Squatting in red zone encouraged

Posted 27 Jun 2012 by MediaStuff Popular
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Christchurch car sleepers should squat in abandoned red-zoned homes rather than suffer through harsh winter months, Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples says.

The minister was "shocked" when he heard of the hardships some residents were still facing and suggested those struggling should temporarily squat in homes "considered not worthy of living in" to survive through winter.

"If they are living in a car and they are cold, they should just occupy one of those houses," he told The Press.

"Now, I shouldn't be advocating that people take illegal action like that but there are still emergency situations. They are happening as we talk, and they need emergency solutions."

His comments angered Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, who said Sharples' suggestion was "completely out of order".

Sharples visited Christchurch late last month and heard the "chronic housing issues" Maori community workers were still battling with, including a blind couple who were living in a garage and a woman who had been living in her car for weeks.

"I was shocked when I heard details of the hardships some people were enduring and I was really annoyed that they are still in that position," he said.

Sharples is the first government minister to acknowledge a housing "crisis" in the city. "There is no doubt in my mind there is a crisis."

Despite unlawful squatters facing a potential maximum penalty of three months imprisonment or a $2000 fine, Sharples believed "abandoned but not dangerous" red-zoned homes could provide immediate accommodation because there "needs to be some action now".

However, his controversial suggestion has been challenged by officials and has shocked Brownlee.

"It is not appropriate for people to squat in red-zone houses and it's not appropriate for the minister to make comments like that," he said.

"His suggestion is completely out of order and was made without fully appreciating the circumstances that have led to red-zone offers."

Squatting was unlawful and the Canterbury Earthquake Temporary Accommodation Service had been set up to support displaced residents and those facing unsuitable living conditions, he said.

Since the February 2011 quake, Cetas has paid $7.82 million to more than 1300 families and assisted more than 1500 people into rental accommodation. A third temporary village was nearing completion and would add 83 houses into the rental market and repairs to 212 state houses had been accelerated.

Brownlee stood by his former stance and denied the problem had reached boiling point. "I've taken a good, hard look at it over quite a long period of time and I don't think it's a crisis. If Mr Sharples is able to say on the basis of a fleeting visit to Christchurch that he thinks there is, then you better ask him what he's got for his evidence to back it."

"Rather than advocate for people to squat in red-zone houses, he should use his Cabinet position to influence and urge the Government to look at lawful and immediate accommodation options."Labour housing spokeswoman Annette King said Sharples was "putting his emphasis in the wrong place".

Tenants Protection Association manager Helen Gatonyi said the minister must have witnessed some "distressing" evidence and made a "response from the heart".

"But he is encouraging people to seek unlawful means of occupation and I don't support that."

However, City Missioner Michael Gorman had "great sympathy" for Sharples' suggestion.

"Is it better to freeze in a car or live dangerously? The legality of the issue doesn't concern me hugely but the safety does," he said.

"We have never lived through times like this before. We have to be flexible."

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