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Housing minister Chris Bishop. (Images; Getty, design: Tina Tiller)
Housing minister Chris Bishop. (Images; Getty, design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyMay 8, 2024

Rules for property managers are scrapped. But what’s the worst that could happen?

Housing minister Chris Bishop. (Images; Getty, design: Tina Tiller)
Housing minister Chris Bishop. (Images; Getty, design: Tina Tiller)

Stories from the tenancy trenches, featuring spider infestations, cupboard rats and same-sex discrimination.

Lucy’s brother was living in a damp 1930s building in Mt Eden where “he had to tie the cupboard doors closed so the rats didn’t get in”. Although he shared custody of his six-year-old son, his property management agency ignored his repeated maintenance requests, and did nothing to make the property “healthy or safe”, says Lucy.

When her brother died unexpectedly, “My mother, aunt and nan cleaned the place from top to bottom so it was cleaner than when he moved in,” Lucy says. “When the property managers did an ‘inspection’, they came back to my mother, who had just lost her son and said it was ‘disgusting’.

“Turns out the agent hadn’t even gone inside. She had looked in the window, seen a black mould stain on the carpet that [my brother] had complained about, and claimed the property hadn’t been cleaned. They refused to return his deposit, saying he didn’t give them notice. He didn’t give us notice either. We never received an apology or his bond back. They are utter fuckwits and I have refused to deal with them since.”

“Utter fuckwits” is one of the milder phrases respondents used to describe their worst experiences with property management companies. Other descriptions included “Satan”, “literally the devil” and “evil with a dash of incompetence”.

A house on a blue background with lightning bolts
The problem with property managers is that ‘they are not a neutral middle party’. (Design: Tina Tiller)

Almost one third of New Zealanders live in rental accommodation and property management agencies directly manage about 40% of those properties. Last week housing minister Chris Bishop scrapped the Residential Property Managers Bill, which would have introduced mandatory standards for the regulation of property management agencies, holding those companies to “professional standards of practice.”

Lucy Telfar-Barnard, a senior research fellow at He Kāinga Oranga, the Housing and Health Research Programme at the University of Otago, says the deck is stacked against tenants who rent through a property manager. The problem, she says, is that “property managers are not a neutral middle party”.

“When a tenant comes to a property manager with an issue, the property manager sees that issue as a risk to their relationship with the landlord. A lot of them will ignore requests for as long as they can get away with it. Obviously, there are some really good property managers out there and I would not tar them all with the same brush, but at the same time, there are some clearly under a lot of pressure from [managing] high numbers of properties. They’re not managing them well, and it’s clear they’re in this for the money. Because anyone can be a property manager, you don’t have to have any qualifications. I could decide tomorrow that was the thing to do, and off we go.”

I reached out to current and former renters, to hear their experiences of property management companies. Stories ranged from the predictable – frequently ignored maintenance requests for leaks, colonies of black mould, and instances of property managers illegally entering flats without prior warning – to the terrifying and specific, such as the renter who had just moved into a flat, only to have an exterminator visit a week later to deal with the “spider infestation” nobody had warned them about.

Currently, the only way to address a grievance with a property management company is by going through the Tenancy Tribunal. It’s a long and often intimidating process which relies on a tenant having the tenacity and confidence to pursue their claim, not to mention the time to spare attending hearings during work hours. Wellingtonian Harriet Prebble is one renter who decided to take her property managers to the tribunal.

“The house had myriad issues, but the main one was a massive leak in the ceiling in one of the bedrooms,” she says. “We’re talking soggy carpet, rotting floorboards, mould, the works. After nearly TWO YEARS of constant back and forths and water pouring through the roof every time it rained, I finally took them to the Tenancy Tribunal.

“The morning of the hearing, the company called me to give me some ‘friendly advice’ that it wasn’t in my best interest to pursue the application if I ever wanted to rent properties in the Wellington region in future.”

Harriet disregarded the warning and went on to win her case. Her property managers were ordered to fix the roof and pay her compensation. But that wasn’t the end of the saga. After the hearing, the agency refused to pay up, ignoring her calls while still collecting rent. Harried got in touch with local government representatives, and procured the services of a pro-bono lawyer. But it wasn’t until she made a Facebook post and tagged the company that they grudgingly paid up – albeit in weekly instalments. The leak in her roof was never fixed.

Your property manager may have checked whether you ever took a claim to the Tenancy Tribunal before approving your application. (Image: Getty Images)

Dr Brodie Fraser, also a senior research fellow with He Kāinga Oranga, says she’s seen a lot of anecdotal evidence of property managers checking whether prospective tenants have ever taken a case to the tribunal and immediately blacklisting them if they have. “I feel like there’s a lot of invisible discrimination that goes on and there’s no accountability for it.”

Part of Fraser’s research involved interviewing LGBTIQ+ people about their housing experiences, and she says one of the most horrifying stories came from a gay couple who rented a house through a property management company. The house was owned by their neighbour, a queer single woman with a child, with whom they became close friends during their tenancy.

It was only after they left that their neighbour-landlord told them the property management agency, not knowing that she also identified as gay, had approached her at the start of their tenancy to express their concerns. According to Sean, one of those tenants, the property managers told her: “Two guys want to move in next door but we know that you’ve got children. Is it OK if we were to rent it to them?” Upon hearing this Sean was “devastated” but decided not to make a formal complaint, because, as Fraser says, “[they] were one of the main real estate agencies in the city and he knew they’d blacklist him from future properties if he kicked up a fuss”.

Fraser says this kind of discrimination is common, but “it’s that subtle insidious thing that is so hard to capture and so hard to report. It’s a tricky one to try and legislate against, but something like the [Residential Property Managers Bill] would have been a tiny step forward.”

The quashing of this bill comes in the wake of the government’s change to mortgage interest deductibility rules – a $3b tax break for landlords – and the reintroduction of 90-day “no cause” terminations for periodic tenancies, expected to come into effect in early 2025.

According to an analysis by RNZ, the property industry donates more to political parties than any other industry. The 2023 donations register, released last week, reveal that those in the property sector – including Garth Barfoot, of Barfoot & Thompson, and the Bayley Corporation – overwhelmingly donate to National, Act and NZ First.

Quinovic made headlines in 2018 with its controversial marketing slogan, “Your tenants may hate us. You will love us.” They have since issued an apology. But is there any truth to the slogan? It seems verifiably true that tenants hate them. But do property agencies always serve the interests of landlords?

“Absolutely not,” says Telfar-Barnard. “You can end up with property managers not telling landlords things they need to do and the landlord then becoming liable for something.” A property manager’s reluctance to raise ongoing maintenance issues can easily cause the quality of a property to worsen, leading to costly repairs down the line.

Christopher Luxon, who owns seven properties, has said the tax breaks for landlords were about “improving life for renters”. Christopher Bishop argues that “adding more regulation to the rental property market isn’t the way to open up more housing supply” and that “sensible changes to the Residential Tenancies Act” would “encourage more landlords into the market, and apply downward pressure to rents”.

Ah yes, those famous downward pressures and trickle-down benefits. Like an unpatched hole in the 3 billion dollar ceiling, soaking the carpet of the renting poor.

This article was updated to note that it was Quinovic who ran the “your tenants may hate us” campaign, not Barfoot & Thompson. The Spinoff regrets the error.

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