National Park Village housing crisis

This is the general area of the National Park ward, part of the Ruaepehu district. Most of the population is rural, with the main population centres all being small with permanent populations of around 200 each in National Prk, Raurimu and Owhango. The ward is unusual in the it also represents the interests of the population of Whakapapa Village at the base of Mt Ruapehu.

National Park Village is the major population and business centre in the National Park ward. It has a permanent population of around 200 but commercial beds for over 1000 visitors and a disproportionately large number of businesses for its size. It enjoys the distintinction of being New Zealand’s highest town @825 metres above sea level.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

National Park Village is the gateway to Tongariro National Park, including:

  • the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of New Zealand’s best day walks.
  • The Northern Circuit, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, that skirts Mt Tongariro and circumnavigates Mt Ngauruhoe.
  • The Round the Mountain trail, around Mt Ruapehu.
  • Whakapapa Skifield, one of the most popular, if not the most popular, snow tourism attractions in New Zealand.
  • A range of shorter day walks including Tama Lakes, Taranaki Falls, Silica Rapids and Tupapakurua Falls.
  • Nodes on the Te Aroroa Trail and National Cycle Way that run the length of New Zealand.

While COVID-19 is having an obviously effect on tourism around New Zealand, smaller centres like National Park are more likely to come out of this crisis better than larger tourism-oriented centres like Queenstown and Rotorua.Things will change but most businesses here will endure and will still need staff in numbers greater than the local supply.

National Park Village has a crisis, a housing crisis. A large number of businesses mean staff numbers out of proportion to the village’s size and permanent population. It’s alpine environment means that winter commuting from other centres like Turangi, Taumarunui, Raetihi or Ohakune (each 40-50km away) can be problematic assuming that staff have vehicles in the first place.

Staff may or may not have their own vehicle and those that do not have no public transport service to rely on for daily travel to/from work or even for shopping/life support/sanity. It is understood – and has been for a long time – that staff working in National Park businesses need accommodation in the Village.

The rise of Bookabach and AirBnB over the last decade mean that there are no incentives for local home owners to offer long term accommodation that can be used by staff. The rewards and flexibility of short term rentals simply outweigh any perceived advantages of longer term relationships:

  • Short term rental rates approximate weekly rates for lon term rental.
  • Properties remain availbale for owner’s use.
  • High turnover and rewards mean less incentives to invest in healthy homes compliance for heating and insulation.
  • Short term rentals offer less perceived risk of dodgy tenants.

The Department of Conservation maintains its own staff accommodation estates in Whakapapa and National Park Village. Traditionally, surplus accommodation in these estates has been available to staff from other local businesses. However, the primary purpose of that accommodation is for DOC staff and as local Treaty resolutions firm up, there is a possibility that these estates were be part of the resolutiuon package.

Whakapapa Village

The work around for many businesses in National Park and Whakapapa Villages is simply to provide accommodation for its staff. The four major employers in Whakapapa Village all provide staff accommodation as do the larger proportion of businesses in National Park Village. This is usually in the form of a house or houses owned by the business and available to staff as a flatting environment; or accommodation providers putting aside for staff a proportion of what would otherwise be income earning accommodation. Either way, this is a considerable overhead cost for each of these businesses.

In the last three years there has been increasing pressure on seasonal accommodation for winter ski field staff. That has been mitigated to some extent this year with borders being closed and RAL et al having to depend more on locals for staff. As economic recovery continues, so will the need for full-time and seasonal staff drawn from outside the ward and the district.To its credit, RAL provides transport for its staff: ultimately though, this overhead will cap out as staff are forced to live further and further afield.

These issues are not new nor are they unknown. Last year, community leaders expreseed their concerns at the detrimental effects of the lack of long term rental accommodation in the National Park ward, especially National Park and Raurimu Villages. Not only does the lack of accommodation directly affect local businesses but it also ripples out into reduced school rolls; smaller recruiting pools for local emergency services and reduced coverage where members may be forced to live out of reasonable response times; and reduced domestic business.

The Ruapehu District Council has recently received approval for Government seed funding for housing projects in the Ruapehu district. This has been the result of various internal studies looking at both district needs and the potential for the district to benefit from COVID recovery initiatives. I’ve attended a number of those internal council workshops and community board meetings and raised these concerns. It was quite clear from the most recent workshop that having received this approval, the council didn’t actually have the faintest idea what to do wit it or where to apply it.

