Desperate people: Christchurch’s slum dwellers

Brownlee is a landlord in Christchurch.

Brownlee is a landlord in Christchurch.

Fightback is running a series of articles on the housing crisis in Aotearoa/NZ.

This article by Byron Clark examines the housing situation in Christchurch.

Desperation is the word that best describes the situation in Christchurch for those with insecure housing. In the years following the series of earthquakes that destroyed a third of buildings in the central city, as well as many in the suburbs particularly in the east of the city, large numbers of people were displaced. At first housing-related protests were held frequently, however the core of these protests were homeowners angry with insurance companies or the Earthquake Commission (EQC) for slow speeds with repairs and rebuilds.

It was not unusual to hear a speaker at one of these rallies talk about having to move out of their home and into their investment property – what happened to their now former tenants was not mentioned. The plight of the homeless was discussed only at these rallies as a sort of add-on at the end of a list of grievances, to add weight to the ‘main issues’.

One of the last major actions of Occupy Christchurch was a rally around the theme of housing as a human right, taking place at the electorate office of Earthquake Recovery minister Gerry Brownlee, a local landlord. The Occupy movement had become a place welcome to the city’s homeless, but had been deliberately excluded from EQC related protests by organisers concerned about the public image of their events.

With the internal problems of Occupy Christchurch at that stage, and the difficulties that come with having no fixed abode, no larger movement grew out of the brief occupation of Brownlees lawn.

Many people adapted to the ‘new normal’. The population of North Canterbury swelled as people moved further away from their workplaces (plans for a commuter train were made by the regional council, but ultimately scrapped) caravans and portable buildings popped up on front lawns, students decided living with their parents another year was their best bet and young couples kept flatting rather than renting a place to themselves.

Meanwhile, workers flooded in from around the country and overseas to rebuild the city, all of them also in need of accommodation. Building consents have been granted to create villages of single-bedroom units to house these workers, such as Cressy, (named after the ship which carried labourers to build the city in the 1850s). But for the most part these villages have yet to open.

With much of the city’s social housing damaged, and recently arrived tradespeople filling boarding houses, the people who pre-quake were at the bottom of the heap – recovering addicts, recently released prisoners, people discharged from psychiatric wards without the needed level of care in the community, were still at the bottom of the heap, only now the bottom was lower than it had been before, when at least a council flat was a possibility.

Into this situation stepped opportunists like Craig Skilling. Skilling, a former car wrecker who filled the former site of his business with chemical toilets, caravans, converted buses and shipping containers, told The Press he housed people “no-one else wants”.

“I have no problems because I run it like a jail. The tenants ring the police on me. I have had the cops down here with guns to my head and everything. I’m not doing this for no c..t except me. It’s called survival.” he told the paper when it reported his “hovel” was likely to face closure. “I’m the one who is going to lose the most. I don’t care where they go. These people don’t care about me. I don’t care about them. I’m providing a service.”

In the article Skilling comes across as a horrible person, but there are hints he was not always that way, “I have to go out my door and flick a switch in my brain and turn into a totally different person.” he told the reporter. He also lives on the site himself, with his partner and three children.

Skilling is a failed businessman who became a slumlord, but in Wellington more successful businessmen – and Brownlee is not the only landlord – are privatising state housing and blocking attempts at policies like a rental warrant of fitness. Skilling’s site is being closed not because it is a slum, but primarily because regulations only permit one residence on a commercial site.

Social housing NGO’s (non-government organisations) are in line to purchase privatised housing and take advantage of income-related rents previously only available to state house tenants, and are therefore unlikely to kick up a fuss. The left-leaning city council voters elected in 2013 has talked of more social housing, but this has been delayed, in part due to a $1.2 billion funding shortfall which is seeing the council abruptly change course and embarking on a there-is-no-alternative style austerity and privatisation agenda which could see charges for water use while rates increase (and be sure those increases will be passed on to tenants).

A national hui on the state housing crisis will be held in Auckland on February the 21st.
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