Ben Guerin’s weekly rent payment may provide him a bedroom, but it does not provide him peace of mind.
Each time Ben arrives or leaves, he passes a bright yellow sticker duct-taped to his front door. To get to his flat, he navigates four flights of stairs walled by conspicuously unreinforced brickwork.
He’s living in one of Wellington’s most earthquake prone buildings. “I’m kind of resigned to the fact that, if there’s a big one, then no one’s going to get out of that particularly well, and if there’s a small one, it doesn’t really matter. So there’s not really much you can do.”
“This” – Ben points out a metal handrail lying on the stairs – “was on the ground when we moved in.”
Ben, who is an 18-year-old BSc student studying Geography and Geology, moved in five months ago, and though he wasn’t living in the flat during last June’s quake, a flatmate was.
“I didn’t want to run downstairs, because I didn’t trust [the stairs] would hold up,” she says. “I didn’t trust that” – she motions to a large metal pipe fixed to the ceiling just inside their front door –“would not fall.”
At this point, it’s clear the flat has its drawbacks. The building was designated ‘earthquake-prone’ and given a yellow-sticker in 2009. According to the Building Act (2004) a building is earthquake prone if it would fail in a moderate earthquake and collapse causing injury, death or damage to other property – operationalised as meeting less than 34 per cent of the building code.Google search volumes for “earthquake prone” spike following February 2011’s deadly 6.3 Christchurch earthquake, and also after the June 2013 Seddon quake, indicating the classification is important to people, and no more so than when the ground is shaking.
The rising demands – and the corollary, rising costs – for student accommodation have forced many students to weigh up the risks of earthquake-prone living quarters.
For some, it’s been a crash course without a clear conclusion. A yellow sticker indicates risk, but it doesn’t provide specifics: which parts of the building fail to meet code, where the building is most dangerous, whether or not it would collapse, and at what magnitude earthquake it might do so.
Ben says tenants in his building sign a document saying they know the building’s status when they move in. He knows the yellow sticker shows the building isn’t safe, but looking at the building, “that’s not going to surprise you”.
He describes his choice of flat as the result of a cost-benefit analysis. “Here, the yellow sticker means the place has got character, slightly cheaper rents [...] I wouldn’t live in a yellow-stickered place just because, but if it was cheap rents and a great location, then I’d definitely consider it,” he says.
Ben and his six flatmates pay between $60 and $110 less than market rent for their rooms than is usual in the area, and live within a minutes’ walk of Cuba St or Victoria’s Te Aro campus. “It’s balancing the risk with the benefit,” Ben says. “[Here] the benefit is good.”
A property manager for Ben’s building, Sean Mulholland, says the landlord is working diligently to upgrade the building to make it “seismically compliant” with the building code. He expects work to upgrade the building will start later this year or early next year.
“The building’s safety and security is taken seriously by the landlord at all times,” Mulholland says
Ben’s flat has been yellow-stickered for almost four years. It took the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 for the term ‘yellow sticker’ to find a place in the New Zealand lexicon.
An effective stickering system was especially important as aftershocks rocked the Canterbury region, it was an easy way to keep the public safe, or at the very least, informed about their own safety and the risks posed by buildings.
Around the country people began to wonder about whether their building would keep them safe should the ground begin to shake, engineers were called in by building owners and city councils to evaluate all manner of structures.
The law delegates power in dealing with earthquake prone buildings to territorial authorities (councils), which means not all yellow stickers are created equal. Christchurch, for example, has a stoplight system (green for all go, yellow for caution, red for dangerous).
Around the country other councils have similar measures according to their perceived quake risk. A yellow sticker in Christchurch has a slightly different meaning to one in Wellington, and in Auckland, yellow stickers aren’t really used at all. A bill is currently before Parliament, giving owners of quake-prone buildings 20 years to strengthen or demolish the structures.
Saya Hashimoto, 33, recently moved to Wellington from Auckland and, along with her partner, has been living in a yellow-stickered central city building since February. She took over the apartment from a friend who didn’t tell her of the yellow sticker. (Saya was notified by the land agent before moving in.) At the time of writing, Saya had not read the yellow sticker taped by the front door of her building.
“I just don't feel like there’s any point in living my life thinking about that kind of thing cause I’m much more likely to get run over crossing a road probably,” Saya says. She’s right. Between 2007 and 2012 more pedestrians died than were killed in the once-in-a-generation Canterbury quakes.
“[When I moved to Wellington] I didn’t really know what [a yellow sticker] was. I knew it was an earthquake thing, but I didn’t really have any clear idea, and I still don’t really have a clear idea of exactly what the risk is if it’s yellow-stickered versus red-stickered.”
