A year of living dangerously

TOM FITZSIMONS
Last updated 10:24 07/06/2014
Wellington slip
Fairfax NZ
SINKING FEELING: The damage left by the Kingston slip.

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A year ago, in the early hours of June 1, the ground gave way beneath a quiet hillside street in the Wellington suburb of Kingston.

A 70-metre-long tranche of earth fell off the edge of Priscilla Cres and into the grounds of a Berhampore rest home below, taking entire backyards and hundreds of trees with it.

Woken by a roaring noise at 4.30am, residents sprinted from their homes to the street, some in their underwear, with nothing more than what they carried.

They saw gaping air where their lawns used to be, and water gushing from the face of the cliff left behind.

Luckily, no-one's house went with it, and no-one was hurt, but it was the start of a year of enormous hardship, especially for one family who found themselves, all at once, without insurance, grieving for their mother, and straining under a crippling burden of debt.

Some residents were out of their homes for a few weeks or months; others won't be going back at all.

Some have moved to Auckland. One homeowner is living in a bus with his son, wondering how they can put the disaster behind them.

Six dwellings on three properties are uninhabitable, but none has been demolished. They've been boarded up, ransacked by burglars and left where they stand, some leaning precipitously over the edge of the slip.

EQC has paid out more than $800,000 to homeowners, but no-one has fully settled up their insurance claims.

There's ongoing rancour towards Wellington City Council over the cause of the slip. Residents say the signs point to faulty pipes, but the council says independent geotechnical reports have cleared it of responsibility.

One councillor, Paul Eagle, wants to put aside council money to buy and remediate the land and put it to some useful public purpose.

Even if he can convince his colleagues to come up with the cash, it will take time - he's hoping to put it in the council's long-term plan.

In the meantime, unable to sell up or move on, residents feel utterly stuck.

Worst off are the Bartletts, whose house juts out over the slip face, like a boat cresting an ocean swell.

When the slip happened, Neil Bartlett and his family were nearing the end of another long and difficult time - 10 years of caring for wife Mary Ann, who suffered from dementia.

Amid the strain of that period, Bartlett failed to renew his house insurance. "We were dealing with 10 years of looking after my wife, and we were just shattered. So it didn't happen, and that's on us. It's on me, it's not on anyone else."

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The Bartletts owned a three-level house with a five-bedroom flat on top and a single-bedroom flat beneath them. They lived in the middle storey. Losing the house has wiped out not just their home, but the income streams that used to pay the bulk of their $575,000 mortgage.

Mary Ann Bartlett died a few weeks after the slip. Some of the Bartletts' children who were living with them have left for their own flats. Now Neil Bartlett and his 19-year-old son live together in a rented bus, moving around the city night by night.

"You can park for a night on the foreshore in Petone, and there's various parks around, where you can stay, and there's various places where people let me park for a night.

"And I commute in it, so I park it at work."

His income isn't nearly enough to cover the mortgage. He did not receive any EQC money because he was uninsured. Worse, the house is in the name of Bartlett and two of his daughters, Charissa and Miriam, so they are implicated too.

After a year of patience from their bank, the Bartletts received a bailiff's note this week ordering immediate payment of $20,000 in interest on the mortgage.

Up till then, he says, "Westpac [had] been very patient with us, and haven't been hard-line. But effectively they have the power to destroy my whole family."

Charissa returned to New Zealand in 2007 to help her family out, when her mother was sick and her brother still young. The slip was so devastating because it came just as the family was finally righting itself, she says.

"We were finally getting back on our feet, and then this happened and we're back at square one again."

Like other residents, Neil Bartlett blames the council for the slip - the cause, he says, was "leaking stormwater and sewerage pipes, which the council knew about, and [had] been an ongoing problem for quite a while".

He says the council repeatedly checked those pipes in the months and years before the slip - indicating prior problems.

He wants the council to help negotiate some sort of settlement with his bank that will let him walk away from the property. If they don't, he's considering taking them to court.

For now, he's in the bus. It has a shower, a toilet, a small gas cooker and a tiny gas fridge. As winter sets in, it's been getting cold and he has been sick for weeks. But he can't complain, he says - the experience has shown him the large numbers of Wellingtonians on the edge of homelessness, sleeping in their cars even as they go off each morning to low-paying jobs.

Bartlett, who is in his 60s, doesn't want to contemplate bankruptcy - a "devastating" thought.

For him and his son, living in the bus is a way of taking some ownership of their situation.

"We're living in a bus because we have to progress. We can't afford to spend all our income on living. We have to be able to pay mortgage of some amount, and we have to be able to move ahead."

RESIDENTS still living in Priscilla Cres and adjacent Breton Grove have their own problems. They have to live next to a row of boarded-up, abandoned houses that have attracted repeat burglaries. (In one theft, the copper piping under a house was stolen; Bartlett's house has been raided for computers, electronics and other valuables.)

They're nervous about the safety of the land, despite a geotechnical report that suggests it's now stable.

