There are few places more beautiful than Rotorua. The lakes, the forests, the steam; it is a majestic, mystical place. I was born and raised in our tourism capital, like my countless tūpuna (ancestors) before me, and recently spent two years living back home.
My wife's work has now brought us back to Auckland, but Rotorua is my tūrangawaewae - my place to stand in the world - and I will defend and advocate for our special place until the day I die.
That said, I am appalled by what is happening at home. Heartbroken. Media coverage has laid bare what locals have known for a long time: Rotorua has, whether deliberately or through absolute dereliction of duty, been transformed into a dumping ground. A place where the vulnerable are treated like cash cows, lining the pockets of a select few.
I despair that I'm at the point where I'm writing this column, knowing that more negative publicity will compound the impact upon Rotorua. But the situation is dire, it must change, and the people who have created this nightmare must be held accountable.
My wife and I lived just a street away from the Government and council-sponsored ghetto that is Fenton Street. We would drive down Fenton Street most days, and see some alarming sights. The toddler wearing just a nappy and a t-shirt wandering alone down the road. The young men fighting in the street. Not to mention the numerous blazes that engulfed the so-called "transitional housing" motels.
I find the word "transitional" ironic. Transitioning to where? The people in these motels are stuck. The conditions are squalid, the social challenges are profound and danger is ever-present. Many of the rooms in these motels don't even have functioning smoke alarms. Single mums and their tamariki have been housed next to 501 deportees from Australia. It makes you wonder whether they are better or worse off than they were before they landed on Fenton Street.
The people who are undoubtedly better off are those receiving millions of taxpayer money to house and care for the vulnerable. But what do we have to show for the money being thrown around? If the system was working we'd see the number of emergency housing motels decreasing. We'd see a reduction in negative social impacts as people received the support and assistance they needed.
We are seeing quite the opposite. What key performance indicators, if any, have been put in place? When organisations and the offshore owners of Fenton Street motels are receiving millions of dollars of public funding, surely the public have a right to know what the spend is achieving. Forgive the crass expression, but in my view millions of dollars of taxpayer money are being pissed into the wind in Rotorua.
Housing Minister Megan Woods featured in the recent Sunday story, saying that Rotorua had a homelessness problem before the pandemic hit. The way she phrased it made it sound to me like the problem we had before the Government initiated Rotorua's emergency housing industry was similar to what we have now. Bollocks. Sure, the city had a small minority of rough sleepers, but nowhere near enough of them to fill 50 motels. How did a hundred or so homeless people turn into thousands? The impact of Covid upon Rotorua can only account for so much. Rotorua has become a new kind of visitor Mecca, housing visitors who may never leave.
What a boon for those 50 motels. I come from a hospitality family. My parents owned and operated motels and hotels in Rotorua for decades. I grew up in those establishments. The Government is paying extortionate nightly rates to house people in some of the most substandard, ageing, decrepit motels in the city. In my view, it would've been a blessing if some of these motels had closed due to the impact of Covid. Instead, they're probably making more money than ever before.
It seems to me that Rotorua is out of sight, out of mind for the cosy politicians in Wellington. I'd like to welcome Minister Woods and her family to stay in one of the motels on Fenton Street for a week. Perhaps the people of Rotorua should extend that invitation to all of the Government ministers. There are plenty of sights to see: natural wonders, adventure tourism, gang fights in front of the library... A week on Fenton Street would be quite the holiday to remember.
It is undoubtedly vital that Rotorua looks after its own vulnerable citizens, with the appropriate support from Government agencies. It is outrageous, however, that such a small city, already decimated by the impact of Covid, is being expected to also take on vulnerable people from other cities and towns around the country. For a start, it fractures valuable social support that people may have in their home regions. Unsurprisingly, it has created a group of displaced, broken people. It's time for other centres to look after their own people.
What is often missed in the soundbites is that the tourism industry was the biggest employer in Rotorua, and many of the Rotorua people in emergency housing landed there because they lost their tourism industry jobs. How on earth are they going to get back on their feet, and out of transitional housing, if the tourism industry doesn't recover? And when walking around town in Rotorua can be objectively dangerous, why on earth would tourists want to come back?
It is the view of many at home that the current leadership, both locally and nationally, are destroying Rotorua. Locals have been voicing their concerns to officials for years, yet things continue to get worse. It is difficult to see how the city will recover. There must be an independent review immediately, followed by swift and lasting change.