Sunday’s powerhouse story on the emergency housing disaster in Rotorua’s motels should be a marker of things to come, says Duncan Greive.
The man sits in high-vis, on a single bed, and sums up what we’ve just witnessed. “There’s all this drama out here,” he says, looking slightly embarrassed. “It’s hard to stay out of it, especially when you’re right beside it.” He’s one of more than a dozen tenants of Rotorua motels featured in Sunday’s bombshell package over the weekend, that rare piece of journalism so powerful it bends the entire news agenda to address it.
Spread over three segments and running to more than 30 minutes, Kristin Hall’s work is more like a short documentary than a typical current affairs package. It examines what happens when one of the most important parts of our tourism infrastructure – the motels on and around Rotorua’s Fenton St – are requisitioned to become emergency housing.
The story was hardly the first to drill into this highly complex situation, but thanks to its location on the last remaining primetime current affairs show on mainstream TV – one which regularly hauls in around 500,000 viewers – its power fused with the audience scale to create a storm impossible for those involved to ignore.
It started with archive footage of the city in the 50s and 60s, when many of those iconic Miami-style motels were constructed, while Daphne Walker’s Haere Mai (Everything is Ka Pai) plays breezily atop. It foregrounded the growth of Rotorua as a tourism icon trading off natural and geothermal wonders and its packaging of Māori culture.
This runs headlong into a sequence of social media sourced scenes of brawling in the street and a car mounting the footpath, a witness describing a “crazy bitch… trying to run this dude over”. A map reveals the 50 motels housing 500 households in a densely packed area, while news footage shows four fires in less than a year. It is the story in miniature – what happens when the government takes over your city’s tourist accommodation and uses it to solve homelessness?
The fiscal scale involved is staggering, with around $1m a day spent on motels, and tiny units costing $1,000 per week or more. The story is so densely packed that one of its most powerful moments is essentially an aside: a motel owner explaining that guests pay $150 a night, or $209 if it’s the ministry of social development footing the bill, “because [its tenants] use more electricity”. Hall inspects the rooms and finds black mould, cigarette burns in the pillow, a rusted out microwave and a doorframe shattered due to someone trying to gain entry. The reviews on booking.com are, unsurprisingly, irate.
Watching Sunday on demand, another dimension of the story was made bleakly clear. An ad from Tourism NZ, the government agency tasked with getting people to visit our country, played out. It was set in Rotorua, and showed children walking in the forest. The voiceover intoned that “something unexpected lurks too”, but “you can’t really see it from down here.” The irony was almost too intense to bear.
The main thrust of the story, though, is Tiny Deane. He’s the CEO of Vision, a charity which is also the biggest provider of transitional housing in the area through its motels. He’s usually a very accessible figure, and a supercut shows him greeted warmly on Breakfast and The Project. Sunday reveals him as also heading up a private security company which is contracted to all Vision’s motels, and seems completely out of control. There are allegations of Black Power members working, of guards having sexual relations with vulnerable tenants. Of a pregnant woman in labour being tossed from her sister’s unit to go through the early stages of childbirth in her car, only to lose the baby two weeks later.
Deane’s tenants, visibly fearful, tell Hall a series of heartrending stories, inside and outside of housing which the government pays huge sums for, but is manifestly unfit for human habitation. We see women with their tamariki choosing to live in tents rather than stay in Vision’s units, with footage of gazebos torn apart in wind and rain. Sarita talks about the ready availability of P in the motel she first moved into on Fenton St, “there’s a shop down there you can go to,” she says. “Room 5”. She moved to a Visions-run motel to get away from the drug, but encountered a new problem – security guards frisked her on the way in and took her key when she left the premise, conducting invasive inspections of her rooms.
Deane, usually so happy to chat, wants no part of a conversation with Hall when she tracks him down after a month of refusing interviews. He orders her off the property, and locks the door. This is the biggest provider of transitional housing in the city, completely unwilling to engage with a journalist asking questions on behalf of his tenants. Later, when Hall puts questions about this to housing minister Megan Woods she is largely dismissive of the allegations.
It was incredibly harrowing viewing, a masterfully-produced package which captured the grim reality of life for tenants, the aloof indifference of a supposed community hero and the desperation of those watching it happen to their city. It has also catapulted the situation into a sustained position on the news agenda.
Te Pāti Māori’s Rawiri Waititi called the situation a “trainwreck” on RNZ’s Checkpoint the following day, calling for an independent inquiry into what has occurred there, a rare issue on which he and National are in complete agreement.
It showed the enduring power of TV current affairs to impact the world. Because while Sunday is far from the only show producing work of this nature – Q + A, The Hui, Te Ao and Stuff Circuit regularly do too – it’s the last one remaining with an audience at this scale. It also benefits from having the 6pm news and Country Calendar, by far the most popular shows on linear TV, as lead-in. As we set out to merge TVNZ and RNZ into a new fit-for-digital-purpose public media entity, it seems mandatory that figuring out how to make a product like Sunday hit as hard online must be top of mind.
Over the past couple of years, Kristin Hall has quietly become one of Aotearoa’s most impactful journalists. Along with Michael Morrah, she used the 6pm news to expose multiple failures of the MIQ system in ways which manifestly improved it. Earlier this year she did courageous reporting in the teeth of the occupation of Parliament. Now, newly recruited to TVNZ’s flagship current affairs show Sunday, she has produced an unimaginably powerful half hour of television, showing what happened to Rotorua’s ‘golden mile’ of motels when they were converted to become emergency housing.
It’s a wildly complex issue, as Minister Woods is right to point out. Yet it also seems impossible that it carry on the way it is, despite there being no clear plan to amend the situation in the foreseeable future. Should that change – and after viewing this, it surely must – mark that down to Sunday, and the still awesome power of the right story put in front of the right audience.
Correction: this story has been updated to reflect that Serita’s experience with a P dealer in her motel was prior to moving into a Visions-run premise, and that Visions is a transitional housing provider, rather than a community housing provider. Apologies.