Putting homeless New Zealanders up in motel rooms was meant to be a short-term fix by the government. But three years on, there are 3000 households in motels and it is costing more than $100 million a year.
Frustrated by how many people are being housed in motels, one council has taken action. Isaac Davison reports.
A temporary government scheme to place homeless people in motels for a week has become so entrenched that thousands of families are getting stuck in their makeshift homes for up to a year.
Initially a small initiative to address rising demand for public housing, the use of government-funded motels has rapidly grown into a $100 million-a-year problem.
Motel rooms are not only expensive - owners charge around three times the average rent - they are insecure and unsuitable accommodation for families and people with difficult backgrounds.
One region, Hastings, has become so fed up with the high numbers of people getting stuck in motels that its council is urging businesses to house their own staff so more rental properties can be freed up.
And while the current government says it is unhappy about the dependence on motels, it has been warned that the housing pressures which led to a blowout in their use are likely to get worse before they get better.
The use of motels for emergency and transitional housing began under the previous National Government in 2016. The Labour Party criticised it at the time, saying it showed how bad the housing shortage had become.
Yet the use of motels has expanded significantly under the Coalition Government. In a briefing to new Housing Minister Megan Woods released last week, Treasury said 1899 households were using private motels for emergency accommodation. Another 779 households were in government-contracted motels for transitional housing.
"The Government is not happy with having to have motels serve as transitional housing," Associate Housing Minister Kris Faafoi told the Herald.
"But it is a better emergency option than people being forced to live in more unsafe, unhealthy forms of accommodation."
The Government was undertaking the biggest public housing construction programme in 40 years, he said.
That programme will provide 6400 more public houses over four years. However, the waiting list is already higher than 12,000 and rising.
Spending on emergency housing grants jumped to $34m in the last quarter - up from $10m just a year ago. And while the grants allow people to be housed for a week, around 20 per cent of people are staying for more than three months. A handful of people have received the grants more than 50 times.
In its briefing, Treasury told the Government that motels were a "poor substitute" for public housing. It warned that house and rent prices are likely to keep rising, causing more hardship, homelessness and demand for state housing.
The use of motels as emergency shelters is a growing issue in regional centres like Hastings. At last count, there were 880 people living in motels in Hastings, including 441 children.
Hastings District Council has teamed up with iwi and the Crown to form the Hastings Housing Project, which has a primary focus of moving whānau out of motels and into more secure housing.
Council chief executive Nigel Bickle said the group decided to act after seeing how families placed in motels suffered.
"It disconnects kids from their schooling," he said. "There are plenty of examples of people in rentals who couldn't find another one and moved to motels in Napier. But their kids were in school in Hastings, and all their social structures have now gone."
"They also don't have proper cooking facilities, so it starts to drive the things you can store and eat in terms of good food."
Hastings' rental stortage was caused by high numbers of seasonal workers, and to a lesser extent, the rise of short-term rentals like Airbnb, Bickle said.
At the council's urging, the horticultural and viticulture industries are now constructing dwellings with enough room to house 1500 workers. At its peak, the region gets 5000 seasonal workers.
Auckland Action Against Poverty co-ordinator Ricardo Menendez-March said motel owners had no obligation to provide a social good. When large events like concerts or sports matches took place in a region, vulnerable tenants were often evicted to allow tourists to take their rooms.
"Emergency housing does not provide a secure place for people to live in," he said. "It's really irresponsible for the Government to be subsidising the motel industry while they profit off a housing crisis."
The motel rooms are costing the Government around $1500 a week. Information released under the Official Information Act shows motel charges have risen around 40 per cent since the government started using them for emergency shelters three years ago.
MOTELS - BY THE NUMBERS
1899 households in motels for emergency housing
779 households in motels for transitional housing
$34.4m spent on emergency housing grants in June quarter
23,574 grants given to 5103 people in June quarter