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Mould matters more than meth – so why aren’t we protecting renters from it?

The Human Rights Commission’s David Rutherford argues that people shouldn’t have to live in houses contaminated by methamphetamine – but they shouldn’t have to live in houses that are damp and mouldy either.

Black mould. It’s become almost a rite of passage for renting in New Zealand – if you haven’t lived in a house with some form of mould, dampness, condensation or temperatures indoors that are lower than the temperature outside, have you really rented a house in New Zealand?

The fact that it’s been this way for decades doesn’t make it right.

Our nation’s hospitals continue to overflow each year with families who display the side-effects of living in homes that are inadequate. Coughing, sneezing, difficulty breathing, ear infections and skin irritations are just a few of the issues and it’s our poorest households that bear the brunt.

A report by the University of Otago’s New Zealand Child and Youth Epidemiology Service last year found 34% of our lowest income households with children live in houses with dampness and mould, a problem experienced by only 1% of high-income households.

These outcomes are serious violations of the State’s human rights duties under international treaties to protect and enable the right of people to live in adequate housing and their right to health. They need to be addressed with greater urgency.

Part of the problem is that the legislation that applies to renting – the Residential Tenancies Act – serves landlords first and renters second. The most recently proposed amendment to this legislation, the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill (No. 2) perpetuates this approach.

Among other things, the Bill seeks to provide landlords with additional powers and rights when a rental property is suspected to be contaminated by methamphetamine. This includes providing landlords with the power to terminate a tenancy whether the tenant was at fault or not, or whether they contributed to the methamphetamine contamination or not, all without the tenant’s consent or compensation. In addition, the Bill does not require the tenant’s personal circumstances to be factored into such a decision.

Last month, the Commission made a submission on the Bill to the Local Government and Environment Committee and recommended that it not be passed in its current form for a number of reasons.

First, the Bill is fundamentally out of step with the international human rights standards that are set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which provides that “…all persons should possess a degree of security of tenure which guarantees legal protection against forced eviction.”

Secondly, the Bill is based on standards that are yet to be finalised, which provide for a maximum acceptable level of contamination (as mentioned in Maria Slade’s piece on meth contamination). These standards are being developed despite a lack of scientific consensus regarding what level of contamination would be considered safe in a home.

Put simply, the Bill puts people at risk of being booted out of their homes by their landlords without notice or compensation due to the application of standards that are not scientifically agreed or developed. At the same time, it will remain acceptable for landlords to allow people to live in damp and mouldy homes that are proven to cause significant health issues.

To be clear, we’re not advocating that people should be required to, or have the ability to, remain in homes that are proven to be contaminated by methamphetamine. Our concern is that people affected by the presence of methamphetamine in their homes, through no fault of their own, should be supported in finding and funding, new accommodation at very short notice.

We’re also concerned that the short notice termination provisions will give landlords the opportunity to circumvent usual rental termination requirements. Safeguards should be in place to ensure that the procedure is not used inappropriately and that affected tenants can quickly access review processes if required.

We made several recommendations to the Committee around this Bill, most importantly we recommended the grounds of termination are reviewed to ensure that:

  1. Tenants without fault or contribution are not subject to a termination of tenancy without their consent and provision of appropriate compensation.
  2. The personal circumstances of tenants must be taken into account prior to any decision being made Review the notice period for termination and ensure that affected tenants are provided with an adequate opportunity to appeal the decision and arrange advice and advocacy in doing so.

We believe that these measures are the very least that can be done to rectify the Bill’s imbalanced approach.

New Zealand’s housing issues mean more kiwis are renters than ever before. There cannot continue to be an ‘us and them’ approach to how we protect people’s rights. The balance between meeting the human rights needs of renters in New Zealand, while also protecting the rights of landlords and their properties needs to be found.

No, people shouldn’t have to live in houses contaminated by methamphetamine, but they shouldn’t have to live in houses that are damp and mouldy either. This is why the Commission has called for a cross party accord on homes for New Zealanders.

If we are to tackle issues related to renting in New Zealand – then let’s really tackle them, rather than tinkering around the edges to improve the outcomes for landlords, but not the people who are forced to continue to live in inadequate housing.


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