us.

Queenstown’s genuine survival is not guaranteed. It might survive as a tourism Disneyland - but whether it survives as a healthy community should be the real question. And, guess what, modern tourists would much rather visit a healthy vibrant community with a good story to tell than a façade built on exploitation and greed.

How we treat and house our workers is a fair measure of what type of community we are. And a better community is also better for profits, reputation and healthy growth.  

We need better bosses. No wonder Wānaka wants nothing to do with Queenstown.

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