In recent weeks, the issues surrounding the increase in crime and safety in central Wellington has reached a crescendo. Unfortunately, both those on the left and right of the political system have missed the point here.
The racist attack by Marama Davidson, co-leader of the Green Party, against National MP Nicola Willis over central Wellington, was the usual left-wing tactic of attacking the person rather than the issue. Nicola Willis, on the right, wrongly mixed the message of linking gangs and social housing together. They are two separate issues.
As I highlighted in my previous article “Kainga Ora (Housing New Zealand)”, social housing and housing gangs are two distinct and separate issues. From my experience in dealing with Kainga Ora, they refuse to acknowledge that housing gangs is problematic, wrong and totally separate to caring for the needs of the disadvantaged who may have mental health issues, addiction problems, or simply be families desperately needing housing.
Central Wellington has a crime and safety problem. However, neither the government, nor Wellington City Council are prepared to address this issue. Deputy prime minister, Grant Robertson, recently stated in the media that he did not feel threatened in Courtenay Place. In contrast, Wellington mayor Andy Foster was quoted in The Dominion Post (26 March, 2021), as saying, “But clearly an increasing issue post-lockdown is an apparent increase in gang activity and from the emergency housing of a substantial number of people, often with issues, where it appears that they do not have the necessary support. This is something we are already engaging with government on”. City councillor, Tamatha Paul, simply focussed on men being the problem in Courtenay Place. Clearly there is a greater problem than making some glib sexist comment. It is no wonder that the council has an issue with finding a unified process in solving this complex problem.
Both men and woman now feel unsafe in central Wellington at night and during the day. Local hospitality venues including bar, cafe and restaurant owners are now complaining that the situation is the worst they have experienced in over twenty years. An initiation by bar owners to seek a code of conduct for patrons is a good start, however this will not actually solve the underlying problems. Residents from Oriental Bay feel unsafe going to Courtenay Place for dinner. A rubbish collector, who has had a contract to collect rubbish in the area for eighteen years, now feels unsafe going down alleyways to collect rubbish at 2am because of the gang presence. My own friends are weary of dining out in Courtenay Place because they are scared they might get mugged, such was the experience of the young man who was badly beaten at night outside the opera house while going to get a McDonalds burger.
The epicentre of the trouble is Te Aro park, a small area linking the Courtenay Place quarter and the Cuba Street quarter. “It’s usual to see lots of rough sleepers and patched gang guys yelling at each other at 9am on a weekday. A Wellington City Council report on the park published in 2020 found that it was a locus of intimidation, violence, defecation in the area, graffiti, fear of harassment or physical harm, exposure to aggressive behaviour, loud music, drug dealing, sexual violence, and other forms of anti-social and dangerous behaviour’” (the Spinoff).
Why does this have relevance to Kainga Ora and MSD?
Kainga Ora and MSD are responsible for placing individuals into emergency housing. Both government departments are to blame. Social housing is a crucial function of housing the disadvantaged. However, as outlined below, housing both gangs and the vulnerable in the inner city is not appropriate. Housing gangs should not be a priority of the government, nor is housing them in an entertainment and business district that relies on the safe passage of people, feeling free and able to socialise safely.
This was clearly demonstrated in my suburban street when Kainga Ora and MSD failed to make the distinction between protecting the safety of my fellow neighbours, or those genuinely requiring social housing, by placing a Nomad gang in my street. By nature, gangs do not respect the normal social values that run and protect society. They are happy to take advantage of the system, by collecting the unemployment benefit (where they can, as I witnessed), presumably obtain subsidised housing and deal in criminal activity at the same time (including drug dealing, which I witnessed). Their scope also includes intimidation and stand over tactics. The Courtenay Place district, for example, is a perfect breeding ground for such activity.
To get Kainga Ora and MSD to understand this is difficult when Kainga Ora speaks in vague and nebulous language such as “thresholds and natural justice and the actual standard itself”. These are meaningless statements which I have never got an answer to, and nor will anyone else. Regrettably, Kainga Ora and MSD will continually and blindly house gangs, regardless of the disruption they cause. Unfortunately, this view also applies to social housing. As the Spinoff highlights, the inner city is not designed for long term emergency housing of families in motels and backpackers, many of whom “have histories of trauma, or acute physical and mental issues, or histories of violent offending, or some combination of the above”. The bar of disruption to the community is one that can never be met, because Kainga Ora does not know where that threshold of anti-social behaviour is, which should be of grave concern to all of society.
Finally, I have spoken to Wellington City councillors. There is significant disunity between the right and left of this much divided and dysfunctional council to reach a consensus on how to resolve this problem. As such, they will have problems reaching a resolution with Kainga Ora and MSD. If this current situation continues to persist, patrons of both the Courtenay Place and Cuba Street areas will begin to drift away. Businesses will suffer and potentially be forced to permanently close their doors. These areas could decline and become the desolate place that they once were. This is not the Wellington that I personally want to see.