One minute’s drive from a fenced-off construction site filled with empty homes, the developer responsible sits in a million dollar mansion with his back to hilltop views.
The luxury property is a far cry from the cramped Chinese prison cell Bella Vista Homes director Danny Cancian called home for four years.
He doesn’t own the place. It is a rental owned by fellow development company Lakes Development (2012) Limited, a company headed by Tauranga’s richest man, Paul Adams. It was the same company Cancian purchased the now degrading sections from, before Bella Vista Homes went into liquidation in November 2017, owing more than a million dollars to Carters and Inland Revenue.
The liquidation was timed after a hefty transfer of almost $2 million in cash and assets was made to buy out his business partner.
The 21 properties Cancian was developing on Lakes Boulevard are said to be unsafe. The dilapidating site is costing Tauranga ratepayers $65,000 a week to secure and house the ’refugees’. Despite this, Cancian is calm.
"People are talking about suing me, but it’s like, get in line," Cancian says. "There are 100 people waiting to do so."
His is a legacy of family members being embroiled in questionable business dealings. Especially dealings connected to building sites.
First, it was his father who was murdered by members connected to the Mr Asia syndicate. Then his brother was attacked by mobsters in his home in a targeted attack.
And now, years after he survived prison for killing a man, Cancian faces bankruptcy after liquidating his building company, Bella Vista Homes.
Cancian is a survivor. This is illustrated by the million dollar mansion he now resides in. His back still to the view.
In March, the Bella Vista homeowners received an eviction notice after concerns were raised that Cyclone Hola would destroy the unfinished houses. A subsequent building inspection revealed a "shoddy level" of workmanship. It also uncovered that some of these houses passed council inspections but were deemed to be unsafe. Homeowners are looking for someone to blame.
On the one hand, there is Cancian. The other hand you have council who is supposed to rein in cowboy developers. Both parties blame the other.
Council’s inspection team appears to be in disarray. At least one member has been sacked with two other key staff members said to have resigned after the Bella Vista saga went public. Council would not comment on this, but two new job vacancies for staff in council’s building inspection team were listed on April 9 and 10.
Cancian epitomises both the kiwi never-say-die attitude while also being the quintessential "cowboy developer".
His family has a tragic history relating to building sites, and he has added his name to that legacy.
"Sometimes I think my entire family is cursed," he says.
His father, Robert, was murdered in Lower Hutt in 1986 after Cancian says he bungled a building project with ties to Mr Asia.
Two men, Michael John Sneller and Wayne Maurice Carstairs, went to his father’s house, tied his hands behind his back and bashed him with a baseball bat. He died days later.
Cancian himself killed a man in China after a fight broke out during a business trip. He was promoting his invention the "Showerbuddy" when he was attacked by three men. He appeared to have been targeted and says it was "racially motivated".
He recalls them lifting the beanie off his head before they "smashed me in the face". He fought back and unfortunately; a blood vessel burst in one of his attackers who died in hospital.
Cancian says he waited for police to arrive and they ended up arresting him.
"I should have just gone – jumped on a plane and come home."
But he didn’t flee and spent the next 16 months in a detention centre, packed with 50 other men, before being sentenced to five years imprisonment at Dongguan Prison.
The prison was a step up. Here he had to share with only 17 inmates, but he was routinely beaten by guards and was even disciplined by being tasered in the mouth.
His worst regret from that dark time in his life was the fact that he "never got to say goodbye" to his mother.
He says he was only allowed to speak to his family for five minutes in any given month. During one of these calls, they informed him that she had cancer.
They never told him his mother had died. He only found out after he was deported upon release.
"I think they thought it would end me. Rightly so."
Landing in New Zealand with only the $2 a month he earned making headphones for airlines, he was relieved to see the sun and greenery again. His wife had sold off nearly all their assets to pay victim reparations, meaning he was starting from scratch again.
Fate saw a business opportunity arise with his father-in-law buying sections which led to his teaming up with Demartin.
"He wanted us to be as big as Classic Builders, so that’s what we tried to do," Cancian says.
Cancian managed to buy some land and started to build again. But it was after he discovered a loophole in council regulations that permitted him to subdivide sections into two, that his fortunes really started to change.
"I think council had it in for me after I did that," he says.
The loophole doubled his earnings from land and building contracts almost overnight.
He says there is no money in building houses, so the land deal was key. Customers were surprised at how "land heavy" the house and land packages were.
"I would only make $20,000 or $30,000 from a house and they were designed that way so first-home buyers could get into properties. We would make about $250,000 per subdivided section."
Cash was rolling in, but building work started running into problems with council inspectors. Work stalled. Stop works were issued. WorkSafe became involved, and the development stagnated.
After complaining to Tauranga City Council about what he said were intentional delays to the development, council agreed to conduct a review of its building services team and appoint one lead inspector to Bella Vista Development.
That inspector was Mark Bell, a person who Cancian was already in the process of building a house for and who bought the property for $80,000 cheaper than his neighbours. The purchase was logged as a conflict of interest and accepted by council and Cancian.
Cancian says Bell’s property was cheaper because it was in a worse condition than his neighbours.
It took just five weeks of Bell being appointed, at the beginning of 2017, to get inspections passed and work moving again. Bell, when questioned, did not agree with aspects of the BCD report used to evict homeowners.
Bell told Stuff that in hindsight, the situation might not have been best, but he stressed it did not affect the work he and the other inspectors performed.
"Sorry I cannot be bought, never have been and never will be," says Bell.
’I’M JUST A BUILDER’
On November 30, facing heavy bills Cancian says he never knew about, Bella Vista Homes was put into liquidation turning the dream of home ownership into a nightmare for those that bought into his vision.
"I knew I would be letting down a lot of people," he says. "I pleaded to be able to trade through, but in the end, I had to do what was best for the company.
"I had to take steps to stop this huge snowball rolling out of control."
He says he let people out of their building contracts so they would be able to finish up and get into their homes.
"They also need to get a lawyer and sue the council."
But it was then, once Cancian had washed his hands of the development, that the workmanship came into question.
Tauranga City Council retrospectively claims the houses Cancian built are now deemed to be unsafe, despite their own inspectors signing off some of them.
Cancian just laughs at the report.
"I’m a builder," he says. "All I know is how to build houses from a plan I’m given. They’re supposed to check the plan and the design.
"We would have made changes if they were picked up, as we had done often."
Some of the families evicted from their homes never thought they would have to pay a mortgage on a home they will never live in. Some have moved into rental homes as council support dries up.
Meanwhile, Cancian keeps on building houses and living in a mansion, owned by the richest man in town, complete with expansive views.