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Overcrowded, cold and expensive Qtown rentals back to pre-Covid levels

Jul 02, 2021

Many thought the Covid-19 pandemic might bring some relief to those seeking accommodation in Queenstown Lakes.

But the average house price continues to rise and cold shabby rentals are still wildly expensive.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, overcrowding in old, cold and mouldy homes was accepted as commonplace in the district's expensive rental market.

Many thought the economic deep freeze and a lack of tourism might tip the scales a little back in the favour of renters. But it hasn't happened.

The Salvation Army's Queenstown community ministries director Lieutenant Andrew Wilson said if anything, a decrease in income and more fragile working arrangements had left low-income residents even more vulnerable.

"Early on we saw some freezes in rents, we saw some reductions. That quickly bounced back essentially to where it has been.

"So what that means is for those that can't afford $300 for a room, they're still having to make the decisions that we had seen pre-Covid of hot bedding - so having three people sleeping in one bed, rotating through on different shifts - and overcrowding, which has led to a lot of issues."

Affordability had not improved even though some people had left the district, Wilson said.

"Whilst we have seen people leave the area and so there are some vacant lots in terms of houses, the cost of those places is still incredibly high," he said.

"So it means people, particularly on low incomes, to be able to survive here or to live more than just week-to-week here a lot of them are grouping together still - you'll have three people to a room. There are some landlords who are building little kitchenettes in every room in order to encourage that behaviour as well.

"You could have three or four families living in a three bedroom house, each family unit living in a separate room and each room essentially being its own standalone flat."

That had created safety issues, Wilson said.

The Salvation Army has assisted several people recently who lost their rentals to fires, sometimes due to overloading of electrical circuits.

However, problems were difficult to uncover with little resource available to police landlords' behaviour, and little incentive for tenants to come forward, he said.

"It's a vicious cycle. Particularly for vulnerable communities like our migrants and our low income earners. Their house is the only thing that might be secure for them and so to risk making a complaint to their landlord or to the property manager or whoever, risks that house over their head.

"Here in Queenstown you never know what the next house is going to be, whether it's going to be more expensive or less quality. And so there's a number of people out there willing to live with what they have even if it's poor living conditions."

Long-term health problems

Andrew* has seen it all - mouldy walls, leaking windows and overcrowding - all coming with a steep price tag.

He spoke to RNZ on the condition of anonymity, fearing that going public might cause problems in finding a future home.

A room he rented left him with permanent respiratory problems, he said.

"I've got a cough now that I've had for over two years - that's continuous from the mould. I have bloody noses every single day - I go through two to three boxes of tissues every week. And that makes your anxiety, your depression [worse] - it aggravates so many things," he said.

"I never had any respiratory issues or any asthma issues of any sort beforehand. But because of all the dampness and all the other things in these poor substandard houses it causes those problems to get worse."

It was dehumanising and there was no one to advocate for tenants, he said.

The steep cost left tenants struggling to get by.

"For food I had about $30 to $35 a week and you would have to go to, I'm not proud of it, but food banks - like Happiness House and places like that - to top up some basics."

The Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust's waiting list has risen more than 20 percent from pre-Covid levels.

About 715 households now on the list represent more than 5 percent of all households in the district.

To be eligible for assistance from the trust, residents must have lived in Queenstown Lakes for six months and have one member of the family working fulltime with New Zealand residency or citizenship.

That means those 700 households likely represent just the tip of the iceberg.

Kāinga Ora's plans for some new houses taking shape

Kāinga Ora has only nine homes in Queenstown and just four in Wānaka.

The Queenstown Lakes Community Trust's executive officer, Julie Scott, said there was definitely greater need for public housing.

"It's unfortunate. It's a bit of a chicken and egg thing. If there are no Kāinga Ora houses in the district then people don't bother applying to MSD to get on the public housing register and so therefore the government looks at it and says 'Hey, there's no one on the register, there's no demand'.

"We know that there's a lot more demand out there that's not on the register. We've just helped 15 households into the Toru units, into public housing there that weren't previously on the housing register. But we've helped them to get on that and then we've got a contract with the government to put them into public housing into one of our units. So there's plenty of demand out there."

Every agency had a role to play to improve affordability, but the trust would welcome a greater presence from Kāinga Ora, Scott said.

Kāinga Ora Otago-Southland regional director Tim Blake said it currently had plans for new homes.

"We are committed to providing more homes for people and in areas of need, and to achieve this in Central Otago we are working closely with key local stakeholders, including the Queenstown Lakes District Council and the Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust.

"Kāinga Ora currently has plans to deliver about 20 new homes across the Queenstown, Cromwell and Alexandra areas, but it is important to note that this figure is subject to change as work progresses and some projects may be deemed unfeasible, while new projects are simultaneously investigated and developed.

"Kāinga Ora also has a larger role to play than the supply of social housing, and work in areas like urban development is also progressing all across New Zealand, including areas of Central Otago. Specifically, Kāinga Ora has been involved in the partnership between Queenstown Lakes District Council, Ngāi Tahu and the government, which has set out to manage the growing tourism and housing pressures on the region."

*RNZ has agreed to change Andrew's name in order to protect his identity.

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