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Four Rotorua mayoral candidates at a debate on Monday night (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund / additional design: Tina Tiller)
Four Rotorua mayoral candidates at a debate on Monday night (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund / additional design: Tina Tiller)

Local Elections 2022September 9, 2022

Rotorua mayoral hopefuls admit ‘shame’, ‘disappointment’ over homelessness crisis

Four Rotorua mayoral candidates at a debate on Monday night (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund / additional design: Tina Tiller)
Four Rotorua mayoral candidates at a debate on Monday night (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund / additional design: Tina Tiller)

Against the backdrop of increased scrutiny over emergency housing in Rotorua, four of the city’s mayoral candidates gathered to put forward their case for the top job. Stewart Sowman-Lund was there.

On Sunday night, TVNZ aired The Golden Mile: a 30-minute investigation into Rotorua’s homelessness and emergency housing crisis. More than 50 motels on or around Fenton Street, the stretch of road that welcomes visitors into Rotorua, have been transformed into emergency housing over the past few years. It’s created what one Rotorua mayoral candidate this week referred to as the “homelessness industry”, with motels that once served tourists now being propped up by tenants forced there by social services. 

The Sunday investigation prompted a swift outcry. Many Rotorua locals said they were pleased the issue was getting mainstream attention. On the ground in the city this week, everyone I encountered wanted to talk about it. I overheard the barista at a cafe I visited expressing their shock over the investigation, a “vote for Tania Tapsell” sticker visible on the food cabinet. Later in the day, a volunteer at a nearby op shop was asking customers if they’d tuned in to the show.

The ripples were also felt in Wellington. “An immediate independent inquiry must be launched for the wellbeing of our most vulnerable,” said Rawiri Waititi, co-leader of Te Pāti Māori. “The emergency housing situation in Rotorua is an absolute train wreck.” In a rare moment of unity, the National Party agreed. Its housing spokesperson Chris Bishop said the situation in Rotorua revealed “the government’s utter failure on housing after five years in office”.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said she maintained confidence in the housing minister, Megan Woods, and believed that motels were better accommodation than cars. 

But it is not merely a matter for central government. Rotorua’s mayor Steve Chadwick fronted to Sunday, revealing she wouldn’t feel safe walking down Fenton Street at night. She’s written to government about the problem and thinks progress is being made. But from next month, Chadwick will no longer be the mayor. After nine years in the post, she’s stepping down, meaning the city’s next leader will inherit the headache of the Golden Mile – what one hospitality business owner spoken to by The Spinoff described as a “dead weight dragging the city down”. 

Current Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick.(Photo: Ben Fraser LDR / Rotorua Daily Post)

The night after Sunday’s investigation aired, four mayoral candidates gathered in an Irish pub in Rotorua’s city centre to put forward their solution to the problem. Hosted by Hospitality NZ, the debate was always set to cover topics like tourism and accommodation. But with the increased scrutiny and public awareness of the emergency housing crisis, it dominated discussion.

There were five seats set aside in the bar for mayoral hopefuls. Four were filled. There was Tania Tapsell, the most polished speaker, and an incumbent councillor and former National Party candidate. Then there was Raj Kumar, also currently on the council, who said he would be happy to be called by constituents at any moment of the day or night. Dr Reynold Macpherson, a softly spoken councillor and retired researcher, was there too. And, finally, Ben Sandford, the only one of the debate’s line-up not to be a current councillor. He’s a three-time winter Olympian and lawyer. 

Fletcher Tabuteau, the ex-New Zealand First MP and part of the previous coalition government, did not turn up – which the debate’s MC, bar owner Reg Hennessey, described as “disappointing”. 

The debate itself was civil, with candidates seemingly agreeing on most things and happy to listen respectfully to one another. Perhaps this cordial atmosphere was encouraged by the fact the audience, too, was polite. There were about 50 people in attendance, listening quietly and applauding after every candidate’s answers.

In the day after TVNZ’s Sunday episode, the emergency accommodation issue took over Google News (Screengrab)

On the subject of housing, all four candidates believed it was the biggest issue facing the city. Macpherson – responsible for that quote about Rotorua’s new homelessness “industry” – said he felt shame and anger after watching Sunday. “It is displacing tourism and the possibility of recovery in the tourism industry,” he said. “The biggest asset that Rotorua has is he tangata, he tangata, he tangata. Our people have a deep understanding about how a culture grows and develops – and they know how to entertain.” 

Tapsell said that while she once believed Rotorua’s locals were the biggest asset, she now thought housing was number one. “Our people can’t thrive if they don’t have a bloody home,” she said. “I’ve become very defensive about our homes because many people who are struggling with the cost of living crisis are also struggling with the rates that keep increasing.” She pledged to “stop the spend” by bringing rates down and would curb out-of-towners being placed in emergency housing motels. Tapsell called the Sunday investigation “very disappointing”, but said as mayor she would advocate for both Rotorua residents and those forced to live in emergency housing.

Rotorua was at risk of losing its brand image, according to Sandford, and that would mean a loss of income from tourists. “We’re in an international market trying to attract people to come to New Zealand, to holiday here, to work here, to help our economy. We need to be a premier destination and a livable destination.”

A discussion of whether Rotorua should be more like Queenstown prompted a smackdown from Hennessy, the event’s MC. “Listening to some of what I’ve just listened to… some of you haven’t quite got it,” he said. “You must listen to our industry… we’re so busy out there keeping our streets safe that it makes it very difficult to do a lot of what we’d like to do.”

Hennessy later told The Spinoff he was happy to reprimand the candidates because “they deserved it”.

The amount of “red tape” impacting small businesses was also raised during the debate. Sandford said, as mayor, he would like to ensure the council was a “facilitator” for locals to run their businesses. He advocated for growing Rotorua’s “night time economy”, something that candidates generally agreed had been eroded by Covid-19 and the issues around housing. Tapsell added that the message to people should be not just buying local, but encouraging people to stay local. “We want them to stay here overnight, visit our great restaurants, and tell the rest of New Zealand that we are a great place to visit and not all the negative things they’re hearing down that one street with emergency housing.”

If Monday’s debate did anything, it proved that, without a doubt, Rotorua’s famous mile of motels will dominate the campaign ahead. And whoever wins on October 8 will inherit a crisis with no easy solution. 

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