Rotorua's council has told emergency housing motels to comply with council rules or face legal action.
The council's action has been secret until now which has drawn criticism from
Rotorua MP Todd McClay and Restore Rotorua who, while happy action is being taken, fear it could be too little too late.
The Rotorua Lakes Council says their action over the motels needed to be confidential previously as they were seeking councillors' guidance over legal proceedings. It reiterated housing was a priority and comprehensive work was being done.
The council has written letters to nine motels in the past month asking them to communicate over compliance. More letters to other motels will be sent next week.
At a full council meeting on Thursday, Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick asked the council's action be made public, saying it was important the community knew what the council was doing.
A presentation that was heard in the confidential section of the council's meeting a month ago, was presented again on Thursday - this time in the open section of the meeting.
The council's action effectively means motels need to let the council know if they will continue to have emergency housing clients or will go back to hosting visitors.
If they choose to remain emergency housing providers, they need to comply with several council obligations under the Building Act, Resource Management Act and Rotorua District Plan or face court action.
In a press release issued by the council, deputy chief executive district development Jean-Paul Gaston said with changes to how Covid-19 was being managed and with international visitors expected to start returning, it was an appropriate time for operators to decide which business they wanted to be.
Gaston said the council was restricted in terms of being able to limit the number of accommodation providers that could seek consent to operate as emergency housing providers. However, cumulative impacts on the community would be assessed through the consenting process and decision-making.
Thirteen operators contracted by the Ministry for Housing and Urban Development to provide emergency accommodation with wraparound services are already going through a consenting process. The council's action does not apply to those motels.
Gaston said attempts to engage with nine other operators identified as providing emergency housing had been unsuccessful and they were now on their "final invitation".
Letters would be sent next week to the remaining tourist accommodation operators.
"Some operators may need to make changes and undertake work if they decide to continue providing emergency accommodation to comply with regulations to ensure safe and appropriate facilities."
Gaston said a staged approach was being taken to lessen impacts.
"We don't want to displace people and see them sleeping in cars and parks or CBD doorways again – that would just create new problems."
Those who refused to engage with compliance faced legal action, Gaston said.
Ministry of Social Development Bay of Plenty regional commissioner Mike Bryant said there were 350 households in non-contracted motels getting emergency housing.
Bryant said clients' welfare was their top priority.
Motels that provided non-contracted emergency accommodation were private businesses so any steps to comply with council regulations would be for them to take. However, the ministry was encouraging them to engage with the council.
"We hope to be able to work with the council to avoid a situation where enforcement action leads to our clients and their whānau having to leave their emergency housing. Should this happen, we will do our best to relocate those affected in the Rotorua area."
Restore Rotorua chairman Trevor Newbrook, whose organisation has been critical of the council in relation to emergency housing in motels, said he was pleased the council had "eventually" taken action.
"Rotorua is a mess and locals are not happy with the very slow and secretive approach ... I have no idea why this has been dealt with in secret closed meetings."
In his view, the council and the Government should be completely open and transparent with residents about how the Housing Taskforce plan was going to resolve the problem and what the timeframes were.
Rotorua MP Todd McClay said, in his opinion, there had been too much secrecy in the council's decisions around Fenton St.
"Ratepayers are pulling their hair out not knowing what it is the council is actually doing ... It all feels like too little too late and it should have been in the public domain months and months ago."
He said in his view, Rotorua had lost confidence in the council and the city was being used as a "dumping ground" for the Government's homeless problem.
"I call on the council to release all information they have had closed-door meetings on to the public and give reasons for their decisions."
In response to Newbrook and McClay's criticism, Gaston said housing was an "absolute priority" and the council was involved in comprehensive work.
In relation to claims of secrecy, he said updates on housing-related work were provided on a regular basis via news releases, news items on the council's website and through the monthly operational report that went to the operations and monitoring committee.
Why under wraps?
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick, who is the chairwoman of the full council, asked the presentation on the council's action be repeated in the open section of Thursday's meeting given the high public interest in emergency housing.
Councillor Merepeka Raukawa-Tait agreed it was of high public interest but saw no reason why it was not made public a month ago.
"To me, it means we should be looking more carefully at what we do put into our public excluded section ... If it is that important that a month later that we have had to haul it into the public session then why couldn't it have been in the public session a month ago?"
Chadwick referred the question to Gaston, who said a month ago they were seeking guidance from councillors about their legal strategy but now letters to motels had been sent and, therefore, the likelihood was greater it would be in the public arena.
Raukawa-Tait said it could have been in the public section right from the start.
In March, an Official Information Act request revealed Chadwick had written two letters in recent months to Social Development and Employment Minister Carmel Sepuloni expressing the council's frustration over emergency housing in some motels.
The letters said the community was suffering due to drug use, violent behaviour, vandalism and other anti-social behaviours near the motels and there was a perception those living in emergency accommodation were "destroying our city and its reputation".
At the time, McClay, Newbrook and resident advocate Jenny Peace who - although pleased Chadwick had been advocating strongly - said they had not heard Chadwick using such language publicly.
At the time Chadwick responded by saying she had always advocated for Rotorua, was aware of the community anxiety, doesn't fight her political issues through the media and "grandstanding gets you nowhere".
'I do hope that people are focused'
Chadwick stopped Gaston near the start of Thursday's presentation to say she hoped councillors were paying attention.
"Several people are just writing. I feel this is very important, I moved it into public ... I'm not questioning what you are writing but I do hope that people are focused."
Councillor Tania Tapsell made a point of order saying it was unusual to hear the same presentation again, although she didn't want to stop it being made in the open section of the meeting given it was so important the community heard it.
Chadwick said there was no decision to be made but it was information she felt was very important to be out in the public domain.
Councillor Reynold Macpherson also called a point of order saying he objected to being "chastised" as not paying attention when he habitually took notes in all meetings.
"I ask you to be not so overbearing, thank you."