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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 25. 3rd October 1973

Blythswood flats — The Writing on the Wall

page 6

Blythswood flats

The Writing on the Wall

Last Monday the ownership of the Blythswood flats on the corner of Willis and Aro Streets passed into the hands of the Waitangi Trading Company. Before that, they were owned by the Druids Grand Lodge, a "friendly society" which in the five years they had been the owners had raised the rents of unprotected tenants by as much as a half, but had done almost nothing in the way of repairs. The buyers wanted to renovate the flats and sell them as own-your-owns (being careful to spend at least 20% of the purchase price on repairs and so avoid the speculators tax).

Five-hundred and ninety-eight of Waitangi Tradings' $2 shares are owned by John Readei Hastings, 280 Oriental Parade, one by his wife Anne, and one by Donald George Mcllroy. The directors are Hastings and Michael Spensley Gilkison, 38 Raroa Road, of Mcllroy, Gilkison and Heal, barristers and solicitors. Hastings lives in a block of flats, the Olympus flats where just the same process was used. The Blythswood flats were unlucky to get caught by him. By some extraordinary good fortune, both the flats and the property next to them, 318 Willis Street, have been left out of the Aro Street Redevelopment plans. A man who wished to turn Blythswood flats into own-your-own flats would be required to provide at least one off-street car park for each flat: by the same good fortune the 28 parks he would require could be placed on the adjacent property, if he could buy it. Such a lucky man is J.R. Hastings.

The people who stood to suffer most from this were the tenants; on August 17 those tenants who were home were visited by "plumbers". They came to inspect the stoves and bathrooms, but spent their time asking who owned the furnishings. Then, as they left, they handed the unsuspecting tenants envelopes which "authorise us (the plumbers) to come in at any time and make repairs" — these were notices to quit. Some of the tenants had been there more than 30 years; some only six weeks. All had just one month to move out.

Some of them moved out at once. Tenants have been bought and sold so often that few question the right of landlords to throw them out for any or no reason at all. But some of the tenants, at least, decided to stay and fight. At the moment there are 11 flats still occupied, although the notice to quit expired on September 24. The tenants are holding out until Waitangi Trading offer them alternative accomodation and compensation for shifting. But as the number of tenants reduces, the chances of a satisfactory settlement become more remote.

The tenants went to the local MP Gerald O'Brien, who helped them present a petition to Parliament, "craving relief". Their prayers were heard before Norm Douglas's Labour Bills Committee last Wednesday. So were the prayers of Hastings' fellow-director, Gilkison, who turned up to present the case for the other side. They managed to sit in on the tenants submissions and then, in their answers, correct any 'false impressions' the tenants might have given. As the lawyers and parliamentarians joked together, some of those on the tenants side had a sinking feeling in their stomachs. Only when the committee makes it its report will they know if there was any real hope at all.

Hastings, however, did not seem to be waiting for a decision from Parliament. He declined to meet with tenants saying "wait until after the hearing and then we'll see what the story is." A fortnight before he was due to take possession of Blythswood, painters turned up and began to work on the ceilings and walls in the corridors. Some of the tenants' friends countered by smearing the walls with patches of vaseline to prevent the paint from sticking and put oil in the workmen's boots. Hastings returned with patrols from Freightways Security Services, who moved through the building with torches, trying door handles, several times a night. When the circumstances of this harrassment were made clear to them, Freightways decided to send someone to Hastings explaining that they would not be used in any way in what was a civil dispute between a landlord and his tenants. Legally, those who remain after the notice to quit has expired become tenants at suffrance, and can be only removed after an order has been obtained from a Court for an eviction.

Photo of a sign with Ground Floor and Second Floor locations

The photo shows a notice pinned on the flat directory at the Blythswood flats recently. It reads: "This building is now under security patrol and the person or persons who have been defacing the newly painted walls with filthy language and other forms of vandalism will be prosecuted.

"Renovations and restoration of the building will continue in spite of such actions and the matter will be brought to the notice of interested parties at the appropriate time."

Hastings is a man who will always act within the law because he wants people to buy his flats and doesn't want them, or himself, to get a bad reputation. So he treads a wary legal path.

The $72,000 he must spend to avoid speculators tax will be swallowed up by the sad mess that owners such as the Druids have left Blythswood in. By law Hastings must make special arrangements for those tenants protected by the Tenancy Act, who occupy three flats of the II remaining. He will probably offer the other eight some alternative accommodation, which with increasing pressure they may finally take, so that the issue will collapse; but an attempt is being made to obtain from those tenants who have already left some estimate of the costs and hardships involved, so that some adequate compensation can be obtained.

The tenants formed their own committee for the fight with Hastings and with very little outside help have gone a long way towards a settlement. Most important, they have made an example that can be followed by anyone else in a similar situation. People like Hastings should find it more difficult to carry out their schemes if tenants are prepared to organise themselves. Parliament may give some help by extending the minimum period of notice to quit, but the tenants strength will always lie in their ability to co-operate in the defense of their interests. Though many Blythswood tenants who left at Hastings nod have weakened the position of those still fighting, the example of those left will serve to underlie the importance of solidarity in any struggle with a landlord-speculator of this kind.