Remarkable exploitation: backpackers & housing crises

The Remarkables mountain range encircles Queenstown with snow-capped peaks and pine-covered mountainsides. At the base of the mountains lies Lake Wakatipu. Its deep, blue waters are cold year round as a result of its glacial origins; it is 75.2 kilometres in length. These features work together to create one of Earth’s most magnificent tourist attractions. Each year, during the busy summer and winter months, visitors flock to the New Zealand resort town. They come to experience its beauty, chase its many thrills and enjoy its ski slopes. It is no wonder Queenstown is considered the number one tourist destination in Australasia.

But if you look deeper than the beauty’s surface, you will see the looming housing crisis beneath.

Queenstown’s economy and population have been exploding for years. Houses outside of the centre are being built quickly in an attempt to meet the demands of this growing population. Even with this construction boom, real estate prices have skyrocketed over the past few years. The roughly 35,000-person town is on pace to be the most expensive place to live in the entire country – if it’s not already. That’s even more expensive than Auckland, New Zealand’s global metropolis, or Wellington, the nation’s capital.

As the expansion continues, the rest of the town plays catchup. Street lights are hastily put in, which further congests traffic on Queenstown’s narrow streets. Worse yet is what is happening to the hospitality workers and backpackers. They come for the view and experience and stay for the community. However, it’s becoming dangerously close to becoming too costly for these residents, who provide the backbone of the labour for the town. Many of them already sleep in closet-sized rooms packed full with other people. Some live in uninsulated garages, take refuge in tents near the hiking trails and even live out of their vans.

I should know. In 2015 I was one of these backpackers.

My flat was an ideal walk from town centre, though it wasn’t ideal that I shared a nine-bedroom flat with many more than nine people. I paid $135 per week for my bunk. In addition to the bedrooms, there were two common areas and four bathrooms. From 7 am until 3 pm, the two common areas were full of people cooking, eating, smoking, arguing, or partying. At any given time, as many as thirty-six people could be living there. The landlord’s wife would even rent out the living room couches but later complain about the mess. Dirty dishes would pile up; hot water often ran out.

Even so, I loved living in Queenstown. My time there was a chance to be free of other life constraints. But I wasn’t trying to establish roots there as many of Queenstown’s newer residents are; nor was I aware of how my rent payment contributed to the progressive rise in the cost of housing.

My landlord – a Kiwi who lived with his family in an adjoining flat next door – was a very friendly man. My housemates and I spoke to him often. During one of our conversations he told me something alarming: ‘if you want to get rich in Queenstown, the way to do it is to open a backpacker.’ He was referring to a hostel but his own rental property applied. His tenants were almost exclusively long-term backpackers. I realised at that moment that, whether he knew it or not, he was taking advantage of us.

This has become more evident by that fact in less than two years, he has raised rents by $40 per week. That averages out to about $758 a month for a bunk bed in a room with three other people. Why? Because he can. In reality that’s a competitive rate for a house near the Queenstown Centre and next year he will probably charge more.

During the busy winter and summer seasons, landlords aren’t afraid of losing dissatisfied tenants. They know that it won’t take long to replace them with new ones, at a time when so many are desperate for housing. In fact, it is the lack of available housing that often results in people resorting to living in hostels or sleeping in their cars.

Take Declan ‘Diesel’ Malone, a 28-year-old Irish builder who has lived in Queenstown for four years. When he transitioned out of one flat, he couldn’t find another place to stay, so he ended up living in his van for five months, even though it was winter. This situation resulted in him having to bathe in the freezing lake a few times and he often woke up with ice on the inside of his windows.

He has a house now, but he and his roommates are paying a combined $840 per week for a three bedroom flat (it also comes with an overbearing landlord).

‘It’s grand close to town but the landlord just comes in and walks around without giving us notice,’ said Diesel. ‘He makes us jump through hoops because he knows he can fill the house again without a bother.’

Indeed, most Queenstown residents are struggling to find affordable housing. The local newspaper reported that the number of people looking for housing assistance doubled in 2016.

There has been a push from many locals to create affordable housing. But these programs have struggled to get off of the ground, with a $30 million project failing earlier this year.

A big part of the problem is that building houses in Queenstown is expensive. Available land is limited, which makes bids for it highly competitive. The land can also be difficult to build on since much of it is rocky or uneven, increasing labour costs and building materials.

Recently, the New Zealand government decided to step in. The Labour Party is pledging to build 1,000 affordable housing units over the next ten years. Also, the Special Housing Minister, Amy Adams, announced plans to fast-track the construction of 450 units by utilising the soon-to-be-abandoned Wakatipu High School. Yet, Adams acknowledges that it will take years before the housing is built — even if it is fast-tracked.

It will be a difficult challenge for many of the backpackers and hospitality workers to wait much longer for affordable housing. By the time such accommodatioon is built, crowded flats could cost over $200 a week. Given the increasing number of workers needed to support the growing economy, there may be even more people without a place to live at all. This could crowd the streets with more workers sleeping in their vans or covering hiking trails with backpackers sleeping in tents – not an image usually associated with the number one destination in all of Australasia.


 Image: Remarkable Mountain panorama / Mark Sze

Andrew Mentock

Andrew Mentock is a freelance writer and journalist. He tweets at @AndrewMentock.

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