By Veronica Harrod (Horowhenua Ratepayers and Residents Association)
A major new Horowhenua group representing Maori and Pakeha has presented a petition to District Mayor Michael Feyen seeking his help in fighting the sale of more than 100 pensioner housing units.
Over 2300 local people signed the petition in just 10 days. A veil of secrecy surrounding the apparent sale has incensed many Horowhenua residents who are appalled at the prospect of a public housing asset being sold off.
As well as 115 units spread throughout the district, the pensioner housing portfolio includes a total 0f 1.1 (one point one ) hectares of land in Levin — and the portfolio is estimated to be worth at least $26 million.
The petition has been organised by a group called the Horowhenua United Group (HUG). HUG includes Horowhenua District Ratepayers and
Residents Assoc Inc, the MuaUpoko Co-operative Society, Labour Party and NZ First.
HUG says Councillor Jo Mason who chairs council’s wellbeing committee, and was the only councillor on a public-excluded council panel evaluating pensioner housing proposals, was invited to accept the petition too. But her only response to HUG was a text that said, “Got your message-will call when I am free.” She never did call back.
And HUG spokesperson Andrea Smythe says further action may include legal action to argue in favour of setting up a Trust, instead of selling. This is one of the options which 70 people who attended a community organised public meeting recently voted in favour of.
Details leaking ‘like a sieve’
Details of the sale of the pensioner housing are said to have been ‘leaking like a sieve’ ever since land developer and councillor Wayne Bishop emerged from a publicly excluded council meeting on the sale last Tuesday to announce the pensioner housing asset had been sold.
Since then questions and speculation have been running rife, including a suggestion that a community housing provider will lease the land and the land has been sold separately. But the most damaging claim of all is that certain unnamed council officers and councillors have set up a company to buy the land.
Ms Smythe, “We have a right to know whether this is true and if it is true is it even legal? Can council officers and councillors set up a company arrangement to benefit financially and personally from the sale of a significant publicly owned asset?
“Can the title to an asset we have been told by chief executive David Clapperton all along will be bought by a stage one community housing provider be split up like this? If this is all true we are feeling greatly deceived by our own council especially if it eventuates that some council officers and councillors will be financially benefiting by millions of dollars from the sale. “
Ms Smythe also says: ” (This is) especially when shareholders are very angry about the proposed sale and furthermore have been denied access to the details of the sale agreement partly by the very same council officers and councillors who are said to be involved in setting up a business structure to buy the land the pensioner housing is built on.
Also, if this is all true [and it’s bad enough if it is] does this therefore questionable sale still fall within the mandate of being considered a community housing provider in a legal and statutory sense if the community provider leases the land and doesn’t own it?
Community housing providers are eligible for tax and Government financial benefits but will the landowners, if they are a separate entity, also be eligible for Government discounts? Or will the new landowners charge leases based on indirectly financially benefiting from Government tax and other financial incentives provided by the Government to the community housing provider?
“All this does is raise further concerns about what kind of deal has been done and whether it is true the land will be leased to a community housing provider already publicly named as the Sisters of Compassion.,” Ms Smythe says.
We have grave concerns whether this sale agreement conforms with expected practice in the provision of community housing services.
“What would happen if the leases go up and then these increases are passed on to the tenants? How would that be fulfilling the community housing contract?
“And if it is true the Sisters of Compassion will be leasing the land to provide the community housing services how long will the terms of the lease be?
“Is this a thinly disguised attempt to landbank a valuable housing portfolio so the landowners can make a profit at a later date?
“Who is the person or company who are buying a significant amount of land locally if the land is being sold as a separate entity?
“Do the new owners include council representatives?
“Perhaps the plan is to land-bank the asset until further down the legislative track when land developers may be able to register as community housing providers to secure financial benefits through tax and other Government incentives.
“There are far more questions than answers though surrounding this significant ratepayer and resident asset that houses our most vulnerable elderly residents which makes this sale untenable. And we want answers to these serious concerns,” she says.
“If attempts at stopping the sale fails, HUG would also like to know what plans council has for the money from the sale of the pensioner housing portfolio. I am sure the ratepayers and residents would like to know whether there is any profits from the sale and what will happen with the profits. Will the money be set aside in a separate account?” says Ms Smythe.
Standard and Poor’s assessment of the Council
One of the criticisms leveled at council by internationally recognised financial organisation Standard and Poor’s in a recent credit rating report was the council did not have enough ‘cash assets’ so HUG wants to know what will happen with cash assets from this sale, according to Ms Smythe.
“Will the cash assets from the fire sale of this valuable asset, that will never be able to be replaced, just be absorbed into council’s general income stream to disappear forever from public scrutiny? Will our rates decrease so the ratepayers and residents, the shareholders of this significant asset, see a real return too on their asset? Is council even proposing they do this? No, they are not, but the shareholders should get to financially benefit too if the sale does proceed. So, what will happen to any cash profits from the sale,” she asks.
The HUG group says the way decisions have been made on this important local matter contravenes at least council’s own draft significance and engagement policy and the spirit and intention of the Local Official Government and Meetings Act to behave with openness and transparency, not to mention perceived claims of wrongful behaviour if it is true council officers and councillors are involved in the land sale.
“We have seen this council hold secret meetings under the cloak of ‘commercial confidentiality’ far too frequently and with little cause which is why we don’t trust this sale process or even recognise council’s mandate to sell this significant taonga on our behalf,” says Ms Smythe.
“The sale must be halted and HUG will fight to the end to stop this sale from proceeding. Watch this space.”