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Rotorua Mayor wants action after fatal lodge fire

Rotorua Mayor Tania Tapsell is calling for action following fatal Wellington fire. Photo / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post

Rotorua's mayor wants urgent action to ensure long-term accommodation buildings are safe after the Loafers Lodge fire in Wellington last month which claimed five lives.

It was revealed on Tuesday that Wellington City Council had only conducted on-site inspections at Loafers Lodge twice in the past decade, despite advice it would be more appropriate for such checks to happen annually.

The most recent check in 2018 found several problems, including items being installed in an escape route that could combust in an emergency or block the fire exit. Fire and smoke doors designed to prevent fire from spreading were also wedged open.

Rotorua Mayor Tania Tapsell told Local Democracy Reporting the fire at Loafers Lodge highlighted the need for greater government oversight.

A series of fires in accommodation buildings in Rotorua showed it was not an isolated issue, Tapsell said.

There had been seven fires at emergency housing or temporary accommodation providers in recent years - including Rotorua's Four Canoes Hotel where high-needs homeless had been housed.

A fire broke out at the hotel in a room on 19 December, 2021. A subsequent report highlighted there could be serious injury or death in a fire, Tapsell said, and a dangerous building notice was issued.

Tapsell believed the city had been "extremely lucky" no one had died or been seriously injured in one of those fires and the government had a duty of care to ensure the wellbeing of people staying in such accommodation.

"We have been very firm in our stance with government agencies that it is not acceptable for people to be living in facilities that are not appropriate or safe for long-term accommodation."

Tapsell said the council had a responsibility to both visitors and residents to ensure premises were safe, complied with the Building Act and had adequate fire plans in place.

She said Rotorua's Housing Accord focused on the care, wellbeing, and management of emergency housing, and the next step was to look at accommodation providers where people had taken up ''inappropriate long-term tenancies".

"The Loafers Lodge fire is under investigation, but we know from local experience that fire safety is a huge risk when people are living in environments that are not fit for purpose."

Tapsell said, in her view, accommodation provided through government funding had "not always been suitable and safe".

Some accommodation providers were being used for ''illegal tenancies and these are often horrendously overpriced and not a safe environment", she said.

"I'm calling for more oversight and accountability to ensure that at a minimum these facilities are safe, because, from a council perspective, they are still only consented to be a short-term tourism accommodation, so don't meet the adequate requirements for living, such as fire."

The scene at Loafers Lodge, three days after the fire. Photo / Local Democracy Reporting / George Heard

The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) has previously told Local Democracy Reporting that if someone was interested in a boarding house or hostel, staff generally encouraged them to view the premises before entering an arrangement to satisfy themselves it was suitable.

"The final decision remains with the person."

In response to that, Tapsell said she found it hard to understand why the ministry was "distancing themselves so far from the people they are funding to be in accommodation".

Loafers Lodge housed more than 90 residents and included MSD clients, hospital workers, unemployed people, some battling drug and alcohol addiction, several 501s deported from Australia, and nine people who were serving community sentences and under the supervision of Corrections.

The lodge was not being used as emergency housing - although it had been in the past - but was transformed into a lodge offering cheap accommodation in 2006. Its website describes it as suitable for both short- and long-term visitors.

Wellington City Council did not respond to a request for comment but Mayor Tory Whanau said the tragedy at Loafers Lodge was a wake-up call for work to be done to prevent further loss of life in a similar event.

"When five people lose their lives to fire in lodgings in central Wellington, it makes me ask how that can be. I'm sure plenty of others want that question answered too."

She said it "spurred" her to instruct council officers to review similar accommodations to find issues and "improve the situation".

"I also call on the government to review and update legislation so buildings are made safer in the event of fire and other emergencies."

The council had since found 25 buildings across the capital with similar safety concerns to the hostel. The lodge was not required to be retrofitted with fire sprinklers under the Building Code and was issued a building warrant of fitness in March.

MSD housing group general manager Karen Hocking said building fire safety was critical for everyone in rental accommodation, whether they were ministry clients or not.

"That is why there is a well-established framework of regulation and requirements providing for fire safety in buildings, including for rental accommodation."

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) was responsible for building regulations nationally, while local authorities were responsible for checking compliance and certifying buildings.

"We acknowledge the essential work of Rotorua Lakes Council to ensure building warrant of fitness compliance in Rotorua."

Hocking said MSD did not have a legal role in maintaining building regulatory compliance and referred Local Democracy Reporting to MBIE or the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (MHUD) regarding whether regulatory change was needed to address issues highlighted by the Loafers Lodge fire.

She noted Tapsell's concerns about illegal tenancies and encouraged anyone aware of them to report to Tenancy Services, or to Rotorua Lakes Council if there was an alleged breach of council bylaws.

An MHUD spokesman said it remained focused on working with other partners on reducing the use of emergency housing in Rotorua to as close to zero as possible - and as soon as possible - and ensuring appropriate emergency housing options were available.

He said the housing accord's objective was to increase the supply of houses by building a pipeline of public and affordable housing, including planning and infrastructure requirements, that would meet Rotorua's demand.

"The Crown and [the] council are actively supporting those Te Arawa Iwi, hapū and lands trusts and incorporations that wish to participate in housing supply to do so."

Housing Minister Megan Woods was approached for comment.

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