By Soumya Bhamidipati of RNZ
Auckland Council is inspecting boarding houses at least three times less often than recommended, while Wellington City Council has left RNZ’s questions about its processes unanswered for more than a week.
It comes in the wake of the Loafers Lodge fire, which killed at least five people. Residents who survived the deadly blaze have described blocked exits and fire alarms which were constantly going off.
In Auckland, 155 buildings have been identified as boarding houses, including lodges, hostels and backpackers. All were considered high fire risk and were subject to a building warrant of fitness (BWOF), which must be done by an independent qualified person (IQP).
In addition, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) recommended places that sleep six or more people also be checked in person by a council inspector, once a year.
However, Auckland Council’s inspectors only audited 44 boarding houses in the last year, less than a third of those known. As of last week, five had an expired warrant and were subject to either further investigation or enforcement by the council’s compliance team.
Council inspectors checked BWOF-approved residential buildings once every three-to-five years, depending on the level of risk, the council said – at least three times less often than the annual check recommended by MBIE, if not longer.
However, the number of known boarding houses in Auckland was also thought to be an underestimate, with the council saying that, in reality, there could be more than 400 such properties. About 120 building owners were currently being investigated or prosecuted for illegal boarding house activities, the council said.
Auckland Council said it was not checking boarding houses annually because the IQP scheme meant building owners were responsible for monitoring safety systems in their buildings.
Council inspectors audited BWOFs to ensure IQPs were doing their jobs properly, but did not inspect everything in the building, it said.
“Council audits are to check for things such as: evidence that IQPs are inspecting and reporting on the systems; any obvious changes to the safety systems such as systems being added or removed; any obvious safety issues such as blocked exits or prohibited storage in exit areas where they may become fire hazards.”
The council noted the annual in-person check was only a recommendation.
“While we do endeavour to audit high-risk buildings more often, the sheer number of commercial buildings in Auckland (17,000) is challenging. We must audit buildings such as theatres, malls, churches etc. Again, we note that the main safety inspection is done annually by IQPs. Council officers also check every building’s BWOF documentation each year that IQPs are required to send in.”
No legal requirement
Auckland Council regulatory services director Craig Hobbs said there was currently no legislative requirement for property owners or managers to register their property as a boarding house.
“This limits the council’s ability to legally gather or keep comprehensive records on boarding house ownership or use.”
The council also proactively visited known or suspected boarding houses as part of a boarding house inspection programme, Hobbs said.
“Where boarding houses are found to be non-compliant, we will generally work with building owners and our partner agencies to rectify any issues and bring the premises into compliance.
“The tragic fire at Wellington’s Loafers Lodge will provide valuable learning opportunities, and we would welcome any review of regulatory or legislative settings from the government that may assist us with improving our own processes and systems.”
Wellington City Council has so far not responded to RNZ’s questions about its own building inspection regime, despite intense scrutiny following the Loafers Lodge fire. The council said it was working on possible answers, but was prioritising answering inquiries from government departments.
In particular, the council has not divulged when it last inspected Loafers Lodge in person, or whether its compliance team had been checking other similar buildings since the Newtown blaze.
RNZ previously reported many councils were falling far short of what was recommended by MBIE. According to the ministry’s latest stocktake in June 2022, most councils were “not reviewing enough BWOFs for their programme to be effective”.