The white paint is thick. (Image: Gabi Lardies).
The white paint is thick. (Image: Gabi Lardies).

OPINIONPoliticsJune 26, 2024

New Zealand is one big crappy flat with successive negligent landlords

The white paint is thick. (Image: Gabi Lardies).
The white paint is thick. (Image: Gabi Lardies).

Everything keeps breaking. The plane. The ferry. The power pylon. The roads. The pipes. Why? Because maintenance has been less than ideal – classic bad landlord behaviour. 

When I was 20-something, there was a hole, about the size of a $2 coin, in the hardwood floor of my bedroom. It would have gone right down into the darkness of the foundations if it wasn’t for a protective piece of sellotape over it. This maintenance measure was not so different to tape holding wiring together on Kiwirail’s Aratere in 2023, except luckily it wasn’t exposed to oil, and didn’t disintegrate and lead to a power blackout while approaching the entrance to the Tory Channel with 538 people onboard. My room could have never crossed the Cook Strait, and run itself aground last Friday, but it seems the maintenance strategy was the same: cheap, quick and she’ll be right. 

Successive governments of New Zealand seem to have taken notes from their favourite people on how to look after their assets. Maintenance, generally not considered a winner of votes (unless it’s fixing potholes) has been kicked down the road. Instead of properly fixing or replacing broken stuff, the country has served up landlord specials and, most recently, tax cuts. Just like thick coats of white paint eventually let the black mould behind them flourish, the state’s maintenance programmes are flowering and bearing fruit. 

No mistakes, only happy accidents, a landlord special ft. dancing cockroach.

On Thursday, a power pylon fell over, plunging Northland into darkness. Why? Too many nuts were unscrewed at once. Three of the pylon’s legs were loose, and the fourth could not keep everything up on its own. It’s not unlike that cheap curtain rail, screwed into plasterboard with a too-short screw, hanging on by just a couple of threads. As they should, these incidents have sparked commentary that our country(’s infrastructure) is falling apart, some would say by a $200 billion deficit. Others (me) have had memories of typical crappy flats exhumed.

Like any old rental the country is also having problems with its pipes, particularly in the capital. There’s at least $5.2m of “must do” and $4m of “should do” pipe work under Thorndon Quay and Hutt Road alone, according to a 2022 Wellington Water draft memo. It’s not an exception – 44% of Wellington’s wastewater pipes are in a “poor” or “very poor” state, leading RNZ to call them decrepit. Residents and companies on Thorndon Quay have reported collapsed wastewater pipes and drinking water erupting up from the ground to council and media, but rather than repair the pipes, $55m worth of new bus lanes and cycleways have been plonked on top. That is a hell of a thick coat of paint. 

In Whangārei the leaks are coming from the ceiling, in the hospital, in the radiology and emergency departments. While water dripping close to expensive MRI machines in April shocked a patient (thankfully not literally), it was no surprise to staff or health authorities. It has been decided that replacing the roof is not economical, as the whole building is not going to last much longer. This kind of reasoning pricks up the ears of a very small portion of renters who love smashing shit and want to have a landlord-approved end of lease demolition party. On the other hand, hospital staff, AKA resourceful tenants, placed a bucket under the leak, and continued to work around it. At the time, an ED doctor told the Herald that the leaks were sometimes a “cascade” of water, and were across various departments. There is a hospital rebuild on the way, but stage one isn’t due to be completed for another seven years. This is worse than the landlord who ignored my friend’s requests to fix a leaky roof for three months.

Politicians are no strangers to the ways of the landlords. Many are landlords themselves – the current prime minister many times over. Perhaps they have considered property maintenance a transferable skill, in bold on their CVs. While it might seem, given the results, that not enough money has been spent on infrastructure, this isn’t strictly true. We spend an average of 5.8% of GDP on public and private infrastructure – more than Australia and above the average for OECD countries. The money hasn’t been going to good use though – we’re near to bottom 10% for the efficiency of our spending.

A small drop in the ocean of inefficient spending is the $36.3m (and counting) that the New Zealand Transport Agency is spending on initial plans for a second Waitematā Harbour crossing in Auckland. In figures provided to BusinessDesk, NZTA recorded spending $150,000 with the council for urban development advice, but mayor Wayne Brown said they hadn’t contacted the council. “It is a complete waste of money,” he said in an email. The current government would love to point at this as wasteful Labour spending, but they’ve already spent nearly $1m on consultants to investigate a 4km tunnel underneath Wellington – a project widely considered a stupid waste of money. Successive governments have a property manager-landlord relationship, where both pretend to be on your side, while blaming the other for not fixing things. 

The property manager and the landlord.

Perhaps government spending on the production of PDFs for projects that will never happen can be compared to landlord spending on property managers. They pay for a fancy photoshoot to make the house look good, pay for a flowery write up of it to accompany the photos on a property listing, and pay a real estate agent in a suit to show people around the property – all appearances – just like a nice PDF. Then, they also pay the manager about 8% of your rent to ignore your emails and send you confusing text messages. Inefficient.

I walked past my old flat recently. It looked exactly the same. The garage door was partially off its rails, the roof of the letterbox was rotten through so that mail gets wet, and the windows were rattling in their frames though you could barely feel a breeze. The paint on the bannisters and beams of the porch was flaking off, and rusty nails were being pushed up by the swollen wood. Since I’m not there any more, I’d say the flat has experienced brain drain. But what’s worse is knowing that people do live there, and their life is worse due to the moulding bathroom and draughty windows. They could put the heat pump on, but they’ll be paying a hefty electricity bill as the heat will easily escape. 

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