Emergency housing crisis: Letters reveal Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwicks pleas over homeless issues

Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick has hit back at criticism she hasn’t been publicly vocal enough about Rotorua’s homeless plight, saying “grandstanding gets you nowhere”.

Letters signed by Chadwick and iwi leader Monty Morrison to a Government minister, revealed under the Official Information Act, show the local council’s frustration over some emergency housing in motels.

In the letters, Chadwick and Morrison asked Social Development and Employment Minister Carmel Sepuloni to address the non-government-contracted motels and give assurances they weren’t purposely sending homeless to Rotorua.

They also said the community was suffering due to drug use, violent behaviour, vandalism and other anti-social behaviours near the motels and there was a perception those living in emergency accommodation were “destroying our city and its reputation”.

The strongly-worded emails have prompted criticism from three city leaders – Rotorua MP Todd McClay, and residents’ advocates Trevor Newbrook and Jenny Peace – who, although pleased to know Chadwick has been advocating strongly, say they had not heard Chadwick using such language publicly.

The Rotorua Daily Post notes she has previously told the media about her general concern for the safety of city residents who live near emergency housing motels, not allowing Rotorua to be a “dumping ground” for problems from out of town and concern for children living in motels.

Chadwick told the Rotorua Daily Post this week she has always advocated for Rotorua, was aware of the community anxiety, doesn’t fight her political issues through the media and “grandstanding gets you nowhere”.

Chadwick and Morrison wrote to Sepuloni on November 24 and again on February 15 expressing strong concern.

The letters spoke about the “anxiety, hurt and anger” the wider community was feeling towards those in emergency housing.

The first letter said the feeling was Rotorua’s generosity was being taken advantage of and there was a perception Rotorua was an “emergency accommodation destination”.

The letter said while the Ministry of Social Development continued to give assurances people were not being sent to Rotorua, people were standing up in public meetings saying they had come from places such as Gisborne and Opotiki with bus tickets and vouchers provided by the ministry.

Chadwick and Morrison expressed concern the ministry was allowing accommodation vouchers for anyone to come to Rotorua and stay at non-contracted motels that didn’t have wrap-around services, saying they feared the current system enabled “a tsunami of at best anti-social behaviour in our community”.

“Our community is suffering due to drug use, violent behaviour, vandalism and other anti-social behaviours that they are seeing on a daily basis, in the proximity of the motels providing emergency housing. The perception is that those living in emergency accommodation are destroying our city and its reputation,” the letter said.

They also asked for assurances people were not being sent to Rotorua and to give consideration to other communities.

Sepuloni did not respond to the letter, prompting another strongly-worded letter on February 15 that said a lack of response was “disappointing” and impacted on their ability to provide leadership.

This letter, from Chadwick, said the problem had escalated in the past four months and police had confirmed almost exclusively they were being called to non-government-contracted motels.

The letter said the public’s feelings had escalated to a point where the community had
lost tolerance towards all of those living in emergency housing and the council had lost support and empathy. It said the council had been forced to invest in security, cleaning and maintenance and it wasn’t sustainable.

Sepuloni’s response said the issue was “complex” and noted the ministry would extend wrap-around services to those in non-contracted motels. She mentioned the Government was not able to take responsibility for people’s behaviour but also mentioned it was reviewing the emergency housing system.

McClay said, in his opinion, Chadwick had publicly “always been so far away from those statements” expressed in the letters.

“It is pleasing the council has finally woken up to the problem but it is a shame they didn’t do so when local residents were asking them to enforce the District Plan when the Government was filling up our motels.”

He called on the council to impose a “sinking lid policy” that meant no more homeless come from outside Rotorua by forcing motels to be motels – in accordance with the District Plan.

Newbrook, whose organisation Restore Rotorua has fought Government resource consent applications to allow motels to be used for more permanent emergency housing, questioned Chadwick’s strong feelings in the letter.

“Why has Steve Chadwick never spoken to the people of Rotorua about these concerns?”

He said two months before her November letter, she was reported in the Rotorua Daily Post saying she was concerned locals were saying they didn’t want social housing in their backyards.

Those comments were in reaction to concerns over resource consent being granted for government-managed social housing at two existing motels in the Glenholme area.

When asked to comment at the time, Chadwick said: “What I’m concerned and disappointed about is the growing call from residents to not allow certain types or perceived types of people in their neighbourhoods. We all accept there is a need for housing, including social housing, and we can’t keep saying ‘but not in my back yard’, especially without understanding what these types of developments can actually look like and how they would be managed.”

Peace, who organised a petition for the council to be transparent with Government resource consent applications to make motels more permanent emergency housing facilities, said, in her opinion, the mayor’s comments in her letters were “hypocritical”.

Peace said there had been months of denial from the council and the ministry about out-of-town homeless coming to Rotorua and criticism from Chadwick of residents who didn’t want more permanent social housing in their neighbourhoods.

The criticisms from McClay, Newbrook and Peace were put to the mayor for response.

The Rotorua Daily Post also asked Chadwick if her close ties with Labour had affected her ability to publicly criticise the Government.

In response, Chadwick said her role as mayor was to be Rotorua’s number one advocate and to work with whoever was in Government to get what was needed.

“I don’t fight my political issues with Government through the media. Relationships with Government need to be managed and that’s very important regardless of which party you are dealing with. I’m working to get real change – grandstanding gets us nowhere.”

She said her views had not changed and she was unhappy people were being placed in random motels with no management contracts in place.

“Unmanaged placements must stop, Rotorua cannot be the solution for homelessness elsewhere and we must have more housing quickly.”

She said she would continue to advocate strongly for Rotorua, including with visiting MPs, ministers and those wanting to talk to her personally.

“I’ve always been very aware of residents’ anxiety and concerns about homelessness and safety – these are raised with me frequently. I’ve met with people who have asked to meet with me and have responded to those who put their positions respectfully, and I’ll continue to do so.

“We have a huge problem that requires significant tools that only Government has to alter policy settings and enable solutions we need.”

In response to McClay’s criticism, she said she had offered him an opportunity to bring forward ideas after his public meeting last year but she was still waiting.

She said it was naive to think the council could put a cap on who could come to Rotorua.

Chadwick did not respond directly to the criticisms from Newbrook and Peace.

Morrison told the Rotorua Daily Post he had worked closely with Chadwick and the council and knew the council had always been concerned.

He said he had family who lived next to emergency housing motels and he had personally witnessed the “atrocious” behaviour.

He said he hadn’t talked publicly about his concern only because he had strong relationships with the Government and was able to have those conversations directly.

Ministry of Social Development Bay of Plenty Regional Commissioner Mike Bryant was asked to respond to Chadwick and Morrison’s concerns in their letters and renewed calls for a “sinking lid” approach.

He said the ministry didn’t proactively move clients around New Zealand or relocate them to Rotorua.

“Our clients make their own choices about where they want to live.”

He said the vast majority of those in emergency housing were local.

“On the occasions when we have provided emergency accommodation to families that have relocated from outside the district by their own choosing, this was because they needed to be closer to whānau and support networks here, or they were escaping family violence.”

He said it was the ministry’s priority to ensure people weren’t homeless.

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