Rotorua emergency housing crisis: Homeless taking up too many beds, says Airbnb owner

Tourism will die if an alternative isn’t found soon to having homeless people living in motels, says a Rotorua accommodation provider.

Kerris Browne says homeless people are taking up valuable bed space needed for visitors to make the city thrive.

The Airbnb and holiday home operator has spoken out about her concern for the city and her call for urgent action has been backed by other visitor and hospitality leaders who are begging for an “end date”.

As of June 4, there were about 400 households – single people or families – in emergency accommodation in Rotorua, according to Ministry of Social Development housing general manager Karen Hocking.

More than 40 motels in Rotorua offer emergency housing and the ministry was working with about 30 motels to be sole contracted providers under a new way of managing the system.

It had plans for 190 additional public houses by June 2024.

But Browne, who runs a bed and breakfast lodge as well as Airbnb private cabins which collectively can house 30 people, said an urgent solution was needed.

She was already booked out for the Christmas and New Year period — unheard of before Covid-19 struck.

While it might appear good news it wasn’t, because she would be booked out anyway — meaning Rotorua was filling up too early.

She said those planning to come but organising their visit closer to the time would find it hard to get accommodation so they would go somewhere else.

“I’ve just had three people wanting the same dates in September. We are booking out too early and we haven’t even allowed the rest of the world back yet.”

During Queen’s Birthday weekend, Browne felt so sorry for someone who needed to be at a Māori league tournament in Rotorua but couldn’t find accommodation, she repainted and tidied up her son’s old bedroom within hours so the man had somewhere to sleep.

“We painted ceilings and walls and it was all dry by the time they came back from dinner.”

Hocking said emergency households can be a single person or a family.

She said more than 40 motels in Rotorua offered emergency housing and the ministry was working with about 30 motels to be sole contracted providers under a new way of managing the system.

Browne said housing the homeless during the lockdown period was a great idea in the short term.

“But I thought it was just for six months … now we’re into the second year. We were built on tourism but that’s changed now and we are a homeless town. Tourism has fallen by the wayside and there’s no plan.”

Velocity Valley managing director Simon Short said Rotorua Lakes Council needed to stop allowing motels to be used in this way.

“The second we stop doing that and make a plan, the better. I’m worried there’s no end date. They need to say ‘we will change things by this date’.”

He said in his opinion the Government taskforce that worked with agencies locally didn’t find a solution.

“All they came back with was better contracts for motels. There was nothing in there about future-proofing all these rooms being taken up.”

He said he wasn’t only concerned for Rotorua’s visitors but also residents because they might start asking themselves “is Rotorua really the place I want to be because there is too much s**t in town?”.

He said Tourism New Zealand’s marketing team was recently in Rotorua revealing its domestic marketing campaign and many industry leaders put their hands up and told them it was a great idea but said: “What’s the point? We have got nowhere to put anyone.”

The council was asked to respond to the criticism and through the communications team the deputy chief executive district development, Jean-Paul Gaston, said it was positive to see large numbers of visitors coming to Rotorua but it was hearing the frustrations.

Gaston said the council wanted “assure people that [it] is actively working alongside iwi and the Government to deliver solutions that work for Rotorua”.

“We have always said we need long-term solutions to address the housing crisis and the work currently under way is a good starting point. We are not prepared to see people turned out on to the street.”

Gaston said the initial actions would help to provide suitable accommodation for those vulnerable people who needed it most, while alleviating some of the issues that had arisen from the mixed-use motels and ad hoc arrangements seen in the past year.

“The relevant government agencies are in the process of contracting local providers and we understand that work is progressing well. Council staff are engaged to ensure that any consenting processes happen as efficiently as possible.”

In response to the criticism of the government task force, Ministry of Social Development Bay of Plenty regional commissioner Mike Bryant said the ministry was grateful so many Rotorua moteliers had “chosen to open their doors to people in housing distress”.

“Ensuring there is emergency housing to meet the demand in Rotorua is a priority. As Rotorua has a housing shortage, some people are staying in motels longer.”

