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Photo: Rebecca Stevenson
Photo: Rebecca Stevenson

BusinessJune 5, 2018

The terrible human cost of the meth testing scandal just keeps escalating

Photo: Rebecca Stevenson
Photo: Rebecca Stevenson

It’s an unfurling scandal which saw tenants evicted and millions spent on cleaning homes. Now it appears a tenant was kicked out after seeking help for his addictions, writes Russell Brown.

In June 2015, Jesse B became one of the hundreds of Housing New Zealand tenants to have an order made against them at the Tenancy Tribunal over alleged methamphetamine contamination. Like most such tenants, he did not attend the hearing and the process ground on without him.

As was the case in many cases at the time, the flat Jesse B was living in had not been subject to a baseline test for meth “contamination” – that is, tested before he lived there. There is no testing information noted in the decision beyond a note that “the evidence presented today shows that the premises were indeed contaminated”. Nonetheless, the tribunal decided that “the contamination more than likely occurred during Mr [B]’s tenancy and that he ought therefore to pay for the cost of testing.”

What’s notable – and on the face of it, shocking – is the means by which the tribunal arrived at that decision:

During Mr [B]’s tenancy Housing New Zealand were advised by the Auckland District Health Board to test his tenanted premises for methamphetamine contamination. This was because Mr [B] was attending drug and alcohol detoxification at the Auckland District Health Board.

It appears that Jesse B sought help for his drug and alcohol problem – and that the consequence of seeking help was that he was reported to his landlord and thrown out of his home. There is little other information in the decision, and no documentation of the DHB advice to Housing NZ. It is possible Housing NZ was merely advised that its tenant was in care, and not specifically that it should enter and test his flat.

But as described, the actions of ADHB were an alarming breach of B’s privacy. And they were a disastrous way to approach alcohol and drug services. Very few people are going to seek help if seeking help means losing their home. Was this a common practice? And if it wasn’t, why did it happen in this case? Economist Sam Warburton, who turned up the decision yesterday, tells me he hasn’t found another obvious case, but the decisions database isn’t easy to search effectively.

But they are searchable, and you don’t need to spend long searching historical decisions to get a feel for the bleakness of the whole things. A tenant who says he cleaned up and stopped using some time ago but was nonetheless stuck with a $20,000 bill for remediation because, according to the decision the “level of contamination left in the house exceeded the Ministry of Health guidelines for safe living within the premises.” The 2010 Ministry of Health guidelines, as we know, said no such thing. This false assumption is the basis for many, if not most, of the tribunal’s decisions in this area.

An elderly man’s Greys Avenue bedsit was invaded by gang members who tagged the walls and, allegedly, consumed meth. By Housing NZ’s own account, the old man feared for his safety and eventually gave notice he was leaving. He was rehoused elsewhere, but Housing NZ was still claiming the $2233 cost of the testing – which the tribunal granted against the tenant. Housing NZ also sought an adjournment while it prepared a claim for $30,000 to $50,000 in remediation costs – against a tenant it had acknowledged didn’t have control of his own property and was unsafe there. Fortunately, it appears that this claim was not pursued.

The dismissal of an application for damages based on information provided to Housing NZ by the police that a resident of the property (not the tenant) had been charged with cannabis possession and a visitor with possession of “illegal drugs”. The decision doesn’t say so, but it’s reasonable to assume that the tenant lost his home of eight years because someone else was busted for drug possession there.

A woman chucked out of the home she’d lived in since 1989 on the basis that meth traces had made the property “uninhabitable”. Again, this is extremely unlikely.

A woman evicted on seven days’ notice because meth “contamination” had been detected – she told the the tribunal she had not used meth but a boarder may have – and then stuck with $20,000 in damages. “Under section 41 of the Act Ms T is responsible for her boarder’s actions as she permitted him to be in the premises,” the decision reads.

But tenants, even where they can contest damages, had a hard job keeping their homes. Section 40 (2) of the Residential Tenancies Act 1986 puts them in breach if they’re responsible for “damage” or for even knowing that someone else smoked a joint.

The tenant shall not—

(a) intentionally or carelessly damage, or permit any other person to damage, the premises; or

(ab) cause or permit any interference with, or render inoperative, any means of escape from fire within the meaning of the Building Act 2004; or

(b) use the premises, or permit the premises to be used, for any unlawful purpose; or

(c) cause or permit any interference with the reasonable peace, comfort, or privacy of any of the landlord’s other tenants in the use of the premises occupied by those other tenants, or with the reasonable peace, comfort, or privacy of any other person residing in the neighbourhood.

Section 41 says that if any tenant permits another person to be on the premises and they do something wrong, the tenant is as liable as if they’d done that thing themselves.

I realise that many people won’t have a problem with that and will believe that any drug use in public housing is fair grounds for loss of shelter. But that has terrible implications for addressing drug and alcohol issues on a public health level.

We know that the key factor in helping people beat their problems is a secure and stable environment. This is the opposite of that. As I noted last week, it’s also not what Housing NZ is doing now. Current CEO Andrew Mckenzie, who took up the role in September 2016, has outlined a philosophy which commits it to supporting ”tenants who need a stable home to have the best chance of working through any addiction issues.”

Tenancy Tribunal decisions can be searched here. Feel free to do so, but I’d ask you to note what I’ve done with the case that leads this post. Jesse B’s name is public in the text of the decision, but that publication will expire soon (they’re only up for three years, which itself lends some urgency to the identification of particularly egregious cases). I don’t want his full name to be Google-searchable thereafter, the more so given that I have reason to believe he’s making a go of it. This is a story of a class of people who were often unreasonably punished for human failures. And we want people to be well, not to be punished in perpetuity.

This piece was first published on Russell Brown’s blog, Public Address.

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