By Diane McCarthy, Local Democracy Reporter
Kawerau Mayor Malcolm Campbell says it is "a travesty" that the Government has allowed landbanked houses in the district to become derelict when so many people are homeless.
The Kawerau District Council recently sent letters to local MPs, Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Andrew Little and Housing Minister Megan Woods, asking them to do something about the houses, which he says is an issue he has been battling for the past 10 years.
The Treaty Settlements Landbank provides a process for Crown-owned land that has become surplus to requirements to be held until it can become part of cultural or commercial redress in Treaty of Waitangi Settlements.
These include homes such as those formerly used by schools, police and the railway to house employees. There are around 13 properties in Kawerau that are held in the landbank. About five are currently empty sections and at least four are empty with boarded-up windows.
Despite Tūwharetoa Bay of Plenty having agreed to a settlement with the Crown back in 2005, many of the landbanked houses in Kawerau are still in Crown ownership, with Toitū Te Whenua (Land Information New Zealand) responsible for their management.
Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau has the right to purchase these properties as part of its settlement with the Crown.
Campbell said the houses had been given to out-of-town contractors to look after.
"Because they don't actually live in the town, they just put anybody in them. They don't keep them up to scratch and don't keep them tidy, then it gets to the stage that no one will live in the houses and they end up having to be boarded up.
"It was a great idea when it started. It was there for iwi to take charge of all of those houses, but the system has let them down. It's the same right across the country. In fact, I was looking at a list of houses just in the Bay of Plenty and there must be about 150 that are just lying idle, rotting into the ground."
The issue of the boarded-up houses has been raised repeatedly at meetings of the Kawerau District Council and Campbell said he had been to three prime ministers about it in the past.
"It's a stroke of a pen and it would be done. All the leaders we've had, even the one we have now, all dive for cover as soon as you mention the Office of Treaty Settlements. It might upset someone, well, tough luck. We're getting upset here, too.
"There are a lot of people around here who need housing now. There is a lot of homelessness. I see it around behind our shops, hotels holding a lot of people in their backpacking hostels, motels are filling up. It's pretty bad really," Campbell said at a meeting earlier this year at which the council asked chief executive Russell George to draft a letter to Andrew Little about the issue.
He said some of the houses had also become a problem for the neighbours having to deal with stray cats and rats at the properties.
He said one person he had spoken to who was living next to a landbanked house had been fully prepared to buy it and do it up. "Instead of that they have to live next door to a hovel."
He said anyone who wanted to take them on were in for "a lot of hard mahi".
"The ones that are there now, Tūwharetoa didn't want them, because they're in such a bad state. [The Crown] were wanting market price for them, and it's probably going to cost $100,000 to pull [the houses] down and dump them, and start again, and that's going to put the price of a section right through the roof.
"Someone should take the lead and say, 'hey, we're going to take the fall for this', and it should be the Government. The Government didn't look after them in the first place. They abandoned them.
"If they were done up, to what they were when they were handed over to these companies that were looking after them, and offered to [Tūwharetoa] again, it may be a different story. There's a lot of houses there, that, I don't care what anyone says, if they were done up and looked after properly, they would be quite liveable and come up to standard.
"Even if the Office of Treaty Settlements got of their chuffs and cleaned the sections and made them saleable, they'd go just like that. We will have people come in and put housing developments on them. You could put three or four townhouses on a lot of those sections."
Recently, he said that he thought Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau might be looking at purchasing some of the properties.
Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau chief executive Spence McCintock said he was hesitant to go into too much detail as they were still negotiating with the Crown over the derelict houses.
However, he did say the iwi had purchased some of the empty sections from the Office of Treaty Settlements Landbank and had recently confirmed an interest in the purchasing some of the derelict houses.
"But there's a long process on those with the Crown because we actually require that they demolish the ones that are uninhabitable.
"Tūwharetoa, as an iwi, are actively working on improving the housing stock in Kawerau and the list of derelict Crown houses has presented an aspect of opportunity that we're working on.
"There's nothing to have stopped the Crown from doing up these houses and making them available for people to rent," McClintock said.
Ministers Little, Woods and local MP Kiri Allan were approached for a response on Campbell's letter but none was forthcoming.