Land wars to lease wars

Waitara's leaseholders are pushing back.

MATT RILKOFF
Last updated 05:00 21/12/2013
Waitara leaseholders
ANDY JACKSON/ Fairfax NZ

ANGRY TIMES: Protesting Waitara leaseholders brought their anger over new ground rents to New Plymouth yesterday, marching on the New Plymouth District Council to demand relief.

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Waitara's leaseholders are pushing back.

This is nothing new. Every year dozens of lease holders are shocked and angered at how much they have to pay when their 21-year leasehold section is revalued and their rents scaled up. It's always a massive increase, but this year lease holders are saying the increase is simply unaffordable and the situation has turned nasty.

Hecklers facing ground rent increases of 1000 per cent hounded New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd and his family at the Waitara Christmas Parade and then followed him to Inglewood's parade to mete out more insults.

Yesterday about 50 placard-waving protesters marched on council demanding the mayor do something to lower their rents and promising continued civil disobedience if he did not.

Mr Judd responded with all he could - an apology.

"I have nothing you want to hear," he said.

Even if he wanted to help he can't. The 769 sections are currently under offer to Te Atiawa Iwi Authority to form part of their Treaty of Waitangi settlement. Until this is accepted or rejected nothing can be done to alter the value of the properties and changing the rents is exactly what that would do.

He is not the first mayor to be confronted by and rendered powerless in the face of the legal maelstrom that are the Waitara endowment lands. However, he is the first to be confronted with ground rents that are genuinely too expensive for people to pay.

Part of the blame belongs to the global property boom from 2003 to 2007 that saw land prices soar. Because rents are set on the value of the unimproved land, its impact on leaseholders was inescapable. Leases formerly set at just $10 a week are now edging towards $80 a week, or more than $4000 a year. Some are even more. It is an increase many fear will eventually bleed the town dry.

"Lies, deceit and more lies," says pensioner Eric Williams in the lounge of the home he and his wife Gloria have lived in for 42 years.

On a fixed income of $520 a week the Williams have been hit with an 840 per cent ground rent increase. Before they paid $420 a year. They will soon be forking out $3950. This is on top of council rates of $1880.

"We were expecting it to be about the same level as our rates, as it always has been," he says.

"But every time I try to get an answer out of council on why it's so high I hit a wall and another wall and another wall. It's lies, deceit and bullshit, and if I want to go to arbitration it's going to cost me $10,000." As the latest outspoken and agitated leaseholder he is now a lightning rod for community frustrations. He says other leaseholders have told him they are thinking of suicide. Some are vowing to torch their homes if they can no longer afford to live in them.

A young family two doors down will be forced on to the street, he says.

"It's heartbreaking to see this happening to our town."

While the new ground rent will cut deeply into leaseholders' day-to-day spending it also makes them feel trapped in their own home. Leasehold properties don't sell easily and, if they do, the price owners must often accept can be a humiliating end to a lifetime of work.

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Waitara real estate agent Jeff Davison says one leasehold property will sell for every 10 freehold.

"We sold a leasehold property just last week that had been on the market for a year. But he had to drop his price back and back until they got someone to buy it," he says.

Around a quarter of all residential properties in Waitara are on leasehold land and the new rents are a contributing factor to their lack of popularity, Mr Davison says.

The impact of this is freehold property is in hot demand and short supply. So while leasehold sections plummet in value, freehold prices are increasingly unaffordable to the first-home buyers vital to the town's survival.

Te Atiawa won't say what their intentions are or when they will make them known, but there are many leaseholders hoping they will reject the lands, freeing council to finally make good on countless past promises of allowing freehold of the land.

"If that deal doesn't happen we are starting again," promises Mr Judd. "It's a new beginning."

There is even some talk the protesting, heckling and anger is to scare Te Atiawa off the leases as nothing but a recurring headache for a relatively minimal financial payback.

Waitara resident and district councillor Colin Johnston remains wary of giving leaseholders any hope their rents will come down or a freehold option will materialise. He fears such hopes may prove false.

He's seen it before.

"It's affecting everyone. Not just leaseholders. They are all talking about it. These sections are definitely holding Waitara back and everyone is trying to have a resolution which is not there until a decision comes.

"In 2003 we tried everything we could to get a decision made in favour of the leaseholders and it just didn't happen," he says.

"They are always thinking they are going to get somewhere and they don't."

WHAT ARE THE WAITARA ENDOWMENT LANDS? 

The New Plymouth District Council is the landlord for hundreds of leasehold properties in Waitara. The land includes areas illegally confiscated and appropriated by the Crown and various councils and boards for such things as schools, harbour improvements and municipal development and includes the infamous Pekapeka block.

It was the Crown's attempted purchase of this land, despite a veto from Te Atiawa chief Wiremu Kingi, that sparked off the land wars of 1860 to 1866.

Though the confiscations are now widely acknowledged as unlawful this change of thinking only came after the land in Waitara was divided into 769 residential leases, 45 commercial ones and 21 industrial. All have perpetual rights of renewal under an arrangement called Glasgow leases.

Rent Range 0-$499 411

$500-$999 95

$1000-$1999 85

$2000-$2999 98

$3000-$3999 56

$4000+ 24

Total Leases 769

Total rental $905,000

Annual administrative costs $235,000

Average Lease Values: A comparison Waitara $1177

New Plymouth $7750

Urenui $2915

Onaero Beach $3610

- Taranaki Daily News

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