Unsafe flats: 'This is my castle'

LANE NICHOLS
METRO CHIEF REPORTER
Last updated 05:00 11/05/2012
Gordon Wilson complex
CRAIG SIMCOX/Fairfax NZ

CORRODING: Slabs of concrete could fall from the Gordon Wilson complex in an earthquake or strong wind, a report has found. The building dates from the 1950s.

Lana Woodford
CRAIG SIMCOX/Fairfax NZ
Lana Woodford: "I was crying and crying.''
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Housing New Zealand may have to put some of its most needy tenants in motels after giving them seven days to leave their flats in central Wellington.

An engineer's report received by the corporation this week showed the Gordon Wilson complex at 320 The Terrace was corroding, and that large slabs of exterior concrete could fall and crush the 131 tenants during an earthquake or strong wind.

TENANT CRIED AFTER BEING TOLD TO GO

To Lana Woodford, her Housing New Zealand apartment is more than just a state unit - it's a home.

"This is my castle, I love it here."

The 24-year-old student was reeling at news yesterday she had just seven days to vacate her home for the past three years because of safety concerns. The income-adjusted two-bedroom unit costs her $41 a week.

She has just landed a part-time job at The Mill but could now be relocated to a state rental in Cannons Creek or Naenae.

"I'm devastated. I was crying and crying. It doesn't even seem real.

"They're just moving me and I've got a cat as well. I asked if we could move back after they fix it, but there's no coming back."

Miss Woodford has worked out which of her neighbours to trust and knows "the people to avoid".

She has seen numerous fights at the flats and called the police when bottles smashed against her apartment.

"Another time I came home from work and there were armed police with dogs. There's always some kind of drama."

Neighbours told The Dominion Post the building was home to many marginalised tenants, some of whom "should be in clinical care. People in this building are struggling."

James Sutton, 43, has lived in a ground floor unit for 11 years. The invalid beneficiary says the building attracts a diverse range of tenants from public servants to refugees.

"It's a lot of people in one place. There'll always be problems. You get the out-of-prison Corrections people. There's always some trouble cases, but once they've caused trouble they're off."

He supported the forced relocation if people's safety was at risk.

Sickness beneficiary Peter Stevens, 56, said he had recently spent $320 on new curtains for his $48-a-week unit.

"I have a sneaking suspicion that they're going to skittle it, because the land's worth more than the building. I'm not all that upset."

WE NEED A MIRACLE, VULNERABLE TENANTS SAY

Most of the building's tenants are beneficiaries, pensioners and migrants whose rent is discounted according to their incomes. Many have complex physical and mental health problems.

Housing NZ began door-knocking tenants yesterday morning with news of their seven-day eviction notices. Some were shocked and worried about where they would live.

"We need a friggin' miracle," one told The Dominion Post.

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They will each undergo a needs assessment before officials try to find them new homes.

But with only 30 spare units in central Wellington, many could be forced to move to state rental properties in Porirua or Lower Hutt.

Officials are considering motels as a "backstop" and are in talks with Wellington City Council about the possibility of moving some tenants to spare council flats.

HNZ also confirmed it is seeking to buy several central Wellington apartment blocks to boost capacity and meet growing demand, but said the process was still at an early stage.

The Gordon Wilson complex is a heritage building that dates from the late 1950s, and is listed for protection on Wellington City Council's district plan. Although it is structurally sound, corporation officials say repairs to its ageing facade may prove too costly and the building may have to be demolished.

Initial problems were revealed during routine maintenance. However, an engineer's report this week identified the need for urgent remedial work to large, exterior concrete slabs.

"The building is corroding, so it's a progressive deterioration," HNZ assets development general manager Sean Bignell said.

"We have made the decision to vacate the complex as a precaution.

"We appreciate that this may be an unsettling time for our tenants but we want to reassure them that we are doing everything we can to find alternative state rental property that will meet their needs."

Some of the residents are former prison inmates and many of the Occupy Wellington protesters moved to the property after being evicted from Civic Square.

Structural problems have also been identified in a neighbouring HNZ building. Eighteen McLeans Flats tenants were evacuated in July last year after the ageing block was deemed to be an earthquake risk.

That building remains empty and may also have to be pulled down – putting further pressure on HNZ's already strained Wellington housing stock.

Wellington tenancy services manager Jackie Pivac admitted the seven-day timeframe was tight. "But it's important for the safety of tenants and managing risk that we move really quickly."

Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson will meet HNZ officials this morning to question the "drastic" notices.

He will also seek assurances that vulnerable elderly residents who relied on local doctors and caregivers will be moved to "suitable local accommodation".

Council spokesman Richard MacLean confirmed that council staff were working with HNZ to help relocate tenants.

However, with several council apartment complexes closed for refurbishment, there were few spare properties available.

"We are significantly down with regard to the number of free apartments we can offer up at short notice," he said.

Contact Lane Nichols
Metro chief reporter
Email: lane.nichols@dompost.co.nz

- The Dominion Post

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