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Four dangerous building notices were issued by the Dunedin City Council, to one house in Allandale Rd and three in Motu St, after council staff assessed a landslip on private land and found it posed "an imminent safety threat".
DCC community services general manager Simon Pickford said it appeared the slip originated on the Allandale Rd property following recent heavy rain.
There was evidence of subsidence around the property and there was a "very real" possibility the house in Allandale Rd might slip down the hill and wipe out the three below in Motu St.
"We don't take issuing dangerous building notices lightly."
He said the DCC was made aware of the slip yesterday morning via EQC, and immediately sent building inspectors to make an assessment.
"Staff assessed that the landslip and the potential for ongoing instability means there is an imminent threat to four houses.
"The risk means that we have no choice but to issue dangerous building notices, which will remain in place until the properties can
be made safe."
"We are advising the owners and occupiers to talk to their insurance company. However, we will be assisting with emergency accommodation if required."
He said the situation had come completely out of the blue and it was a huge shock to the property owners.
They were given an opportunity to return to their houses momentarily last night, to collect pets, some clothing and toiletries.
"They were only allowed to take what they needed. The majority of things, like furniture, is still in their homes.
"They were just completely stunned. It's a terrible situation to be in.
"We feel for them, but we can't at this stage let them back into their houses."
Affected Motu St house owner Karen McPhee said her daughter lived at the property, and while the notice came as a "complete shock" to her daughter and her neighbours, she was not surprised.
"There's been a lot of movement on the hill above recently.
"My daughter's very upset. They just said to her, `you need to get out'."
She said her daughter would stay with her until the situation was resolved.
"The only positive we can take out of this is that I'll get to have her home for Christmas.
"But there's great uncertainty about how long this could go on for. It could be months."
Mr Pickford said stabilisation work had previously been done on the property, but until a full engineering report was done, it was too early to say if the Allandale Rd house could be saved.
"It's in the hands of the engineers as to what the longer-term solution is."