As the need for central-city housing rises, so does the need for absentee owners of Whanganui's heritage buildings to step up.
Whanganui District Council heritage adviser Scott Flutey has been trying to correspond with absentee owners of heritage buildings.
"In general I've found that offering incentive and supportive staff to talk building owners through that process has far more success," Flutey said.
"There's always this fundamental thing with councils in terms of incentives. Do you offer a carrot or a stick, so to speak."
Just before Flutey started his role in 2019, the council implemented its heritage grant fund, a contestable fund that refunds 80 per cent of the cost of restoration jobs if they are under $15,000, and up to 50 per cent of the cost if the project is over $15,000.
Projects could include a range of external restorations of original features, and must include some sort of public benefit or "community amenity value".
In 2021, the funding pool for the fund increased from $100,000 to $250,000 annually, and the scope of the funding criteria widened to include professional advice relating to seismic and fire upgrades.
"So a vast amount of CBD work that has happened in the last few years has been supported by that fund. It's quite a game-changer," Flutey said.
It was hoped this would give absentee heritage building owners incentive to invest and care for properties that may be derelict.
Flutey said it took a lot to get responses from owners, but some were being received.
Mayor Hamish McDouall estimated about 10 per cent of Whanganui's CBD buildings were derelict.
"Some notable ones are on the corner of Guyton St and Victoria Ave. Besides the occasional renters in the bottom, they generally are unused," McDouall said.
"[Some of] these owners are not contributing, nor are they utilising the buildings that we could use desperately for inner-city housing."
McDouall said an issue that arose often with overseas owners was the increasing difficulty over time to correspond with them about their building.
"Some owners you contact and you just hear nothing back."
McDouall said when absentee owners neglected earthquake strengthening needs, they were not only being derelict in their commitment to the building, but in their commitment to the community.
McDouall called it "demolition by neglect".
"At the moment, if some of those buildings topple in an earthquake, people could be killed.
"It's not good enough. Time is ticking."
However, as long as the owners paid rates there was not a lot the council could do, unless the building was classified as dangerous.
Local Government New Zealand, which represents councils, said they desperately needed more power to act.
The Health Act 1956 has powers when a building is considered to be offensive or likely to be injurious to health that allow the council to apply to court for an order for the property to be made safe.
McDouall said the Drews Ave restoration was a great example of what the community could achieve when heritage buildings were utilised and taken care of.
"We're in a place now where there's so much demand for housing that it's viable to upgrade buildings and strengthen them because of the housing that they will deliver," Flutey said.
He didn't think the problem was unique to Whanganui but, because there were so many beautiful buildings, it was easier to spot rundown and empty ones.
"As far as dilapidated buildings, I just try to reach out to all of those building owners and make sure they know what support is available for them."