wellington rentals
Image: Getty / Treatment: Archi Banal

BusinessMarch 2, 2022

‘I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach’: One flatter’s Wellington nightmare comes true

wellington rentals
Image: Getty / Treatment: Archi Banal

She thought she’d done everything right to secure a flat in New Zealand’s toughest rental market. Then she received some bad news.

Asia just wanted a flat. After five months of relentless searching, any flat would do. Then she found one. At $410 a week, the “tiny” one-bedroom Mount Victoria rental was within her budget. It was sunny, within walking distance of Wellington’s CBD and came with a small garden. There wasn’t room for a couch, but Asia and her partner applied right away. “We were that desperate,” she says.

Over five years completing her masters degree at Dunedin’s University of Otago, Asia dreamed of moving to Wellington. Now she had a job lined up, and a flat sorted, that dream was coming true. She could have her big city experience, “wearing blazers, drinking lattes … my first ‘Big Boy’ job after university,” the 23-year-old says. “It was the beginning of my chick flick.”

Asia applied online and a RentCare property manager called Jason replied via text, offering her the flat. Because of distance and desperation, she hadn’t visited it, but she knew Wellington’s rental market was cooked. Horror stories make the news on a near-daily basis. Dozens of people queue for viewings. A backyard sleepout was rented for $220 after 55 people applied. This past weekend, Stuff published a depressing five-month project following several students on a flat-hunting mission.

Asia’s own sister had recently bailed to Melbourne after a decade of “mouldy and miserable living” in Wellington. So she knew what she was up against. But this Porritt Avenue flat seemed different. “It had sun, which is my main thing,” she says. “I’ve been living in a really grim, dark house for the past two years.”

She replied to Jason’s text confirming she’d like the flat and began ironing out the details. Then she called her partner and broke the news their desperate search for a place to live was over. To celebrate, she bought a packet of wildflower seeds from Mitre 10 to plant in their new garden. “We were really excited,” she says.

They were due to move in on February 23, so, with a ferry booked and the car loaded with their things, the couple drove to Picton the day before. That night, just hours before they were due to move in, something felt off. “We hadn’t heard from [Jason] in a while,” Asia says. “I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach.” She texted him: “Just checking Porritt will still be good to move into tomorrow?”

His reply sent her into an immediate panic: “Its gone sorry [sic].” Arriving in a new city with nowhere to live was her worst nightmare come true. Despite repeated requests for an explanation, they couldn’t get one. “I sent him a few follow up texts saying, ‘Jason, our livelihood is at stake, we don’t have a place to stay tomorrow,’ and all he said was, ‘Sorry.'”

Messages exchanged between Asia and RentCare (Screengrabs: Twitter)

That flat was never theirs, says Craig Bentley, the company director for Upper Hutt-based property management company RentCare. He had issues with Asia’s application. “She put down a reference whose email address was incorrect so it bounced back,” he says. “Her passport didn’t return an instant credit rating [so] her credit report came back as zero, which is a red flag for us. Two red flags … as soon as I saw that, I said, ‘Nuh.'”

Asia, who asked for her last name not to be published in case it affected future renting prospects, rejects those issues. After six years of flatting, she says she has nothing but glowing references from her previous landlords, some of whom remain friends. She’s flummoxed by the issue with her UK passport (she’s lived in Aotearoa since the age of five and is a permanent New Zealand resident) and says her credit rating has never been a problem. Besides, she was never given a chance to rectify those issues. “It’s absolutely bizarre to me,” she says.

One thing’s for certain: there was a massive communication breakdown. “That was a communication error on our part,” admits Bentley. “We totally accept that. I called her directly and apologised.” Yes, Bentley agrees she should have been told much sooner the flat wasn’t hers. But he also says Asia should have made sure a tenancy agreement was in place before she packed her things. “Normally a tenant will say, ‘Hey guys, can I have the tenancy documents?’ We didn’t hear from her until that text message.”

Asia admits she hadn’t signed a tenancy agreement, but says her text agreement with Jason should have been enough. “There was offer and acceptance, there was the property address, rent inbound, moving date, all agreed upon. We’d undergone the formal application process. We’d even talked about the time we’d be moving in,” she says. “I naively assumed he’d meet us at that time with the documents he promised to organise.”

Tenancy agreements don’t have to be in writing, says Ashok Jacob, a spokesperson for advocacy group Renters United. “A verbal acceptance or text message agreement for the tenant to move in is a de facto tenancy agreement,” he says. While clarifying that he’s not a lawyer and doesn’t know the full details of the case, Jacob says RentCare’s decision should have been communicated to Asia properly. “I would make the argument that the would-be tenant is eligible for compensation in the Disputes Tribunal.”

An issue like this has never happened before, Bentley claims. “We’re a family-run business,” he says, pointing out that they work with the Salvation Army and help homeless people and those going through break-ups into new homes regularly. RentCare also employs its own healthy homes inspector, making sure all of their 930 properties meet living standards. “We’re not in this to be a slumlord … we’d never do anything to screw anyone over.”

Wellington flat
One of the flats viewed recently by Asia in Wellington recently came with mould on the ceiling (Photo: Supplied)

Asia turned down RentCare’s offer of another home. She arrived in Wellington as planned last week and she and her partner began asking everyone they knew for a couch to sleep on. A friend offered them her lounge floor in Petone. Four days on, her hunt continues, and already feels like a full-time job, one she has to commit to before her real job begins.

On the day The Spinoff talks to her, Asia’s viewed three non-RentCare places, none of them good. “Flat number one had an outside toilet, flat number two had every single window surrounded by concrete walls, and flat number three had [mould all over] the ceiling,” she says. “All were single rooms over $400.” Her packet of wildflowers remains in her handbag, waiting to be planted.

Keep going!