As a Master’s student, Saya spends most of her days at home studying. “I’m here all the time, so I guess that definitely increases my risk,” but she says, the likelihood of there being an earthquake doesn’t overcome how much she likes her place. Like Ben, she too has made a cost-benefit analysis of sorts. “I don’t think about it at all, really [...] I lived in Tokyo, and there’s tremors there all the time.”
“I try to not be anxious about things that I don’t have any control over. I can’t decide whether there’s going to be an earthquake or not.”
A few minutes’ walk away, Victoria University’s School of Architecture and Design offers a course which lets students explore the practicalities of heritage, people, the city, and safety in the built environment around Cuba Street.
Though a lot of recent strengthening work has been done in the precinct, many buildings still aren’t up to code: Cuba Street is home to 45 of Wellington’s yellow-stickered buildings – about 7 per cent of the city’s total.
When Henry Read and Kelly Lambert took the course in 2013 as part of their respective Masters in Architecture, earthquake risk was not just part of the textbook.
“We started the course just after the [June 2013] earthquakes hit Wellington, so we didn’t actually get to do the walk down the street, because it was deemed too unsafe for us to be there,” says Kelly. “We were advised not to go and visit the buildings we were supposed to be studying.”
Despite the barriers to their coursework, they found the exercise taught them that heritage doesn’t have to be a barrier to safety. Henry and Kelly were in second-year as the aftermath of the Canterbury quakes percolated into curriculum: “For our year, there’s always been a lot of hype about the risks of earthquakes [...] One thing that did come out in the course is the value of earthquake strengthening, and how it does actually work.”
After five years of architecture study, neither Henry nor Kelly would live in a yellow-stickered building. “There’s a reason why it’s been yellow-stickered ... I wouldn’t take that risk. The reality of earthquakes is so real,” says Henry, and Kelly agrees.
The reality of earthquakes is presented to students far earlier than Master’s level. Current second-year Architecture student Angus Hodgson, who moved to Wellington in 2009, has found studying architecture in the capital reinforces the importance of structurally sound design.
“In first year, our structures assignments taught the basic elements for how structures deal with loads,” says Angus, who would only live in a yellow-stickered house if he had to.
“I’d worry it would fall over, but in the end I’d be okay with it, because I know that yellow stickers don’t mean the building is going to perform badly in an earthquake – it just means it needs further strengthening.”
Owners in Wellington are generally given 15 years to improve or demolish; if the strengthening work isn’t worth the expense, some owners are happy to make no improvements at all and cut their losses when time runs out.
For landlords, earthquake-preparedness is increasingly coming in the form of a solid legal foundation. Many legal opinions have appeared since the Canterbury quakes, along with legal guidance from Government departments. The Law Society suggests leases do not adequately cover the consequences of unforeseen events like earthquakes, and research into the issue is ongoing.
For young would-be tenants, earthquake law is seldom a top priority in a flat hunt, and especially not during the desperate rush to secure a flat before the start of the university year.
When it comes to earthquakes, the normal rules of the Residential Tenancies Act (1986) hold; landlords have to keep the building in good repair. If the building is untenantable because of earthquake damage (or any other reason) you have grounds to break the lease. If the building you’re living in is earthquake prone, this isn’t enough for it to be considered untenantable, and generally, a residential tenant can’t compel a landlord to carry out earthquake strengthening.
Basically, the continued tenancy of a yellow-stickered building comes down to tenants’ personal decisions on whether or not they are happy to assume the risk of an earthquake occurring while they’re in their homes.
What to do when The Big One hits has become part of our curriculum, our public education, and our popular culture. The likelihood of a major event on the Wellington fault occurring in the next century is between 10 and 15 per cent. It would be wrong to say Wellington earthquakes are expected, but they are less unexpected than most: that New Zealand straddles the Australasian and Pacific tectonic plates as they grind past each other 40 more millimetres each year is the stuff of junior high school science class.
It should be no surprise, then, that of all the current and previous yellow-sticker tenants I spoke to as background for this story, very few had not weighed up earthquake risks. Many cited a year of earthquake stress as a key reason for moving into safer abodes – great locations at good prices are nice, but many people reach a point where the benefits no longer seem to outweigh the risks.
As Ben leaves, he points out the building’s loose wires, the locked disused door, and a large hole in the top floor, which has been boarded over with plywood. There’s a black electrical box on the wall which, after being tampered with at a party, malfunctioned, and cut power to the building.
However, Ben will see out the year in this place. “I’ll stay here next year as well,” he says, confidently. There’s a pause.
“Two years will probably be enough, though.”
** A previous version of this story mentioned a locked door that Ben Guerin believed to be a fire exit. Property manager Sean Mulholland says the door mentioned in the story is not a fire exit. He says the building has two separate fire exits, which are checked monthly by an independent inspection company as part of compliance with the Building Act.
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