Police are today investigating a sudden death at an infamous Auckland boarding house and former convent. The death reportedly comes just days before the Grey Lynn house was due to close its doors. In March last year Steve Braunias wandered through the grim living conditions of the Auckland landmark which had a going price of over $5 million. This story was originally published on 11 March 2017.
She was really going for it, screaming long and loud, all the most vile words of abuse at the top of her voice, in broad daylight on Great North Rd in Grey Lynn.
"You've got an evil mouth," muttered Rentyn Turner, the man who she was chasing, at first along the front corridor of a striking old stucco building, then up the stairs, and then down the stairs as he retreated onto the pavement, where she continued to curse and screech in full earshot of children on the playground next door at St Joseph's Catholic primary school.
Turner is the owner of 454 Great North Rd. It's a former convent, built in 1922, with splendid arches in the Spanish Mission style; there are quite lyrical descriptions of the place in the literature of JLL real estate, which listed the property in March last year. It's worth millions.
Turner bought it in 1996, and rents out about 20 rooms to bums and beggars, addicts and the mentally ill, also some functioning tenants who have made it their base and don't especially want to move, because where else would they go?
Auckland City Mission CEO Chris Farrelly said, "It would be the most unsafe place I could think of. You'd be a lot safer just sitting under a bridge."
"It's a place," said Ilana James, team leader of homeless outreach at the City Mission, "of last resort."
Rentyn Turner declined to comment for this story. This week he was served with notices from Auckland Council advising he is in breach of numerous serious health and safety regulations.
"We have issued powerful notices to this individual [Turner] that if they fail to rectify, will see further sanctions," said Grant Barnes, general manager of licensing and compliance services at council.
Turner has a month to fumigate, clean, and repair. If council take further action, and prosecute, the maximum penalty is a fine of up to $200,000.
"A team of environmental health officers investigated, and found a number of matters of concern," Barnes said. "I'll list them now. The first one goes to rat infestation, or evidence thereof, fecal matter, and rats themselves scurrying around the inside of the property."
They saw a rat while they were there?
"A rat was sighted, yes," he said. "The kitchen was described as extremely dirty with an accumulation of dirt on the floor and walls...There's cracked and peeling ceiling paint in the kitchen and bathrooms. Mould growing on the ceilings....The toilets and bathrooms are in general state of disrepair, with bathroom fixtures rotted in places.
"Moving to the outside, you see an accumulation of food waste in the back yard, alongside miscellaneous junk, paint cans and general refuse.
"There was a noticeably unpleasant odour throughout the premises, which is probably not surprising given my description of rat infestation."
Barnes' relentlessly bureaucratic way of speaking presented a basic picture of the state of the boarding house but to see it with your own eyes invites another kind of language.
It was disgusting, it was foul, it was Third World. It stank of rat and alcohol, the kitchen was covered with flies, there were smashed windows and splintered doors - one tenant attacked another tenant the other day, and a meat cleaver was produced.
"In endeavouring to defend himself," reported Para, 68, one of the residents, "he chopped off three of his fingers." Strangely, both men were called Vaughan.
And then there was the time the school next door had to be locked down while a body was brought out of the boarding house. According to tenants, a man died in one of the toilets.
"A slum in the heart of the city," said Mike Lee at Auckland Council, who ordered the investigation.
Chris Farrelly from the City Mission: "It's appalling, disgusting. Absolutely disgusting. Ghastly. Just the utter filth." The sale of the place would have "implications", he said, "because when it's sold, we suspect a large number of residents will end up in another form of homelessness without shelter.
"Having said that, it is not a satisfactory place. It is sub-standard. We regard people there as being homeless. It's an environment which is not appropriate for people to live in...We all see people on the streets but that's only 10 per cent of homelessness. The other 90 per cent are in these kind of things, which are not fit for human beings."
Labour deputy leader Jacinda Ardern is familiar with the place from her tenure as the party's Auckland candidate. Her office has scheduled a meeting with school trustees, council, and police to discuss what to do about it.
Along with party leader Andrew Little, she recently met with Regina Smuger, principal of St Joseph's. Smuger said, "I have been advised not to comment."
It didn't matter too much, because Arden kind of spoke for her: "They've had reports of several people in an altered state entering the school grounds. Loud rows. Rubbish and refuse left around.
"A range of things ... We took copies of her incident book, because she keeps a log of when they've had to contact police, and we went to council and raised these ongoing issues and suggested they might want to fulfill their role as environmental inspector."
If the boarding house posed a risk to the school, she said, it was also dangerous for the residents. "In my view no one should be inhabiting a place that doesn't have basic standards, and you don't even have to walk in it to see that it has issues."
Has she ever walked in it?
"I haven't walked in it but I have met people who've lived in it. I did think about going in the other day, but I was an uninvited guest so I didn't know how it would go down."
