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SocietyJanuary 19, 2023

Promises and pitfalls: What to expect as a renter in 2023

orange backgroun, a house and an open door showing lots of hands raised behind it
Image: Archi Banal

With a general election on the horizon, various pieces of legislation coming (or not coming) into force and bad economic vibes all around us, we asked Éimhín O’Shea, a national organiser at Renters United, what renters can expect this year.

Your landlord (still) not bothering to fix that damp corner of your bedroom

The Healthy Homes Standards are rules intended to ensure renters aren’t living in mouldy, damp, cold, or uninsulated buildings. In late 2022 the government announced an extension of the Healthy Homes Standards deadline from mid-2023 to mid-2024. O’Shea says “there remains little to no enforcement of these standards” and that the extension will allow landlords to continue to put off upgrading the housing from which they earn money. Given Aotearoa’sinadequate” housing stock and high rates of health issues linked to poor housing, O’Shea says the extension “is a deliberate choice to prolong the suffering of our most vulnerable communities”. While the Healthy Homes Standards are a step in the right direction, O’Shea says they must be enforced to make a difference. 

Your property manager to (hopefully) be regulated

The role of a property manager is to show rental homes, resolve tenant issues, manage repairs and ensure that properties comply with the law. However, O’Shea notes that there are currently no formal licences or qualifications for property managers, and many of those Renters United work with feel that their property managers don’t respond to their concerns.

“In Aotearoa you need a licence for, and can lose the ability to drive a car, own a gun, and have a pet, but not to provide another person a basic human right and necessity,” says O’Shea. Megan Woods, minister for housing, announced in November 2022 that further legislation and oversight of property managers is coming in 2023. 

While O’Shea is hopeful that these changes will address the gap in legislation which regulates real estate agents but not property managers, he says “it’s in danger of falling drastically short of being effective”. He wants to see all those that manage properties, including private landlords and employed property managers, to have specific regulations to manage their actions. “There’s a lot of work to do to make sure this legislation is fit for purpose, but it’s a great opportunity to achieve better outcomes for both property owners and renters,” O’Shea says. 

Image: Archi Banal

A rise in your rent

In an economic environment with  home ownership still out of reach for many (despite “bargain” prices), renters are affected too. Add high interest rates and inflation to a cost of living crisis and rising rents are definitely on the cards for 2023. “The massive imbalance of supply and demand for housing is pushing up rents,” O’Shea says. “This disproportionately affects those on low to medium incomes.” While there are seasonal and regional variations, the overall trend is for rents to increase year-on-year. The never-ending housing crisis is a sign that the market has been letting renters down for decades. “We need courageous action from the government to address this – we need rent control, and we need it now,” O’Shea adds. 

More of the same “a few bad apples” rhetoric

Often, O’Shea says, discussing problems around renting focuses on individual landlords not fulfilling their obligations, to the detriment of their tenants. “The narrative that bad landlords are few and far between is a powerful one,” he says. While some landlords do go beyond their legal requirements, O’Shea says there is “a massive power imbalance between renters and landlords or property managers”. In other words, advocacy groups like Renters United want to address the systemic problems with renting in Aotearoa, not just the most egregious examples of bad practice.

There are some spots of hope: the Residential Tenancy Amendment  (RTA) Act in 2020 has helped to balance landlords’ and tenants’ interests. But while access to adequate housing is a human right, O’Shea says renting “is still inherently precarious in its current state, with disabled communities, ethnic minority communities, and families finding it the most difficult to assert their rights as renters.

Security of tenure becoming more important than ever

According to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, security of tenure – the right to continue living in your home and being protected from involuntarily leaving except in certain circumstances – is a cornerstone of the right to adequate housing. In a year as economically tough as 2023 is predicted to be, security of tenure will remain critical for renters. O’Shea recommends that tenants know their rights in situations where they may be asked to move out, and suggests starting with the resources available at Aratohu Tenant Advocacy, Community Law, and Citizens Advice Bureau.

A general election with potential gains (and losses) for renters

Election 2023 is set for the latter part of the year, probably November. “Now is the time for all parties to offer their vision for what renting and wider housing could look like for Aotearoa,” O’Shea says. Renters are, after all, a huge proportion of possible voters. Renters United expects “renting to be high on the agenda at this election, and for previously silent parties to attempt to appeal to renters.” 

The possibility of a new government after the election also means that changes to rental legislation made in the last six years could be walked back. O’Shea and the Renters United team will be keeping a close eye on party policy released ahead of the election. “Housing density rules, the RTA reforms, healthy homes standards – none of this is ‘safe’,” O’Shea says. “We need to be ready to advocate for ourselves and bring a strong voice to our communities.”

A sense of collaboration and a belief in a better future for renters in Aotearoa 

Around one in three New Zealand households now rent their home, with that proportion higher in urban areas and low-income areas. Renting has traditionally been much less common in Aotearoa than in other parts of the world – considered a temporary rite of passage for students, or the last option for the economically destitute. The obsession with home ownership dates back to colonial times, even though it’s become increasingly unrealistic for many people.

While housing is a human right, landlords are often compelled to treat houses as an investment that must generate money. This is possibly why we’ve been so slow to establish decent rights for renters and why the state of our rental accommodation is so abysmal.

With more and more New Zealanders renting, 2023 is the year for them to know their rights and to join forces with other renters to ensure they’re met. 

Maybe you need to start chatting with your downstairs neighbour to compare notes about your property manager; maybe you’ve been told to move out and need help to figure out what your rights are. Or maybe years of renting have made you hopeful that renting can be better for yourself, your friends and whānau.

O’Shea says that the pressure on local and central government to create the kind of strong, enforced rules to protect renters doesn’t happen by itself; it happens by collaboration. “If better renting matters to you, then getting involved with groups like Renters United, Manuwatu Tenants Union, Tenant Advocats Network, Anglican Advocacy, or a student union can be a great place to continue pushing for better, healthier homes for everyone.”

Keep going!