In an attempt to remedy this, the Council has conducted housing huis in Taumarunui, Raetihi and Ohakune – nothing in the National Park ward. The Council’s response to challenges on this is that residents of the ward can submit directly to the council if they want to make their views known.

National Park Community Board meeting 13 October 2020

From the brief to the Community Board on Tuesday evening, it would appear that the Ruapehu District Counmcil has decided that its contribution to the housing initiaive will be land ie land that it owns. That’s not much good to National Park where the council doesn’t own any significant land but where arguably the need is greatest – if anyone is serious about maintaining and fostering economic development in the district.

The council has been clear that it is looking for a low risk options for its housing initiative. Investing in long term rental accommodation in National Park IS LOW RISK. These are tenants that don’t need assistance or subsidisation: they are all in jobs and receiving wages. Further, most if not all of them, bring skills and experience to the district. Historically, many of them put down roots here and eventually buy their own home, start families and contribute to the community in many ways. They are assets.

They are also assets that are declining jobs here because they can not find accommodation, especially for couples and families. One family spent a year living in a single room accommodation in one of the lodges until they were able to secure a rental home; there are couples sharing a room in flalting arrangements because long term rental accommodation is so hard to find.

Privately run rental accommodation offers little security to individuals, couples or families because the incentives for owners to sell are so great. I ended up buying a head of my schedule when my rented home was sold last last – ironically, its new owners contacted me this week after I raised this issue on local Facebook pages and they confirmed their intention to make it availbale for mlong temr rentals once the current refurbishment is complete.

There is a clear need for DOC-style estate in National Park Village. By this I mean a mix of one or two bedroom apartments and three bedroom houses similar to the current DOC estate. To avoid the attractions of short term commercail rentals, this estate needs to be run by central or local government – or in partnership with business agencies where the provision of long-term rental accommodation is protected.

If the Ruapehu District Council’s contribution is to be land only, there is land suitable for such an estate on the market in National Park Village as I write. It won’t be there for long.

The need in National Park Village has been articulated to the Council on many occasions, from both perspectives of welfare and economic development. What this requires is that the Council move with speed that is greater then that which it is accustomed to. Not just wisely-nodding heads that then go off and do whatever they want to to do.

I’m proposing that that Ruapehu District Council:

  • acqiure land in or close to National Park Village specifically for the development of a housing estate for staff employed in local businesses (including agencies like National Park Primary School).
  • Independently or in partnership with a government or private agency construct a rental housing estate for couples and families employed with the ward.
  • Consider opportunities to boost availbale renayl accommodation during peak seasons pending the outcome of COVID recovery. This may include establishing transport conenctions to housing in Owhango, and other centres north of National Park (south of the Village may be challenging in winter).
  • Adopt a strategy and polciies to ensure that accommodation remains available to meet the need in National Park i.e. to restrain the temptation for greater ROI through short term rentals.

This is the low risk option for the Ruapehu District Council.

It contributes to economic development in the district.

It addresses social and welfare issues arising from the lack of long term rental accommodation in National Park Village.

It operates at market rates, reducing risk and outlay for the Council.

Ruapehu District Council Social and Affordable Housing


Better than the beach…

As we near the end of the 2017 snow season, I took the opportunity for one last run on the free bus that has run from National Park Village to Whakapapa skifield this season.

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Signage is still non-existent: even with the special restrictions on signage in the Village, this is a little too minimalist. There was no indication where to go from SH4, and no sign that this was the right place to be for the bus – nice coffee and cake inside while waiting for the bus though…

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The car park still needs work. Even for a transport ‘experiment’, this is pretty rough – at least it’s not still covered in ice.

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The bus was a nice new 22-seater with rear bins for skis, poles and boards which otherwise might become hazardous inside – people have to be encouraged to use them though, otherwise it defeats the purpose.

It’s about a 20 minute drive from National Park Village up to the ski field – sit on the right side of the bus for great views of Ruapehu. One of the best things about catching the bus is that it drops you right at the top of the road and you don’t have to worry a. about navigating up from the car parks, b. getting skittled while navigating up from the car parks, or c. finding the car parks have filled and the road has been closed after you’ve departed National Park Village in the car.