She added that she stood at the front of the property with Andrew Little, and they both wondered about going in. Strange to think of the politicians umming and ahhing out the front of that house of horror.
One of the tenants has valiantly tried to beautify the front by planting marigolds. The rotting, decapitated banana plant at the front was decorated with silver tinsel at Christmas. Around the side, there were quite pretty watercolour landscapes, and seedlings in a tray.
"There's rats f*****g in the cupboards! You can hear them!" This was Becca, the 38-year-old woman screaming at Rentyn Turner. She wore a short denim skirt, and a white sleeveless top. The pupils of her eyes were very large. "Do something about it! Arsehole!"
She was a former tenant, and had gone around to dispute unpaid rent. Her fridge and other possessions had been dumped outside the property. She claimed, "People sh*t on the floor of the shower. There's dirty needles lying around. Rats this big!"
The boarding house was dark and creepy by day, with smashed lockers and smashed doors and tagging and ingrained dirt; a cat sauntered by with a mouse in its mouth. What was it like at night? "Bro," Becca said. "Really scary. I know people who won't walk through at night."
And then she caught sight of Turner again, and once more started screaming at the poor devil. Turner was following around a local plumber, Steve Topping, who he'd called in to fix a leaking tap. It had soaked the carpet of a tenant living underneath. "I don't like coming here," said the plumber.
Nick Hargreaves from JLL real estate is the lead agent for 454 Great North Rd, and his sales pitch was exciting.
He said, "We've got a property here that's been the talk of the town. Everybody's had a look at it. I've had the most diverse range of buyers, I mean it's just been extraordinary! I had people over Xmas wanting to set up a Buddhist temple."
The Unitary Plan makes it ripe for high-intensity residential development. He said, "If we match the right developer with this, it'll do everything the Unitary Plan is encouraging developers to do."
Prospective buyers have included residential developers, and a group looking to set up a boutique hotel. A 2014 capital value listed it as $2.25 million. Hargreaves: "That CV is way off. We've had offers from the high fours to mid fives."
The building doesn't have Heritage New Zealand protection, and it was removed from the council's category B heritage listing after Turner made the submission to the unitary plan independent hearings panel last year. (His submission included the aggrieved remark, "I get continued complaints from various school trustees about my tenants.")
The panel noted, "Mr Turner has been endeavouring to sell the building for some years without success ... Removal of the building will allow more efficient use of the land."
Yes, said Nick Hargreaves of JLL, bowling the building is one option. "This building - it's got history, but it's not as if it was built in 1870 by some architect who we all loved."
Maintaining the facade, or part of the facade, is another possibility. "Everyone's looked at every angle ... This is the complete blank canvas of every person in the market who likes a development opportunity."
But it's not very pleasant inside, is it?
"A property can't be perfect for the whole of its life. It's getting to the stage where it needs redevelopment."
It was revealed to Hargreaves that the council had inspected the premises, and found it seriously wanting. Also, a rat was sighted.
"That's news to me. How would you know about that? How would I know about that?"
It was explained that a call had been made to Auckland Council.
"But - okay - well, that's interesting. You say somebody saw a rat? But I have rats on my property because we're near a river sort of thing.
"And - you know - they're all short-term lets there, and when you're leasing to lost of short-term lets, you can't stand over people if they've left their sandwiches on the path and a rat comes by."
To be fair to Hargreaves, his gabblings were from a man who had been blindsided by the revelations of the council inspection. But he'd had the place on his books since March last year. Was the foul state of it an impediment?
"Of course not," he said. "That's - there's no - I don't even think like that. I work in an industry where people are working to improve things. If anything you would argue that this attracts a lot of attention because it's ideal for improving. So if anything its quite the opposite. We sell buildings that want upgrading all the time. That's the point of being a developer."
When was the last time he went inside it?
What did he think of what he saw?
"I was with a group of architects and everyone was pretty impressed with the views of the Waitakeres," he said.
After the tenancy dispute with Rentyn Turner had been played out in public at full blast, a gloomy silence settled back on the boarding house.
One tenant has become a terrible hoarder: their door was open, and unable to be closed, because of the pile of old clothes and rubbish bags that spread out of the room. Upstairs, a 70-year-old woman was gazing blankly at the view of the Waitakeres, and smoking by the window of a bare room. It had a table in it, with a paperback novel by Desmond Bagley propped under one of the legs. "This is the lounge," she said.
It was empty except for the table. She said, "We used to have a TV, but it broke."
"Maybe five years ago."
The whole place was a pit, it was shocking and bleak, a hovel with awesome views. "It's dire," Ilana James from the City Mission. "It's a dire, dire place."
What was it failing to provide?
"Safety. Security. Cleanliness. Dignity ... But the thing is, you might have burned your bridges everywhere in town with every other boarding house. You might have addiction issues you can't sort out right now. Sometimes it's the only option. Some people are so fearful of living on the street, and St Joseph's [the boarding house] is their next option.