And they're especially worried that they won't be able to sell their houses for years to come - who would buy a house in a cut-and-fill subdivision, next to a yawning slip face?

"There's no way anyone would buy our house, except for a firesale," says Kyra Burkhart, whose home borders one of the written-off properties. "We can't sell. We're paying a loan on a property that's not worth owning."

Neighbour Jacqui Booth, whose property looks directly out at the slip face, agrees. "Even renting them - would you get someone to live there?"

The whole neighbourhood's suffered, she says, with people at the other end of the street struggling to sell their homes. The look of the ruined houses is grim, too.

"It's just this whole air of abandonment, really . . . [They're] all boarded up and neglected, and you know, it's just a sad state for the whole area."

Both neighbours blame the council for the slip. Booth says it goes back to a leak that bubbled up in Priscilla Cres a day before it happened.

The council says that leak was minor, but she says that's "just a brush-aside, just a shove-off".

Asofa Manase rents the house on the other side of the abandoned houses. He's got no idea when anything will happen, he says - but he hopes the council gets into some remediation work soon.

His landlord, Hugh Moseley, isn't holding his breath. "We're sort of on the cliff edge, but any inquiries we make with council or insurance companies, they'll just look at you and say 'Well, where's the damage?' They don't want to know you.

"Until these properties are cleared up, nothing can happen . . . We'll just hang on with our fingernails."

One person who is making some headway is builder William Chezick, who is hopeful of getting a settlement from his insurance company soon. After that, the two houses on his land can be demolished.

He and his partner have shifted to Auckland since the slip happened, though he still commutes to Wellington for work.

The past year has been difficult, he says. He and his partner took their tenants in for six months - "because they came out of their property in their underwear in the middle of the night, with nothing".

"We let them live with us while they were sorting out their problems. Yeah, so it hasn't been much fun."

Chezick is open to ideas of the council buying his land off him, but he doesn't think it needs to fix the whole problem.

"It's individual, private issues, isn't it? The council can't be deemed to help anyone financially; that's not what the council does."

COUNCIL city networks manager Stavros Michael agrees with that. Independent geotechnical reports by Tonkin & Taylor have confirmed that the likely cause of the slip was "slow land movement" - not failing council pipes.

If the council had been at fault, he says, "if there was any suggestion that any of the council's actions or inactions or omissions contributed to this, rest assured the insurance companies would have pursued council to offset their liabilities".

They haven't, he says. The bubbling leak in Priscilla Cres was small - "it was not burst, it was not violent, forceful escape of water, the surface of the road was not damaged". In other words, it can't have been the cause.

If the council's stormwater or sewerage pipes had been at fault, the slip would probably have begun beneath them, instead of above them, as it did. No prior council testing indicated any risks, he says.

Michael says he feels a lot of sympathy for the homeowners. If councillors vote for it, the council could get involved further down the line.

But it can't just step in and spend lots of cash because people have had a hard time, he says.

"Once you start using public money to step into private property, the question is: where do you stop? Why here and not there, and there?"

Southern ward councillor Paul Eagle thinks the residents haven't been well treated by the council. A public meeting this year went badly - "the perception is that there's stuff-all happening".

He wants the council to intervene - and says he will take a proposal to councillors for inclusion in this year's long-term plan.

The council should give the owners of the abandoned houses a nominal sum for their land, perhaps $50,000 each, and then put work into stabilising the area. Then it should ask the community what to use it for - parking, a small playground, picnic tables or some other idea.

"I think we owe it to the Kingston people. Let's help rejuvenate the community."

To those who question using ratepayers' money like that, Eagle says there's a council role in helping people who've been badly burned.

"I think people look to us for a leadership role in this . . . These people are stuck in the mud, literally. The residents have been very, very reasonable."

Acting mayor Justin Lester says the council sympathises with the residents, and will consider the proposal for the long-term plan. But he urges caution.

"The independent engineering reports are clear that this was a naturally occurring landslip that occurred entirely on private land. This could create an extremely dangerous precedent where uninsured homeowners rely on council as a last resort.

"We need to take the interests of the whole city into account while also demonstrating compassion for the residents."

The residents like Eagle's plan, though some caution that it's only an idea.

Burkhart says something has to happen - and it's too much for the residents to handle on their own. An engineer's report suggested a retaining wall on her property would cost $250,000.

"I think the residents coming together and fixing it is out of the question. No-one has that sort of money."

What happens in Kingston could have implications around the city. Wellington's hills are dotted with thousands of houses, on land with variable integrity and topography. A GNS project currently underway is looking to map the seismic risk of many of the city's slopes.

Bartlett says he always thought he was living on a solid hill. Now, after what happened to his house, he looks around Wellington and shudders.

He says Eagle's idea of some council help is encouraging, though it probably won't make a huge dent in his own situation. He could do with some encouragement after the kind of year he's had.

"It has a debilitating toll. It's a constant pressure. It's there no matter where you look . . . You go through life. You immerse yourself in work and things you have to do.

"And every now and then it surfaces and you just realise, really, how dire things are."

- The Dominion Post

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