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OPINIONPoliticsApril 16, 2024

Will pet bonds really be a win-win? I’m not holding my breath


Making it easier for people with pets to find rentals is a good thing. But the pet bonds policy is just one proposal in a suite of many that overwhelmingly favour landlords’ rights, argues Kristin Kelly.

Renting in New Zealand, generally speaking, sucks. At the time of the last census, home-ownership rates were the lowest they’d been in almost 70 years yet as a country we continue to think of, and regulate for, renting as though it is an interim measure on the path to the Kiwi dream. Compared to the OECD average, our rentals are expensive, and in short supply. Their quality remains lower than owner-occupied homes and in 2019 we ranked fifth-equal-lowest in the OECD for restrictiveness of land controls and tenancy security.

In 2020, amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act increased security by changing default lease-lapse conditions, removing no-clause terminations, and increasing termination notice periods. The government is now proposing to undo these changes to “stop the war on landlords” and as “part of the wider plan to solve New Zealand’s housing crisis”. In line with one of the Act Party’s campaign promises, they’re also introducing pet bonds.

Accompanied by dogs Ladyhawke, Leo, Donald and Dusky, ministers Chris Bishop and David Seymour yesterday announced a new pet bond would be introduced through the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill, planned to go before the House in May. The bond, a maximum of two weeks’ rent, can be charged by landlords to tenants with pets. It’s additional to a standard bond, and its stated purpose is twofold: protect landlords from damage caused by pets, and make it easier for pet-owners to secure rentals. 

Chris Bishop with Ladyhawke and David Seymour with Leo at parliament (Photo: Twitter)

A 35kg mixed-breed, my dog isn’t an easy sell to prospective landlords. She’s also both more responsible, and a better neighbour, than loads of people. She has neither the interest nor dexterity to punch holes in walls, remove copper cables, or cook meth in the basement. Unlike my old flatmate Elliot, she does not grow and smoke marijuana indoors. Terrified of loud noises, she is more likely to make a noise complaint than she is to be slapped with one.

Over the course of the four years I’ve had her, most of her delinquent behaviour has been directed at the carpet. She has once stained it with a toy’s pink dye, and thrice stepped peanut butter into it. Frequently, as a way to self soothe, she licks it until it becomes stiff with her saliva and forms tufts. This is gross. It’s also not lasting.

With her in my life, I actively seek out long-term leases because the chances of me unexpectedly upping sticks to live in the Colombian jungle are nil. Often, though, I worry about what would happen if we had to move. While I’d sooner give up housing than I would my girl, I’m lucky. I have a beautiful home and a kind landlord. I have friends and family that could take me in if needed. Loads of people don’t. Neither do their pets, some of whom you can find on TradeMe’s adoptions listings. 

Given that New Zealand renters are some of the most vocally miserable in the world, I’m probably not alone in applauding efforts to make it easier to rent. I also agree with Seymour that there is a “missing market for tenants with pets”. For three main reasons, though, I just don’t think that this policy will fill it.

First, under existing regulation, standard bonds — capped at four weeks’ rent — already provide coverage for pet damage. In Wellington, where the average rental is $640, that’s up to $2,560. Say Cujo goes to town on the door frames or Peter Rabbit finds the fuse box and you’re looking at more than a straightforward rug doctoring, as a property owner you can take a claim to the Tenancy Tribunal.

The tribunal, a government-run service, hears around 20,000 cases a year and can issue legally binding orders to both landlords and tenants. There’s a catch: compensation through the tribunal can’t exceed $100,000. If your tenant’s pet has caused that quantum of damage, though, they’re probably a chimera not a tortoiseshell. 

Second, under the new regulation, a landlord can still refuse a pet on “reasonable grounds”. What does that mean? Well, it hasn’t been defined. Instead it’s up to the landlord and tenant to negotiate. If that fails, either party can take a claim to the Tenancy Tribunal for the bargain price of $20.44 including GST. 

Without clarity of definition, though, it’s easy to imagine that some landlords might willingly interpret this restrictively. It’s also easy to imagine that, if overruled, they could point to another reason why the agreement won’t work. Or, if other proposed tenancy changes are introduced, no reason at all.

This brings us to my last point: this policy isn’t going to be a cultural zeitgeist. It represents one proposal in a suite of many that overwhelmingly favour landlords’ rights. Yes, regulating for companion animals could be said to help normalise owning them. But in New Zealand, it already is normal. We have the second-highest rates of pet ownership in the world after America and – with devastating impacts on our wildlife – the highest rates of cat ownership. In 2018, we spent almost $2 billion on our pets. We flippin’ love them. I find it hard to see how charging tenants two bonds is going to make this easier, or be the win-win change it’s being called.

The policy won’t be implemented until the end of 2025, and it’s likely that it will still take a few years beyond that to understand its impact. In the meantime, though. I’m not holding my breath. Instead, I’m holding onto what Bishop said on air to his dog. 

“Lady, shhh. You’re meant to like the policy.”

Keep going!