Why is the Crux 'slumlord' case being hidden from public view?
It's been almost three months since Crux first uncovered the Johnson Place rental where close to 30 people were living crammed into a mix of makeshift, often unconsented rooms, yet the two authorities charged with investigating the property and its landlord still have nothing to report.
Crux has regularly asked for updates from the Queenstown Lakes District Council and the Tenancy Compliance and Investigations Team at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, both of which launched investigations into the property and its landlord, James Truong, after Crux first reported on it in June.
MBIE's media team is now declining to respond to Crux enquiries, while the QLDC has said our latest request for information needs to be made under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.
The last time MBIE did reply, at the start of August, it adopted a 'don't call us, we'll call you' tone: "We have no further update about the investigation into James Truong. This investigation is ongoing and is a priority matter, but we do not anticipate having any further update in the near future. We would be happy to reach out to you should there be any updates on this investigation."
This week, emails to MBIE have gone unanswered.
Meanwhile, ongoing questions to the QLDC asking for an update on its investigation have also provided few details.
Towards the end of July, we were told council officers had carried out an inspection of the property, were satisfied there did not "appear to be any imminent danger to occupants of the building", and "anticipated" an assessment to be complete by the following week.
A month later, we asked for the outcome of the assessment: "Council officers are now reviewing its findings and hence the investigation remains ongoing".
A month further along, on Monday this week, another quick email request for an update: "No further updates at this stage. Our enforcement and legal teams will let me know when there is and I’ll share with you accordingly."
Crux also noted the appearance this week of a fresh file on the council's public eDoc's system related to the address - the file itself was empty, but appeared to refer to a recently issued 'notice to fix'. A request to the council's communications team for the relevant documents was met with the LGOIMA direction.
To a wider audience, the regular emailing by Crux to the two authorities involved in what was dubbed the case of the Queenstown 'slumlord' may appear pedantic.
Crux also acknowledges the context of the district's accommodation crisis - we don't want any light we shine on dodgy rentals to result in people so desperate for a roof over their heads they're willing to put up with expensive, substandard rentals to lose their homes.
But all three Crux reporters that have covered the 'slumlord' stories, plus the thousands of local readers following the issue, have been left bewildered by how a landlord can be a repeat offender, with seemingly no consequences other than an expectation that they clean up their act enough for the authorities to tick boxes and move on, until the next time.
The Johnson Road coverage by Crux encouraged multiple tenants, in multiple locations, to contact us to say they too had lived or were living in a substandard rental owned by Mr Truong - some incidents date back years.
The council's property files for Johnson Place reveal an investigation in 2019 included MBIE officers entering the address with body cams to obtain evidence.
The consent for the house defines it as 'SH' - detached dwellings where people live as a single household or family - with a garage and several sheds designed for storage, not human habitation.
It's been shown Mr Truong puts up walls, sometimes pipes, renting dozens of spaces across the three bedroom home, garage and two sheds. When told to, he takes the additions away, before they re-appear again down the track.
There is no national registry of boarding houses in New Zealand. An Otago University researcher in a 2015 study called the system of regulation "fragmented, weak and dated" compared to overseas.
Time and again Mr Truong has broken the rules - where are the consequences for that?
Main image: Photos taken by Crux in June during a visit to the Johnson Place property at the invite of tenants.