Being a tenant in New Zealand is often a difficult and disempowering experience. Hayden Donnell looks into what’s broken in our rental housing market.
The bad news is many of you will probably never own a home. Average property prices are 10 times the median household income of $92,843 in Auckland, while in New Zealand that figure is 6 times. Unfortunately, you likely don’t earn the median household income. For you to buy a house, incomes would have to rise drastically or house prices would have to fall, both of which are unlikely while New Zealand is ruled by a huge voting bloc of aging property owners who don’t want changes to a status quo that’s made them on-paper, and often real-life, millionnaires.
The other bad news is that your only option, other than stealing a house from a well-off couple while they’re on holiday, is renting, and rental conditions are still unconscionably awful in New Zealand. The condition of our rental housing stock is still deeply substandard – damp, stubbornly uninsulated, filled with weird variations on mould – and there are few ways for tenants to improve their lot.
Mangere Budgeting Services chief executive Darryl Evans said many of his clients endure terrible conditions. He cited the example of one man on kidney dialysis who was living in a converted garage without a toilet. “He uses a bucket,” Evans said. Another client was moving into a new flat and found human faeces under the sink. Many others are living in cold caravans, garages, and poorly constructed houses.
“I’m at pains to say there are good landlords but at the same time the houses are getting shoddier,” Evans said. “Most of the houses we see are cold, damp and miserable and they’re paying 65% of their income to the landlords.”
The government has made attempts to fix the situation. National’s Residential Tenancies (Smoke Alarms and Insulation) Act made insulation (in most but not all cases) and smoke alarms mandatory in 2016. Labour is promising to abolish letting fees and no-cause evictions, as well as limit rent increases to once per year.
But those solutions still don’t truly address one of the fundamental problems with renting: the power imbalance between tenants and landlords, particularly during an intractable and ongoing housing crisis. With house deposits in Auckland at roughly $8 million, and home ownership rates dropping to near-record lows, renting has never been more commonplace. With demand so high, landlords can rent even the most substandard houses to desperate tenants. Most people think complaining is too risky in that environment, particularly when they have little protection under New Zealand law against eviction, Evans said. “Too many of our families are being used and abused. They don’t know their rights. They don’t want to upset the landlord because they’re afraid they’ll get evicted.
“And they also know for the most part where they are is better than nowhere. If they move out, they know there’s 30 families behind them waiting for the same place.”
Making matters worse, one of the main avenues for tenants to address their concerns doesn’t seem to be working properly. Kate Newton looked at the Tenancy Tribunal for The Wireless and found only 1 in 10 cases put to the body are from tenants. Many renters don’t know what issues they can take to the tribunal, and don’t have easy access to advocates who will help them put together a case. Others are concerned that the tribunal’s practice of naming tenants on judgements will put them at risk of being blacklisted by future potential landlords. And still more don’t want to report even the worst landlords because they feel their tenancy will be at risk.
Evans said that’s the situation facing many of his clients. “Most of the families that come to us for housing advocacy tell us they want things to be better but they’re scared their landlord will persecute them and eventually evict them.”
Labour’s promise to put an end to no-cause evictions may help. But Evans said in some situations, landlords claim they need to get tenants out because “family” are moving in, even if that’s not really the case.
Advocacy organisation Renters United has put together a plan for giving tenants better security and more liveable homes. Their proposals include making indefinite tenancies the norm, installing a Rental Housing Quality Grade system similar to food hygiene grades for restaurants, and reshaping the Tenancy Tribunal so disputes are investigated fully and tenants’ names are anonymised in judgements.
Those ideas have raised the ire of Property Investors Federation boss Andrew King, who has said the claim rental houses are cold and damp is a “gross exaggeration” because it’s “not true of all rentals”. He told me he was opposed to installing a grading system for rental accommodation because he worried it would make it easy for governments to add extra, unnecessary standards in future – which felt similar to anti-gay marriage activists saying gay marriage (good) would lead to people marrying their dogs (bad). When asked how he would address the issue of mouldy, damp homes, he said landlords already had to adhere to the standards of the Building Act and the Residential Tenancies Act, and even without those restrictions, they still had every incentive to fix their own homes. “We don’t want mould in the properties . As a property owner you don’t want to have mould in your property because it ruins the paintwork and it costs money in the end.”
That seemed reasonable, but there was something strange about his argument. The focus was sort of warped, like we were talking about creating fair laws for how best to administer an asset, rather than how to provide human families with the dignity and enjoyment of a home. I designed this quiz to help landlords recentre their thoughts and opinions when it comes to tenant rights:
- Does the tenant display typically human characteristics ie. bipedal, opposable thumbs, advanced communication skills? Y/N
- Does the tenant appear to show evidence of consciousness ie. sadness, anger, joy? Y/N
- Is the tenant a unit of currency or another form of inanimate object? Y/N
If the answers to these questions are yes, yes, and no, then your tenant deserves a dry home that won’t make them develop bronchiectasis every time there’s a southerly wind. They deserve access to a disputes system that won’t result in them being blacklisted by potential landlords who aren’t neglectfully making them inhale black mould. They deserve better than being treated as simply a reliable source of income.
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