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Rent week: Why we’re devoting a series to the reality of renting a NZ home in 2017

Renting in New Zealand is now the way most of us live. Unfortunately, in many ways, it sucks. Spinoff editor Duncan Greive explains why we’re dedicating a week to the issue.

A couple of weeks ago Arthur Grimes, the former chair of the Reserve Bank, was interviewed on Nine to Noon by Kathryn Ryan. The occasion was a report by his research lab Motu, which had discovered a 1:6 cost:benefit ratio for the government’s insulation subsidy scheme, one which the University of Otago’s Philippa Howden-Chapman called “the strongest evidence the government has around social investment”. It’s also being wound down, despite 600,000-900,000 homes remaining with either inadequate insulation, or no insulation at all.

It was a reminder, yet again, of what a shitty place New Zealand can be to rent a home. Grimes explained the cause of the phenomenon succinctly.

“New Zealand has a very odd structure in terms of landlords,” he told Ryan, “in that we have a lot of, essentially what I’d call amateur landlords. They don’t have the expertise to do it properly. And it’s a very poor service that they provide.”

Maybe that was always the case. But, while that’s never been good enough, it matters more now: over half of the New Zealand population now lives in a rental, and the numbers are higher where they’re always higher: Māori and Pasifika. These statistics, gathered in the 2013 census, largely pre-date the worst excesses of the housing crisis – and so are likely to have grown apace since.

This has left vast numbers of our young, and significant amounts of our old, trapped in the rental market – dealing with homes which are often cold, damp, mouldy, expensive and in poor condition. And because so many of the protections which exist in other countries are absent here, a tenant’s ability to reliably locate a quality, stable long-term rental comes down to luck. Which doesn’t seem like a solid basis for the single biggest and most important expense in your household budget.

The causes of this are many and varied – a small sampler might include the boom in house prices; the tax-privileging of property investment; constraints on building; and a scarcity of rental properties leading a generation of tenants to simply accept whatever they’re offered.

Yet the causes are less relevant to tenants than the outcome: living in houses which externalise the costs of their poor quality to the tenants and the taxpayer. They can be measured in absenteeism, from work and school. In burden on the health system, from increased hospital admissions and doctor’s visits. Even in deaths: the Motu research above calculated that retrofitting insulation on our cold, damp homes prevented one extra death per thousand tenants.

Given that this very complex situation is literally killing us, as well as sending our most vulnerable to renting garages and living in massively over-crowded dwellings, we thought it worth focusing on. With buying a home the stuff of fantasy now for large tracts of us, this is now the way we live for the long-term. Renting has, in a few short years, transformed from something our government could plausibly say was a temporary situation for most New Zealanders, to something most should expect to do for their entire adult lives.

This vast change has happened by stealth, almost by accident, but has profound consequences for the millions of New Zealanders whom it impacts. And while this government has made small gestures toward improving the lot of the renter – introducing minimum insulation standards for most properties in the coming years, for example – renting remains an oddly haphazard process. Your largest and most important expense feels like it’s enacted via a system like TradeMe – often literally via TradeMe – but without the feedback and comments or the kind of basic consumer protections you’d get when buying, say, a $10 toaster from The Warehouse.

That seems unfortunate.

This is why we’re going to spend this week scrutinising the reality of renting. We’ll be looking at it in a typical Spinoff style, with humour and memoir as well as feature writing, analysis and opinion. While necessarily incomplete – we’re a small office, and no one could capture the entire spectrum – we will attempt to show its impact as broadly as possible, and make it both infuriating and entertaining along the way. We have economist Shamubeel Eaqub writing a brief update to his Generation Rent text, comment from Bill English on renter’s rights, Tourettes writing on flatting squalor and a feature on the struggles of home ownership and on young, vulnerable families. And a bunch more besides.

We hope you’ll like it. And if you have a renting story you’d like to share, please email info@thespinoff.co.nz making it clear whether you are comfortable having it used for publication. While we won’t be able to reply to all submissions, we will read them all.


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