Police have found squatters living in the earthquake-damaged Victoria Apartments that form a leaning landmark in central Christchurch.
The 15 squatters are among hundreds of people caught or reported squatting in damaged city homes, hotels and office blocks, including tradesmen struggling to find affordable rentals, runaway children in state care, homeless people and criminals.
They made the building their home for weeks, dragging beds from other levels to make a "doss pad".
Acting Sergeant Rob Small said squatting was a "prevalent problem" around the city as a result of the earthquakes and housing squeeze.
"Especially in the last six to nine months because we're really at the peak of emptiness . . . and only demolitions will help to offset that," he said. Squatting was a "minimal problem" before the earthquakes but "unfortunately, that's not the case anymore".
"There's a lot of disaffected people who may have been staying at the City Mission for a couple of months but it's full so they have to find somewhere else to go.
"It's worse in the evenings and in the weekends when contractors aren't in the city anymore so people slip in under the cover of darkness."
The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) has received 547 reports of suspected illegal occupation in the red zone since February 2011.
Information released under the Official Information Act showed 237 reports were confirmed as people with "good intentions", Cera chief executive Roger Sutton said.
They included an elderly woman, whose husband had recently died, who wanted to stay in her home, and a couple with nowhere else to go.
Sutton said staff were sympathetic towards people who believed they had a legal right to be on the property - such as tenants who had not had leases terminated properly - and as of November 1 only one case had ended in a trespass notice being served.
Cera received 35 reports about squatting at one property.
On November 15, police found five people sleeping in the earthquake-damaged Victoria Apartments on Armagh St and the next night more people were found.
"I would say they had been there for a good period of time because they had dragged beds down from other levels and made a big doss pad on the fifth floor.
"They would bring alcohol in, get drunk and then sleep there."
Squatters had also been found at an apartment block on Kilmore St, the iStay Hotel on Cashel, Morley House in Latimer Square and former Work and Income New Zealand offices on Colombo St, Sydenham.
"[Earthquake] officials have found people in residential houses that have been vacated in the Philipstown area and the Avon Loop north of Kilmore," he said.
However, not all squatters were homeless people with drug or alcohol addictions, he said.
"We've even found tradesmen who haven't been able to find a place to stay and rents are so high with the housing shortage . . . so they need to shelter for a few nights."
Many "runaway youths" in Child, Youth and Family foster care had been found squatting in abandoned buildings, he said.
"There's an ongoing risk with the less desirable members of our community having an inclination to set fire to things, and someone could be badly hurt or killed."
Homeless man Terry Baker died when a fire ripped through an abandoned quake-damaged flat he was sleeping in on Peterborough St in April.
Squatting was a "transitional problem" for the city, he said, and it would improve as more life returned to the CBD and vacant homes were demolished. He said police dealt with squatters on a case-by-case basis and, if people had nowhere else to go, tried to "be mindful of their situation".
"People often steal the piping or the wiring [from properties] and things like that, so it causes further damage and cost for the owners and insurers."
Fire safety investigations co-ordinator Detective Sergeant Craig Farrant said there had "undoubtedly been an increase" in red-zone fires where evidence of squatters had been found.
"The vast majority of fires [at vacant red-zoned properties] that we go to, there will be evidence of food consumption, defecation, graffiti and human habitation of some sort."
- © Fairfax NZ News