Wellington City Council is in the dark about the future of hundreds of earthquake-prone buildings, despite the expectation the capital will experience a significant seismic event in our lifetime.
GNS considers there's a 50 per cent chance of the Alpine fault rupturing, causing a magnitude 8 earthquake within the next 50 years, there's a 30 per cent chance of a Hikurangi subduction event causing a magnitude 8 earthquake and tsunami, and there's a 5 per cent chance of the Wellington fault rupturing, causing a magnitude 7.5 earthquake.
A report to be considered by the council's Infrastructure Committee says 1800 deaths are expected and 7600 injuries in the event the Wellington fault ruptures.
A building, or part of a building, is earthquake-prone if it is likely to collapse and cause injury or death, or damage to another property, in a moderate earthquake.
There are about 590 earthquake-prone buildings in Wellington. The deadlines for strengthening these spike in 2027 when 228 notices will expire.
Wellington City councillor Iona Pannett, who has long advocated on behalf of earthquake-prone building owners, said there was not a lot of time left.
"This train is coming at us fast. Five years away for some residential building owners, the ones I'm most worried about, is probably too late for them now if they haven't started."
That's because it takes so much time to get engineering reports, build consensus within body corporates, finance the project, and physically undertake the construction work- let alone in the context of an already constrained market.
The burden has proved devastating for apartment owners especially. They're facing financial ruin trying to find hundreds of thousands of dollars for their share of strengthening buildings often deemed earthquake-prone after they bought into them.
Pannett said the earthquake-prone building legislation needed to be reviewed, more financial help made available, and for the problem to be seen as a shared one that's also part of the housing crisis.
"Politicians will be running for cover when the earthquake hits. There will be questions asked of the regime and what people have done over the years to address concerns raised by these buildings owners", she warned.
Wellington City Council acts as the regulator in this instance and undertook a survey of owners of earthquake-prone buildings between June and November this year. Only 40 per cent of them responded, presenting a "blind spot" for the council.
Council officials said this response was disappointing but not surprising given the nature of the subject and the Covid-19 lockdown.
About half of respondents said they intended to strengthen their buildings, meanwhile a fifth indicated they would opt for demolition.
Building owners are not required to inform the council of their intentions to undertake work before their deadline expires, so there's no way of knowing what the other owners are planning.
There are currently eight buildings with expired earthquake-prone building notices in the city.
It has cost the council $144,000 to take two of these cases to the District Court and the High Court in a bid to take possession of the buildings so it can carry out seismic work and bill the owners.
On top of that, the council has spent $100,000 on installing a container gantry in front of one of the buildings for public safety.
Council officials said ideally they would work alongside owners to achieve "positive urban outcomes for the city".
They said this concern was raised at a meeting with Building and Construction Minister Poto Williams in May 2021.
"However, MBIE [the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment] advises that there is currently no intention to change the current settings", the council report said.
Williams said making the most at-risk buildings safe was a complex issue.
"Overcoming the challenges faced by all parties, requires collaboration and a focus on how to help people comply with their obligations under the earthquake-prone building system.
"Officials at MBIE are in discussion with Wellington City Council, and other councils in high-risk seismic areas and as well as building owners, to understand the best ways to remove barriers to building remediation."
Council officials have recommended to the Infrastructure Committee that councillors take a "wait and see" approach to the problem where they will work with owners as much as possible to comply.
Several buildings might need to be vacated and enforcement action taken against a large number of building owners, but council officials said it was too early to say.
Infrastructure Committee chairman Sean Rush described the situation as "counting down the clock".
"Without really having any knowledge around whether the owners have the financial capacity to undertake the work needed ... we can expect there will be a run on the engineers and construction organisations needing to do this strengthening in 2027.
"Of course that will not just push prices up but also mean some people don't get the work done in time."
The report will be considered by the committee on Thursday.