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Rental shortage in Westport despite vacant properties, locals say

Westport, file image. Photo: Buller District Council

Westport locals are describing a dire shortage of rental properties in their town, despite dozens of vacant houses and more than 100 rooms listed on Airbnb.

Some renters are spending weeks bunking in emergency housing while they wait for a property to become available.

Jess Laulau said she was lured to the seaside settlement last year by the promise of cheaper, more plentiful rental properties than her hometown of Nelson.

That idea was rapidly debunked when she needed to find a new place to rent before lockdown and discovered there was next to nothing available.

"On TradeMe there were three listings or something, and you'd see something ridiculous like 157 people had it saved on their watchlist," she said.

"It was really scary. We got so close to the point where we were thinking about going back to Nelson to live at my mother's house, in her bedroom. It was very, very stressful."

Remax Elite real estate agent Zoe Godfrey-Payne also discovered, first hand, what it was like to find a rental in Westport in February.

She said even some of the 4600 locals who know the town inside and out were becoming extremely stressed when they tried to find new rental properties.

"There are a lot of tenants looking for properties. They're having to do emergency accommodation because they've got nowhere else to go, and emergency accommodation is quite short as well. I know of a couple of tenants who are living wherever they can, whether it's on the street or on the doorstep of a friend ... it's not that great right now."

Godfrey-Payne said over the past year, she'd observed an influx of out-of towners, many of retirement age, looking to buy properties on the West Coast.

She said some landlords had been all too keen to sell, claiming they were unhappy about upgrading their properties to meet new government standards like the insulation of rental properties, and the proposed banning no-cause tenancy termination's.

Other rentals which aren't yet for sale or up to code are forced to stand empty, or have been converted their properties into Airbnbs.

On a 10 minute drive around the centre of the town, Laulau said it would be difficult not to notice the empty houses with overgrown lawns.

Rents going up

Because there were fewer rental properties that remained on the market, Godfrey-Payne said landlords were able to push up the price of rent.

"To give you an idea: for the end of 2019 - and it's still current - a property that's worth $200,000 to purchase you'll get at least $300 in rent per week, even without a garage, for a three beddy, one bathroom. So [renters] are just getting whatever they can if they can afford it," she said.

Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine hoped Westport's rental market would be on the mend soon, with economic stimulation from provincial growth fund projects getting the district back into "economic growth mode".

He said the council had identified housing as a potential hurdle to Buller's growth and it was looking at ways to get more rentals on the market.

But he said he was hopeful some Airbnbs would be turned back into long-term rentals when lockdown restrictions eased, due to less demand from tourists.

There were also signs, in the weeks prior to lockdown, that the problem was resolving itself.

"There seems to be quite a lot of building activity that's just come to light, in terms of applications for building consents for new houses," he said.

"From our point of view it looks like the market may be starting to move."

*See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

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