The show Renters is a morality play about the sufferings inflicted on landlords by their terrible tenants. Hayden Donnell talks to one of the show’s stars ahead of its seventh season, and tries to convince her to support pro-tenant rental reform.
It’s impossible to dislike Pru Morrell. The star of TVNZ’s reality series Renters is the type of person who hugs on the first greeting. She talks conspiratorially, like to an old friend. When I tell her she’s the highlight of the show, she leans back in her chair and says “well I would never talk like that” in the tone of voice that implies she would definitely think like that at the very least.
But Pru is mainly famous for evicting people from their homes in a series that often paints tenants as filthy reprobates with a penchant for grand larceny. Renters is beloved because it plays to the worst prejudices of our property owning class. It shows renters wallowing in their own muck; leeching off their landlords’ benevolence; taking advantage of a generous system.
It does it with a smile. In one episode from season 6, the vividly red-haired Pru is tasked with evicting a tenant who’s fallen behind on rent. “As if the tenant wasn’t in the red enough already, she now has to face Pru,” the voiceover says, proving that it’s not true what they say: you can joke about a poor person who may soon be kicked out of her house with nowhere to go.
Pru, at least, seems fair to her tenants, with an undeniable streak of kindness. She’s charming, gregarious. The tenant at that property thanked her and wished a good day on her way out.
The problem is the gap between the world of Renters and real life. In Renters, the main issue with the property market is tenants who leave shit stains on the toilets and fling food on the blinds. In real life, most tenants are just doing their best to get by, and are often taken advantage of by bad landlords exploiting our spreading housing crisis. Hundreds of children go to hospital each year with preventable respiratory illnesses contracted in their damp, cold rental homes. Property managers like Pru have come under fire recently for propping up an unfairly weighted system, or in the case of Quinovic, openly advertising their ability to squeeze as much profit as possible out of increasingly desperate tenants.
That combustible situation is the backdrop for the show’s new series. In previous seasons, the political winds were blowing in Pru and her fellow property managers’ favour. The National-led government had little interest in angering its property investing base. Now Labour is in power, and a suite of new protections for tenants are set to go to a vote in Parliament. I spent an hour talking to Pru ahead of the show’s debut tonight. It was one part interview, one part desperate quest to get her to concede that it was a good thing to put a stop to no-cause, 90-day evictions.
Renters is now up to its seventh season. How’s the show been going so long?
People love it. People love seeing how people live. It’s the old PLS syndrome.
What’s PLS syndrome?
People Love Shit. Like, ‘Oh that’s filthy, look at that shit’.
And that’s fine by you?
Fine by me. Because I’ve been able to get other messages out about EQC [the Earthquake Commission]. About Fletchers and the shoddy repairs they’ve done. About all that kind of thing.
So you’re using the filth to get to goodness?
*Pru crosses herself*
You’re crossing yourself!
I didn’t know what else to do. Look, some evictions are fine. Like the one where the woman left the property in good order and paid everything up.
Do you ever worry about what will happen to a person like that after you evict them?
Of course. Of course. There’s a level of that. Some I don’t. Some I really think, just, get out of my sight. When they’ve ravaged, pillaged, lied. And they’re out there, let’s face it. But there’s some you’d rather work with them and if we can we will.
At the time we get to the stage you see it on TV all the bets are off the table. We’ve gone to mediation. We’ve sat down tried to nut out a payment plan. We’ve guided them to the mayor’s fund. By the time we go to get property back it’s too late.
But the show doesn’t show that process. It just shows the conflict. Do you worry it creates the wrong impression?
Initially I was very reluctant to do this show at all. It’s not what property management is about. It’s not about just evictions.
The reason I agreed to do it in the end was because [production company] Greenstone allowed me to talk about EQC and the private insurers. I’ve done a lot of work there. There are a few evictions along the way and that fraudster we got locked up.
I guess the criticism of the show is that it contributes to this idea that tenants are dirty wasters who shit everywhere.