"It comes down to, 'What are your choices?' It's an appalling choice. Don't get me wrong. It's an absolutely appalling choice. But it's getting tougher and tougher for people to get even into that kind of accommodation."
Its one of the last central city boarding houses left in Auckland. The Oceanic in Anzac Avenue is still around, but the ancient dive above 35 Albert St has closed down. Like Ilana James, Labour's housing spokesman Phil Twyford also raised the issue of choice, as in zero choice. He said, "It's not okay to let the most vulnerable people in our society languish in what are essentially Victorian slums. But there's an element of Hobson's choice in this.
"Housing is in meltdown in Auckland for so many people, and when places like these are sold, where are the residents gonna go? There's nothing out there. A caravan park in the outer suburbs? They will end up in the street, they will be Chris Farrelly's clients."
That's exactly right, said Farrelly. "It is highly likely just about everyone will be back on the streets of Auckland. Simple as that. They will be turfed out. They'll be the streeties, they'll be here at the Mission."
Jacinda Ardern said, "Unless he [Turner] is willing to give that place an entire re-do, and house people safely and properly, I don't think he deserves the right to be a landlord there."
Later, she remarked, "I don't know what that gentleman is charging in rent." Residents said they were paying between $200 and $240.
Ardern: "Unbelievable. That just makes me extra mad." She said a date hadn't been set to discuss the place with council and police. Was she going to invite Rentyn Turner?
There was a long pause. Finally, she said, "You know what? He's charging a significant amount of money to provide very poor housing. He knows the school has had issues with it and he's done very little to remedy it. So if he wants to demonstrate that he wants to act in good faith, then he will either sell the building or renovate it himself. Ultimately I don't think it should be a boarding house anymore. It's not fit for humans to live in."
Four toilets upstairs, one toilet downstairs. One gas stove, no dishes or cutlery or salt or tea or cleaning products or anything at all in the kitchen, other than a sink, and shelves which had rotted and collapsed beneath it.
A heavily tagged sign in the hallway advises: NO VISITORS AFTER 7PM. But the front door doesn't lock, and people come and go at any time. The sign adds: MANAGEMENT RESERVES THE RIGHT TO EVICT ANY BOARDER AT ANY TIME SHOULD RULES BE BREACHED.
Out the back, there were the mangled remains of a clothesline, and a tap. "I came out and saw a rat drinking from it once," said Para, a resident who enjoys discussions about metaphysics and the Koran. "It looked up at me, and I looked at it, and I thought, 'Good on you, mate.' Because it was taking real pleasure in something."
He said his weekly rent was $200. He agreed the place was a slum. He said: "This whole place is a cesspool of abuse." He meant drug and alcohol abuse. "You would be amazed at how much alcohol and P and dope is consumed in this place. There's an average of six people at any one time here who are on P. Alcoholism? Ninety per cent. I gave all that away five years ago. Over 40 years on the piss, and I decided to quit. Five years on, and not a drop."
He was dressed in running shorts and a singlet, and carried a bag of wheat. He feeds the ducks in Western Springs most days. His family were from Samoa. He was very eloquent, very calm; he was philosophical about his living conditions.
He said, "I'm thankful to have a roof over my head. I'm thankful to Rentyn [Turner] for providing the room. Living here - well, I don't live here; I exist. Existing here - that's my karma. No one is to blame."
Ben, a bearded 46-year-old Maori man, rented an upstairs room. It used to be the chapel.
Nick Hargreaves from JLL, in a property story in the Herald last year: "The building has fine stairways and incorporates a chapel which has a simple arch to define the altar with a coved ceiling."
The description reads like satire or science-fiction, something far-fetched and grotesque, when Ben shows you his room. He was ashamed of it. The room was a mess, and the single bed, unmade, didn't have any sheets. Ben said thieves had broken in and stolen the sheets, as well as his dirty laundry. "How low down can you get," he said.
Above the door frame was a message to visitors in black marker pen: F**K OFF. It didn't appear to work, because Ben said his room had been broken into four times, possibly something to do with the fact that the lock was broken and hadn't been fixed.
"I have depression," Ben said. He allowed he also might have drug and alcohol dependency issues. He'd lived at the boarding house for eight years. What would happen him if and when it was sold? "I'm f****d, mate," he said. "I'll be even more depressed. I've got absolutely nowhere else to go."
We looked in at his room. It smelled. It was dark; you couldn't make out the coved ceiling.
Once, a place of worship, where the virgins of Christ bowed their heads and recited the pieties; now, a couch was propped up on its side in the middle of the room. It looked like a barricade, or something from a shipwreck. "I got it up like that," Ben explained, "because otherwise, if it's just on its legs, the mice and the rats like to live underneath it. This way, they can't."