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Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images
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PoliticsMarch 27, 2017

After rent week: we know renting in NZ is a disaster. But it can be fixed

Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images
Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

Spinoff editor Duncan Greive looks back at rent week, a pop-up campaign which laid bare the numerous and vicious problems with renting in New Zealand.

We first mooted a Spinoff ‘rent week’ in late 2016. It was based on the idea that the stories of home ownership were being told constantly, but the challenges and evolving reality of renting were being covered far less frequently. Additionally, because a number of our young staff were looking for flats at the time, we had a sense that the market was getting pretty freaky out there. Fifty or 100 people turning up to look at properties, letting agents mysteriously renegging on agreements, secret bidding wars which saw potential tenants offering $20-$100 more than the weekly asking rent to secure a property – all this appeared to be bedded in.

That was just to secure a tenancy. The dismal realities of renting on this country also felt ripe for appraisal, in blackly comic style. It seems everyone you know has lived in multiple properties featuring some combination of damp, mould, cold, rodents, intrusive landlords and terrifying flatmates. We felt that would be fertile ground to explore from a writing perspective.

While those might seem like quite different angles in, they stem from the same place: renting in New Zealand is one of the most lightly regulated activities in this country. When you go out for dinner or a drink, put a car on the road or keep livestock in the city, those activities are covered by some combination of law, regulation and licensing. For whatever reason, your home escapes such scrutiny.

All this was in our mind as we launched the week: a big issue, under-discussed. We didn’t really have firm expectations about how it would be received by our audience. Our prior experience with campaigns had been either silly (early triumph Street Week or dismal failure Hosking Week) or far more involved (The War for Auckland). What would people make of it? Would they care? Was it as big an issue as we felt?

The answer was emphatic and near-immediate. Last week was the second-biggest for pageviews in Spinoff history. Over 30 different stories had 3,000 or more views. Peter Newport’s shocking report on the situation in Queenstown (more on that later) was read 25,000 times, and led the Herald online for hours after they syndicated it two days later.

It was less the numbers than the emotion which overwhelmed, though. We’ve never had such a barrage of emails and comments from readers. We ended up publishing a record number of reader submissions, from bleak stories of bad rentals, to a landlord decrying other landlords’ callousness, to the venerable Citizens Advice Bureau informing tenants of what rights they do have, and followed up on a half-dozen more.

The stories ran across nearly all sections – from music to television to science to parents to Auckland – showing just how ubiquitous these problems are. There were questions asked in parliament about renting, and MPs approvingly sharing the stories.

I default to cynicism about crowd-sourced journalism. About crowd-sourced most things, to be honest. For every time it works there are a dozen when it feels hijacked or like it’s a way of covering up a lack of editorial conviction or control. This time, for us at least, was different.

The volume we put out – I haven’t done a count, but am assuming this was the most we’ve ever published – was so vast that few will have read every piece. But even a cursory engagement with what rent week became will have made it clear that our current laws around tenants and tenancy are not fit for purpose. They were designed in a different era, one which fundamentally assumed that renting is a brief weigh station en route to ownership.

As Core Logic data released just yesterday shows, that’s just not a reality any more. In the first three months of this year, 44% of Auckland property was purchased by investors. Over half of our 15+ population live in rentals. And while the inaccessibility of purchase remains a major problem and contributor to our housing crisis, it’s also a pernicious one which will take years if not decades to resolve.

As bad as Auckland is, Queenstown is worse. Peter Newport’s story showed the massive problems with supply which exist in the area, leading to over-crowding and profiteering in a style which seems unimaginable in 21st century New Zealand. One example a reader sent through: a landlord in Queenstown was last year renting WOF-less van for $65 a week. Now the same van is reportedly going for more than $100. Sounds like a terrible deal, but it’s actually worse again: it’s BYO driveway – all you get is the van, not somewhere to put it. In Queenstown. In winter.

Here are a couple of other examples of what’s on offer in our tourist capital:

It’s getting desperate out there. The supply issues need urgent attention. But in the meantime, there are two relatively accessible fixes which ring out clear as a bell in the aftermath of rent week. Each would have a huge impact on the life of tenants. Together they would have the effect of transforming renting from a tenuous and terrifying activity to one which serves the purpose for which it was designed: the provision of safe and secure housing for our population. Those fixes are:

  • Some form of warrant of fitness on a home, to ensure that it meets a minimum standard.
  • Longer and more secure leases on homes as the default option.

These aren’t just ideas plucked from the sky. Length of tenure and a minimum quality standard are cited by experts as critical to improving our outcomes in this area. These would need to be enforced by a stronger and more activist tenancy agency, like the one recently founded (to the government’s credit) within MBIE. Whenever these kinds of solutions are mooted, the likes of property investor or landlord groups (who were invited to contribute to rent week, incidentally – their contributions simply never arrived) tend to shout them down as increasing costs for tenants. Well, let’s find out. If our housing is so poor quality as to make its inhabitants sick – as hundreds of thosands of our dwellings remain – then let them be brought up to standard and see what happens to the price.

If the landlord cannot afford to make their property fit for human habitation, let them sell it to someone who will. Because right now, those landlords renting out damp, mouldy villas are externalising their costs to society at large. This is the opposite of user pays – those who rent out substandard accommodation pass on the major costs to health, education and work to taxpayers and employers.

The fact is that not everyone is cut out to be a landlord. It’s a burden, keeping a property in a fit state, knowing that something could go wrong at any time of the day or night, and that it will be on you to fix it. It seems like the kind of task, both in gravity and complexity, that you’d want left up to professionals – yet ours is, as Arthur Grimes noted, a nation of blundering amateurs. Some fantastic and generous. But many mean-spirited and irresponsible.

It shouldn’t come down to luck which one you get. It should come down to law.

Which is why, over the next six months, we’ll be asking our politicians what they intend to do about renting. Like the housing crisis, this is a problem with many authors. It’s been brewing for decades, but a combination of an ageing housing stock, a national fear of investing in shares or businesses and the over-crowding the housing crisis has wrought has brought it to a boil.

Now that we have a sense of just how much it means to our readers, we’ll dedicate part of our election coverage (the shape of which we’ll announce in the next week or so) to following this issue. In so doing we’ll find out which parties care about it sufficiently to deserve your vote.

Read all The Spinoff’s Rent Week coverage here

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