Ngaronoa and Priscilla Hepi say they intend to stay on the land in Onerahi. Photo / Michael Cunningham
A couple controversially occupying a piece of council land in Whangārei have a message for nearby residents concerned at them living there: “Come to talk to us, we are decent people who just want to
Ngaronoa and Priscilla Hepi have been living on the Whangārei District Council-owned land at the end of Pah Rd in Onerahi for about three months after being thrown out of the emergency housing they were staying in at Tikipunga.
Their stay has upset some locals in the community whereas others have supported and helped the couple, who have said they have nowhere else to go.
Priscilla Hepi said she whakapapas back to the land and they intend to run a mud brick-making workshop there shortly. Other plans in the pipeline are to build a community house on the site and work with at-risk youth.
The Whangārei District Council has confirmed it has no plans to evict the couple and is working with them and other agencies to find a solution. The land has no ablutions or other services.
The council’s unwillingness to move the Hepis has irked some residents. One local, who did not want to be named, said the inaction meant it was now open season for squatters.
“I pay my rates and it’s galling to see people living on council land for free while I have to pay a mortgage.
“Does this now mean that if I want to, I can squat on council land with no consequences? There’s some nice spots along the Town Basin that would suit me. Or maybe I can just pitch a tent in Cafler Park and use the council toilets in Forum North when I need to.”
However, the Hepis did not want to upset anybody. They asked concerned residents to talk to them so as to better understand their situation.
“You will learn lots about us so don’t just judge this book by its cover – come and have a kōrero and we can learn all about each other,” Priscilla Hepi said.
Ngaronoa Hepi, who had recently undergone stomach cancer surgery, said the couple are among the victims of Northland’s terrible housing shortage and are struggling to find accommodation, like so many others.
“We’ve had a lot of support [from people in the neighbourhood]. They even offered to give us shelter during Cyclone Gabrielle but we stayed here and survived the storm. It was a cool experience really.”
He said the land they were occupying was part of the original pā that Pah Rd is named after. He contended that it should be returned to Māori.
“There really should be a marae here.”
Priscilla Hepi said she was tied to the land through her ancestor, Tipene Hare. She felt it was her right to be able to live on the land and wanted to make a positive contribution to the area.
Her husband is Ngātiwai and also had a right to be there, she said.
Whangārei Mayor Vince Cocurullo said this is one of those difficult situations arising out of hard times in the community.
“It is part of a bigger picture of long-term and expanding poverty with a myriad of causes that can only be addressed through sizeable and co-ordinated action by multiple government agencies and allied organisations,” Cocurullo said.
“As a council, we willingly do what we can within the boundaries of our powers.”
Cocurullo said council staff had visited Pah Road.
“The people who are staying there are not freedom campers, which New Zealand has laws and council has bylaws to control. They may be sleeping rough, or in tents or living in their vehicles.
“They do have to comply with other laws and bylaws, like noise levels, sanitation, dog laws, and if driving on roads, general traffic laws. We will be monitoring and addressing the matters we have a mandate for, alcohol in public places, dogs, noise levels.”
Cocurullo said the work the council has responsibility for in the social housing space is long-term.
‘’We have allocated $4 million to increase our pensioner housing stock, potentially in partnership with other agencies, and are working through the best model to achieve that. Our housing strategy clarifies the role we play in enabling developers, private and public, to build.
“That includes ensuring that enough land is correctly zoned for housing and that the infrastructure needed to open up these areas is available.”
Cocurullo said these were long-term fixes, but “in the meantime, we need to stay within our mandate (bylaws etc), be understanding and do what we can to address the situation for the homeless, and for the residents already living in the area. It is a very delicate situation, there will be no quick answers and sensitivity is required on all sides”.