Ministry calls accusations emergency housing tenants behind Christchurch crime spike unfair

A house up for rent.
A house up for rent. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Adam Burns of RNZ

Businesses and community leaders in Christchurch are concerned around an alleged increase in crime in western parts of the city.

Some believe the government's emergency housing initiatives are responsible for the apparent spike.

But the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) and an experienced welfare advocate are denying claims there is a clear link to those in emergency accommodation.

Cafe and garden centre Terra Viva has been open in the western suburb of Burnside for more than 25 years.

The business suffered its first break-in at its Roydvale Ave store only 18 months ago. This was followed by a string of alleged burglaries and car break-ins in the area over the past year.

There is at least one confirmed motel on the street which has been converted into short-term emergency housing through MSD's emergency housing special needs grant.

Terra Viva group manager Sarah Dillon said the rise in suspicious behaviour has left its employees feeling uneasy.

"It's gotten a lot worse," she said. "I've clocked all of our incidents, or odd things, that have happened last year and you can see the trend that basically kicked off around March."

Dillon spoke of an "alarming" incident towards the end of last year when she and her team were having an early evening staff meeting.

It is alleged a man was spotted casing the front door of the garden centre before committing a burglary at a workplace next door.

Dillon suspected the recent conversion of motels on Roydvale Ave into government emergency housing units could be a factor.

"Since when they've been established, we've seen the impact," she said.

"I'm not saying everyone [in housing units] are an issue, but that's what's changed in our immediate vicinity."

The community is set to discuss the issues alongside police at a crime prevention meeting on Tuesday evening.

City councillor for the Waimairi ward, Sam MacDonald, said it was frustrating emergency housing tenants lacked support for tenants to "get back on their feet".

"It's not necessarily the people living in emergency housing, but it's the people associated with them, who by nature, and by industry, prey on vulnerable people," he said.

"It's not great at all, but my view is there has been a couple of incidents lately which could be contributed to by a lot more people living in the area, but without the support of government.

"If people are down on their luck, then government need to wrap some support around them."

Accusations unfair, housing provider spokesperson says

Collective for the Homeless coordinator Brena Lowe-Johnson, who has helped hundreds into transitional housing, said it was unfair to pinpoint emergency housing tenants without any clear evidence.

"We haven't had hardly any problems with anyone in our emergency accommodation," she said.

"We go around and see [the tenants] and if the motel owners have any problems, they ring us. We haven't even been rung yet."

Tens of millions of dollars has reportedly been granted to motels for emergency housing contracts in Christchurch over the past few years. More than $5.7 million was granted under MSD's emergency housing special needs grant in the city for the quarter ending September 2022.

The ministry said emergency accommodation is not always an ideal solution, but it was preferable to people "sleeping rough or in cars".

Emergency housing initiatives have come under fire in other parts of the country, including Rotorua, in recent times for significantly driving up police callouts and crime.

But the ministry said this was not the case in western parts of Christchurch.

MSD's Canterbury regional commissioner for social development, Diane McDermott, said no concerns have been raised for these areas.

"Police's leadership have not raised with us any broader concerns about emergency housing tenants and crime."

Emergency housing units in the Canterbury region fell in December, from 345 to 291.

"Nationally, the number of households in emergency housing has been falling since January 2022," McDermott said.

"Every household in emergency housing has a case manager, who checks in regularly with them and where needed connects them to relevant support services."

Police said there has been no reported increase in burglary, theft from vehicles or stolen vehicles in Burnside, and other western suburbs, over the last 18 months.

"Generally speaking, instances of these crime types are significantly lower here than in many other parts of the city," a spokesperson said.

"However we understand that any instances of crime are traumatic for victims and can be worrying for the wider community."

A 13.72 percent increase in reported crime in the Canterbury region was recorded for the year ending December 2022.