Red-zoners in dire straits - families

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 07/04/2012
Lorraine Waters
JOSEPH JOHNSON/Fairfax NZ

IN A QUANDARY: Kaiapoi residents Lorraine Waters, left, and Kath and Reg Taylor talk about their red-zone plight.

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When 75-year-old Lorraine Waters told the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) she could not afford a new home with its red-zone offer, she was advised to take out a new mortgage.

Waters and husband Albert, 84, are retired and live in Bowler St near the Kaiapoi River. They stretch their pensions by growing vegetables in the backyard and catching whitebait.

"We can't service a mortgage," Lorraine Waters said.

Their home still sits sturdy and level, their garden is immaculate and seemingly unscathed after the thousands of quakes that have hit Canterbury.

Despite the lack of damage – $6000 by the Earthquake Commission's reckoning – the Government has decided the couple's property is not fit for habitation.

Cera has given them until June 10 to accept an offer to buy their property for $265,000 and until next April to leave.

Waters does not want to accept the offer, which she says is far less than the property's real value and falls well short of the price of another home.

To leave is to surrender their home of 19 years to an uncertain future bunking with family, frittering away their payout on rent or ending up in a retirement home.

"Why would we move out when we've got a perfectly good house? To stay here, we wouldn't be a burden to anyone," she said.

Nearly 3000 people in the residential red zone, the land deemed too badly compromised by the quakes to realistically save, have sold to the Government and moved out.

The Government says this is proof of the offer's generosity, but some residents who have accepted the offer did so grudgingly. Scores, if not hundreds, of people have opted to stay.

The Waters' neighbours, retirees Reg and Kath Taylor, are among them. They feel the Government is trying to frighten them out their homes.

"They have been at us and at us since the start," Reg Taylor said. "They never put it in writing, but there is that hidden threat all the time."

He did not want to leave because his property was undamaged and the Government's offer was "pathetic".

"We can't do anything but stay. They don't give us enough money to move."

People in the red zone have nine months to take one of the Government's buyout options. They then have until April next year to settle and leave.

For the first red-zone residents who received their offers last August, the deadline for acceptance is next month.

If they do not accept, the offer will close and they will be left on land the Government believes should be wiped clean.

Cera chief executive Roger Sutton said no decision had been made on the fate of the stayers, but conceded some people would almost certainly remain.

"Whether it's five, 50 or 20 people, we will need to have some sort of process," he said.

The Stayers Group in Brooklands said about 50 households in the semi-rural suburb would reject the red-zone offers and remain on their land. It is lobbying the Government to rethink the red zone.

Stephen Bourke stands at his kitchen table with a group of fellow stayers, explaining the concept of a new zone where people could accept the Government's offer or choose to stay.

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Bourke hopes to reach a compromise, citing ongoing meetings between Cera and the Brooklands community.

"We really want them to get involved in this," he said.

But if a compromise is not forthcoming, Bourke will stay.

He is unhappy with the red-zone offer and doubts Cera will follow through on vague threats to stop services.

Bourke said the services that went through Brookland also supported the nearby settlement of Kainga, making it unlikely that they would simply be switched off.

Insurance cover is also not much use for someone whose property is severely damaged.

As for the possibility of being forced off his land, Bourke said it was probably just a scare tactic.

"They are just trying to bluff everyone."

Cera had clear legal power to force people off their land, he said.

However, the threat of lost insurance is not an idle one.

Insurers who spoke to The Press said it was "extremely unlikely" policies would be renewed for red-zone residents after April 2013, although cover excluding quakes was possible.

Loss of service seems less clear-cut, with the Christchurch City and the Waimakariri District councils reluctant to commit to cutting off water, power and sewerage to inhabited homes.

People who elect to stay do not lose their insurance for existing damage to their homes or land.

The Earthquake Commission says it will treat people who stay in the red zone "like any other customer".

In Brooklands, there is talk about how they could live off the grid, using solar power and septic tanks.

In Kaiapoi, there is talk of the "third way" – refusing to engage in the Government's buyout scheme.

What Lorraine Waters will do on June 10 is a mystery even to her.

None of the obvious options seems tolerable.

In 1963, the couple were forced to sell their property to the Government to make way for the northern motorway. They reluctantly consented to sell, but this time the decision is harder.

"We didn't want to go but we did because we felt fairly treated. I don't feel we have been fairly treated this time," she said.

What could happen to those who stay?

The only option being discussed is for the Government to forcibly acquire people's property, with minimal compensation.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority has told hold-out red-zone residents it has this power, but chief executive Roger Sutton says no decision has been made to use it.

"That's in the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act, but we haven't said that's what we are going to use," he said.

What are the other options?

"The most obvious one is that. I honestly haven't thought about what else we would do," Sutton said.

Putting the Government's response aside, Sutton said, remaining in the red zone would not be wise.

It would mean slowly losing water, sewerage and power, having insurance withdrawn and possibly the mortgage.

"I'm not sure we will ever get to a point where we are going to cut off services, but we will get to a point where we might decide to stop spending money on services, which will have the same outcome anyway," he said.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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