They’re not. Only two per cent of them are. But that’s all the public wants to see. And by the time we’re doing that all bets are off the table. All hope is lost. The game is up. They don’t want to know about that. They just want to see me barking at them. *Pru does a dramatic voice*. GET. OUT. NOOOW. They want to see how they’ve made a mess of the shag…
What’s the shag?
The shag pile
What’s the shag pile?
It’s the carpet. Boy, you’re a lot younger aren’t you? You’re probably about the same age as my grandson.
No. Not quite. I’m 33.
Not quite. *Pru turns to TVNZ PR person* Isn’t he a bastard? You didn’t pre-warn me of this.
This new series is coming at a very interesting time, when the government is increasing protections for renters.
*Pru, conspiratorially* Mr Twyford.
And the big one is the end of no-cause eviction. Do you agree with the end of no-cause evictions for renters?
I think it’s gotta be a case-by-case basis, a bit like being compensated for smoking meth. I believe you should look at the case in its entirely. If I have a block of four flats. I’ve maybe got a couple of solo mums in there and a professional couple and I’ve just got some dropkick doing tinny houses and just being hideous and not looking after the dwelling. Why would I want to hold onto them?
The thing there is there are already avenues to pursue that person in the Tenancy Tribunal.
Well you can. And we can end a lease and we don’t have to say why.
I guess the no-cause thing is that there’s no security for tenants currently.
We love tenants staying long-term. This doesn’t happen often. You’re talking two to three per cent [that receive no-cause evictions]. And as much as Mr Twyford is… Philip Stoner Twyford. Philip Stoner Twyford *Pru puts heavy emphasis on the word ‘Stoner’*… is in some way saying he’s going to do all this stuff and provide greater security and everyone deserves a home, it’s just not feasible. It’s like saying ‘I want world peace’. And he wants every flat to be 20 degrees. With a moisture meter. It’s just not feasible.
The question is, if no-cause evictions are barely ever done and most houses are up to scratch and everything is good, then you wouldn’t be bothered that those are ending?
Well we do our best to make sure those properties are in good nick. There are aspects of this legislation that are just silly. They’re just silly.
What’s the silly bit?
Well for instance a moisture meter in every place.
Well the problem is that there’s this power imbalance. Tenants are predominantly poorer. They have less power. Landlords are mainly rich. They have more power. It’s hard for tenants to force them to keep houses up to scratch.
I don’t think you can say that. Life is full of grey areas.
There are a lot of people in tough situations though.
Not all of them, but I do get what you’re saying. And like I said, I’m not Sister Mary Viper. I understand I’m dealing with humans here. Though, they can 14-day [give a 14-day notice to fix damage] a landlord any time. If a tenant believes something is bad they can 14-day a landlord any time. And if they don’t, they can take them to the Tenancy Tribunal.
Statistically though they don’t take them to the Tenancy Tribunal. About 90 per cent of the cases at the Tribunal are taken by landlords.
Tenants don’t know their rights. That’s why we give them a booklet on tenants rights at the start of their tenancy.
Okay, that’s good
I think you’re beginning to quite like the way I work, dare I say.
Ha, that’s a great initiative. But I guess the other thing is that they’re so scared. They think by taking someone to the Tenancy Tribunal that person is going to come back at them and give them a 90-day no-cause eviction. They’ll find a way to get you out. And then the market is so dire that you might not find another place, particularly in Auckland.
*Pru scrunches up her face* I guess so. But then what I fear is that we’ll end with some badly written law. They need to look at it on a case-by-case basis a bit like they did with the people in the meth houses.
Can I get you to support the end of 90-day evictions by the end of this interview?
Irrelevant in Christchurch.
*Me, grumbling loudly in a journalist voice* Answer the question!
Well, the 42 would be more concerning wouldn’t it? Where the owner wants to move back in.
Wait we’ve got off track again. We’re moving around a lot of rentals laws. Will you support the end of 90-day no-cause evictions!?
*Pru squints, looks off the side and makes a face like she’s eating a sour lolly, then does a motion I interpret as crossing herself again*
I’m taking that as a yes.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Renters returns to TVNZ 2 tonight .