One year ago, Wellington’s mayor said her city had endured one of its “darkest days” after a fire broke out at the Loafers Lodge boarding house, killing five people. On that day the air in New Zealand’s capital filled with black smoke and soot, and the city later mourned the loss of some of its most vulnerable residents.

Twelve months on, not enough is being done to prevent another such tragedy, experts believe.

Official data suggest there are at least 800 boarding houses in New Zealand. Predominantly multi-storey dwellings, they often house people who would otherwise be sleeping rough.

Loafers Lodge was a four-storey, 92-room hostel, described by visitors as a “rabbit warren”. Constructed in 1971, it was exempt from having a sprinkler system. Under New Zealand law, older buildings don’t have to automatically meet current safety standards, and even new ones don’t generally have to install sprinklers if they are under 10 storeys. A 48-year-old man has been accused of arson and charged with murder, and is due to stand trial later this year.

After the disaster, the government launched an investigation into safety and compliance at boarding houses across New Zealand. The findings released in March were alarming, identifying 134 breaches of fire safety and rental quality standards at 37 boarding houses. Loafers Lodge wasn’t part of the investigation.

The breaches included fire safety systems that were often severely inadequate, rendered useless by missing parts or certified compliant despite not being so. Fire alarm systems were frequently “damaged, obstructed, or not working”. Smoke detectors were sometimes missing, and only about half of those installed “were found to be in good working condition”. In many cases the battery had been taken out or was dead, or the alarm mechanism had been removed, leaving only the case.

Half of the buildings’ fire alarms, meanwhile, were not monitored. In one instance, the wires connecting the alarm to the monitoring company had been cut, while another building had repeatedly had its monitoring discontinued because the owner failed to pay the bill.

Despite being non-compliant, many fire safety systems had been signed off by the private inspectors who act as the first line of regulation. The report also noted that local councils struggled to even determine what counted as a boarding house, owing to “a lack of consistency” in the definitions used.

Clare Aspinall, Wellington-based housing researcher at the University of Otago, said boarding houses were “a very sad, very classic example of a systematic failure of policy and practice”. Responsibility for regulating them is “scattered” across multiple agencies and enforcement often underfunded, she said.

Aspinall, whose Master’s thesis examined boarding house regulations, said some of the failures highlighted in the March report had been raised with authorities as far back as 2010 – and little action had been taken.

In 2019, the then Labour-led government contemplated introducing tougher standards specifically for boarding houses, but focused instead on wider reform of residential tenancies and rental quality, according to documents released under the Official Information Act. Although these reforms notionally applied to boarding houses, the March report found a widespread “lack of basic compliance” with the new standards.

Now, steps are being taken to address some boarding house defects. Government officials have asked local councils to ensure the 134 breaches identified in the March report are fixed. Progress will be reported this month.

The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) said in a statement that Cabinet had agreed to create a new offence for private inspectors who incorrectly certify defective boarding houses, with a maximum fine of $150,000. The minister for building and construction, Chris Penk, will review the fire safety provisions in New Zealand’s building code. Consultation on potential changes is expected later this year. MBIE is also investigating five of the boarding houses identified in the investigation for potential non-compliance with the Residential Tenancies Act.

Still, not enough is being done, many believe, and authorities are moving too slowly to protect vulnerable residents. Experts have called for a full register of boarding houses, simplified legislation that makes one public body clearly accountable for regulating them, and more resources for inspections.

Politicians have long been deterred from introducing tougher standards by the country’s lack of affordable housing, which could leave tenants homeless if their boarding house closes. But Aspinall argues that, alongside an increase in affordable housing, there must be “more responsibility and accountability” placed on landlords, especially those found to repeatedly flout the rules, and the worst ones should be “weeded out.”

But with seemingly little to guarantee the safety of the next set of boarding house tenants who find themselves at risk, the need to act more quickly appears clear.

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