Get the bus!should have been the RAL mantra this season. I’m not sold on the idea of the free (with caveats) bus although I’m most happy to use it while it’s there. It’s not clear what RAL was trying to achieve with this experiment when there is already an existing solid transport infrastructure¬† on the western side of the Mountain. If the problem it sought to address was inexperienced drivers on the approach roads, then reducing the number of car parks at the Top of the Bruce and allowing the existing transport operators to carry the load (literally) would have mitigated this hazard, especially if coupled with an effective information campaign.

Enough with the logistics though…a glorious bluebird day…and not too busy on a Friday, although everybody was bracing for a big weekend…!

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Lorenz cafe and Vertical Retail front, ticket sales and lost and found (more on this later!) on the right. getting a ticket was fast and painless – the big screens over each counter display most of the information you need…

The first lift up to Knoll Ridge cafe goes from the left of the shop/cafe building…an easy walk in the snow…regardless of the day, though, be warm for the lift…

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Looking back at the top of the first (Rangatira) lift…

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…and walking towards the Waterfall Express lift for the final leg up to Knoll Ridge…

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There’s a short slope from the top of the Waterfall Express down to Knoll Ridge cafe…this needs a little care if it’s icy and also being aware of skiers and boarders around you in various states of control…

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Coffee!! Yes!! And, contrary to much of the social media cry-babying, prices are reasonable…in fact, no much different from those at the Station cafe while I was waiting for the bus…

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Just plant a chair in the snow and enjoy the view north…

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…and over my right shoulder…I think I dropped my lift pass when I paid for my coffee – you don’t need one to get back down but you do need one for the bus home to stay free – no drama, the young lady at the counter just smiled and handed me another: I am probably neither the first nor the last…

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Starting back down on the Waterfall Express – an image cleverly cropped to eliminate the fingers that filled most of the frame: I may have been a little worried about dropping my phone…I could happily have stayed another hour but I had a mission to complete before heading home…

A fried had been skiing with a mate a few days earlier…”post-ski beers” had prevented her mate clearing his gear from his locker in Happy Valley…could I please see if I could recover it for him? Armed only with my wits and what might have been the locker number (it wasn’t), I set off…

Happy Valley is the big success story from the Whakapapa 2017 snow season. The beneficiary of a multi-million dollar investment, it was able to open a month earlier than the tradition first week of July (and that usually with crappy rock-studded snow). The enabler for this early opening was a new-tech snow-maker that’s able to operate effectively in temperatures up to 24 degrees C. Thus not only was snow guaranteed for Queen’s Birthday Weekend, it was guaranteed to be rock-free…

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Looking down into Happy Valley from the plaza area in front of Lorenz’ and Vertical…the new elevators on the left and a far sharper means of ingress and egress; rentals at the base on the left and the revitalised Bistro cafe on the right; in the left distance is one of the new magic carpets to bring punters back up to the top of the Valley, on the right is the old chair lift that will hopefully disappear over summer.

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The top ends of two of the carpets…very smooth, very slick…

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…looking back up the elevator tower…

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…and the outside dining area in front of the Bistro…

So…my mission…onwards…actually it was pretty simple. I explained my challenge to the nice staff at the rentals counter in Happy Valley – again, not the first time they’ve managed this issue – once they were satisfied with my bona fides, senior staff member bypassed the locking mechanism to open what we had determined was the actually locker in question. I was soon in possession (thankfully temporary) of a Hunting and Fishing top, and some stinky sox and runners…

Getting the bus back to National Park is a little more complex than getting to Whakapapa…there aren’t any more signs but the staff are really helpful and make sure everyone knows which bus to aim for…

The Transit bus back to National Park was packed, not even standing room only. With the weight of skis, boards, boots, etc on a busy day, I wonder how close they get to overloaded..? I also wasn’t too fussed about the number of people carrying their ski/boarding gear on the bus with them: untidy in the event of an accident…

Strangely after all the hype about needing a valid pass for the day for the return bus to be free, there were no checks at the ski field or the transit stop in Whakapapa Village. I’d heard that this was the case with some drivers and I wonder why a ticket check is a. hard and b. how much this added to the total loss generated by this season’s ‘free’ transport experiment…?

As days go, my day on the mountain was great…blue skies, no wind, good coffee and awesome views… #betterthanthebeach

(…in fact, so much better than the beach, I’m seriously considering a an early season ticket for 2018…at the current early bird price, it would pay for itself just coffeeing @ Knoll Ridge…)

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Winter Office 2018..?