Jess McAllen takes a tour through the Tenancy Tribunal’s decisions to find bleak scenes of landlords and letting agents running amok.
It’s a tale as old as time: treating yourself to a succulent chicken rotisserie from New World on Sunday night and putting the other half in the fridge for Monday sandwiches. But what happens when the meat is stolen? For one Auckland man who lives in a boarding house in Kingsland – and is missing half a chicken – it meant being told to move out.
There was an eyewitness. There was a suspect. There was the suspect’s room in which the food was seen. Even CCTV footage, albeit unhelpful.
The man – who we’re going to dub Mr W, he’s had enough trouble, frankly – emailed his property manager at 10pm on the Monday he discovered his missing food, last year. The property manager said CCTV footage was “inconclusive”. Mr W suggested talking to the key witness. It was two days after the incident and the property manager responded by giving Mr W his notice.
Mr W thought the notice was “in retaliation for complaining about the chicken being stolen”. The Tenancy Tribunal agreed and dismissed the termination notice as invalid. The decision doesn’t say whether the perpetrator of crime was ever found and brought to justice.
This was a rare Tribunal decision in which no money was awarded. It’s worth mentioning most Tenancy Tribunal cases are actually made by landlords in regards to rent owed. This might be because tenants are can be reluctant to take their landlords to court – when your name comes up on a public record for calling out a past landlord, securing future housing can become a nightmare. It’s time-consuming and requires resilience. Further still, it is the Tenancy Services, through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment that administer the Residential Tenancy Act.
“The Tenancy Tribunal is only part of the picture,” said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice. “It’s often resolved through mediators in MBIE”.
But there’s something vindicating about a rental company being told off by higher ups. I waded through the shit swamp of Tribunal decisions – lots of mould, ghost keys, carpet cleaning disputes and unannounced open homes – to bring you The Spinoff Grand Tour of Bad Property Managers. (All cases are from 2014-2017)
The landlord that tried to claim compensation for two windows that blew out in a gust of wind
The audacity of Quinovic trying to pull this claim on a 100-year-old house in Wellington – a city the Tribunal described as “where strong winds are not only a possibility but a probability” – is awe-inspiring. Logic prevailed and the claim was dismissed. The landlord also tried to claim $500 of the former tenants’ bond back for cleaning, but the tribunal said the place was “reasonably clean and tidy” apart from a couple of drawers so instead deducted $20 from the bond to cover that.
Not to be deterred, the landlord then tried to hustle $300 to remove broken glass under the deck and water blast it. The Tribunal instead granted $60 compensation for an hour-and-a-half’s work of thorough sweeping. No water blasting, though, “if this was well swept (and it should be in an hour and a half) there is no necessity for a water blast.”
The property agent complicit in the death of ten prized fish who were worth about $1000
At the end of this Botany Downs tenancy, a fish tank was left in the garage. Two arrangements were made with the agent to collect the tank but the garage was locked each time. The third time the tenant went to get his prized fish, they had vanished. The power source had also been switched off. Supposedly the fish cannibalised each other because of lack of food (although the question of who ate the last fish will plague readers to their final days, no doubt). The landlords said they weren’t aware of the fish until they looked in the garage on that fateful day. The tenant was awarded $200 in compensation.
The landlord who didn’t mind that his tenant had to sleep in a different bedroom through winter because of a leak he wouldn’t fix
The tenant gave evidence, supported by photos, to show carpet in the main bedroom was wet and stained to such an extent that the water had leaked for a long time. There was heavy mould on the drapes. The wet carpet gave off “an offensive” smell. She stopped using the main bedroom and slept in one of her children’s rooms. When the tenant asked for compensation she was given notice. The Tribunal found this was motivated by the tenants request for compensation: “the evidence was highly persuasive that the landlord sought to deal with the tenant’s complaint simply by evicting her”. The previous tenant had the same mould problem. This tenant was awarded $2220.44.
The dead rat carcass smell
About three weeks into his tenancy, Mr Stuart told Quinovic there was a nauseating smell in the kitchen and lounge of his one bedroom Aro Valley home. He believed it was coming from a decomposing rat or rats. Not biggie, advised his property manager: “if there is a dead carcass of some type, it will decay and the smell will disappear soon”. Six months later, Mr Stuart again complained of a rotting smell he reckoned was a rat placenta. He also complained of rats running around the crawl space, the ceiling and in the walls and what sounded like a rat giving birth.
The property manager suggested the smell was caused by a white plastic piece in a light fitting, however, the Tribunal employed experts to sniff the area and concluded it was a rat carcass. While rats appearing is not a breach by a landlord, failing to take preventative action as Quinovic did is (earlier last year they didn’t accept a recommendation to place permanent rodent bait stations at the property), they had to pay Mr Stuart $526.44 for inconvenience and stress.
– The property agent who sent a lewd message to his tenant but said it was because he was texting more than one person while driving (the Tribunal didn’t buy this excuse, also that’s illegal).
– The landlord who sought $470 for home-kill meat provided to the tenant (allegedly the tenant paid the butcher but not for the meat. Regardless, this is not the Tribunal’s area of expertise).
– The totally chill landlord who called tenants’ employers as a threat.
– Housing NZ for having a property that had three successive leaks (June, July and September 2014) which caused dampness, cold, rot, and mould.
– The landlord that didn’t want someone on the benefit as she [the landlord] was using the flat’s address to claim a widow’s benefit, despite not living there.
– The landlord who kept shifting tenants’ pots, ornaments and solar lights and then told them not to pick any flowers in their own goddamn garden.
– The landlord that stung an editor with this hot career take: “see how good you are at editing legal documents when I get through with you”.
– The landlord who lived in a neighbouring property and would ask visitors who they were, why they were there and shouted that it was his land. He even stood toe to toe with a tenant, holding a weapon and threatening him.
Summary of Jess’ Judgement
When you’re making commissions as a real estate agent or getting the equivalent of at least one full-time worker’s salary on your house, it is probably easy to dismiss the odd bit of mould, get pissy at a never-ending chain of people emailing about seemingly minor issues, and try to charge a bit more than necessary for a full clean. And when some guy is mad about how half of some rotisserie chicken he was so looking forward to has disappeared, maybe you just snap and tell them to leave.
But the law shouldn’t bow down to the emotions of those who own property. It should recognise that people renting often feel out of control, extremely uncertain about their future and deserve to make their homes in these houses.
Perhaps those who rent out property should take heed of the Tribunal’s final words on the chicken mystery and think about how they would feel if they were long-term renters:
“While the theft of half a chicken may seem trivial; ownership of food takes on a heightened importance when tenants are living communally”. Which is one way of saying that what might just seem irritating to you is someone else’s life.
This post is part of Rent Week, a series about why the experience of renting a home in NZ is so terrible, and whether anything can be done to fix it. Read the entire series here.
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