He said the ministry was committed to supporting clients into long-term sustainable housing and focused on supporting Kiwis back into work.

He said Kāinga Ora – Homes and Communities was working to deliver around 190 additional public houses in Rotorua by 2024 under the Public Housing Plan.

“Kāinga Ora is also intensifying its efforts in Rotorua to identify opportunities for building new housing to provide more permanent homes.”

Simon Anderson, the managing director of Realty Group Ltd, which operates Eves and Bayleys, said Rotorua thrived because it always had the facilities and accommodation space to host events and functions.

As soon as that became difficult, organisers would look elsewhere and not come back, Anderson said.

“We are seeing a total changing face of the city and that is a concern for people who have been here for a long time and locals are worried where that leads to next.”

Anderson said Rotorua had always been seen as the “poor cousin of Tauranga” but 18 months ago he was feeling that had started to change.

“I felt then Rotorua was lifting and I thought, ‘we are heading in the right path here’, forestry and tourism were looking good. But the business community of Rotorua has lost a lot of the confidence it had.”

He said he didn’t want Rotorua to be seen as the “drop-off point” for New Zealand’s homeless.

From a house price point of view, he said it could start affecting capital gains if people felt Rotorua was less desirable.

“The issue is massive and it will take a lot of work to work through it.”

Rotorua publican and Hospitality New Zealand Bay of Plenty branch president Reg Hennessy said he could tell 50 stories about people he knew who had been negatively affected by the homeless situation.

At Queen’s Birthday Weekend he had a couple come to Rotorua from Auckland without making accommodation plans. They had historically come to Rotorua and booked their accommodation on the spot.

“They realised we were all booked out, had dinner at Hennessy’s and had a few drinks at the bar and then slept in their car outside. Unbelievable. They were going to stay three nights but left the next day.”

Hennessy said Rotorua used to thrive with visitors during big weekends and the trickle-down effect benefited everyone from petrol stations to shops, supermarkets and cafes.

“If we sit back and wait, we will have no tourist town. Are these people [homeless] going to be in the motels in four years time? Under this Government there will be more of them because there is no reason to get out and have a different way of life.”

Pig and Whistle Historic Pub and Capers Epicurean owner Gregg Brown said the issue was worrying.

“I have real concerns that we don’t have enough beds during big event weekends and long weekends, which all flows through to less trade and fewer jobs for attractions, restaurants and shops.”

Brown said while the Government said it was working on the issue, the key questions were how many motels would be contracted by the ministry and where they would be located.

“Until we know the answers we don’t know the extent of the issue. Nor do we know how long the tourism sector will suffer from the lack of visitor accommodation. As employers, we need to know.”

The Rotorua Daily Post asked Destination Rotorua chief executive Andrew Wilson about the concerns expressed locally about a lack of beds for visitors.

Destination Rotorua, a Rotorua Lakes Council-controlled organisation, is the economic development agency and regional tourism organisation for the Rotorua district.

Wilson was asked if Destination Rotorua was concerned the city didn’t have enough beds for big events weekends and holiday weekends, what flow-on effect to the activities, attractions, bars, cafes, restaurants and shops this had, what the plan was to rectify it and if the industry had expressed its concerns to Destination Rotorua.

In a written response provided by a communications manager, Wilson said Rotorua had always been a popular destination during long weekends and around major events.

“As a destination we’re fortunate to be attracting large sporting events that bring people to our district and we’ve always run at peak capacity during these periods. This year is no different. It will be some time until we see the same number of international visitors that we saw pre-Covid so it’s great to see domestic visitors filling those gaps.”

He said the organisation was constantly engaged with the visitor industry to ensure their voices were heard among relevant central government agencies.

“Part of this involves making sure we have the right accommodation that matches the visitors needs so we’re working closely with Rotorua Lakes Council, central Government, Te Arawa and private investors to ensure the accommodation offerings continue to develop and meet the needs of future visitors.”

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