First published as part of The Spinoff’s Rent Week series earlier this year, we’re resharing this op-ed from an anonymous landlord to mark the release of Unsettled, our documentary about the New Zealand housing crisis.
I’m one of the “amateur landlords” Duncan Greive mentioned yesterday, the ones who former Reserve Bank governor Arthur Grimes says “don’t have the expertise to do it properly. And it’s a very poor service that they provide.” I’m embarrassed about that. Learning how poor the renting experience is for so many people has been a real eye opener for me.
As a Generation X/Y couple with a bunch of kids and the kind of income that would be described as adequate south of the Bombays, but sniggered at north of, we have no spare cash – ever – for neat sounding things like investments or savings. Riding that generational middle line between the lucky (bought a cheap house in 2000! It’s fantastic!) and the unlucky (paid interest on student loans and missed out on first home ‘bonuses’ and maternity leave and Working for Families and retiring at 65 and the 20 free childcare hours! It’s horrible!) we know we are lucky just to be wallowing under a huge mortgage. So lucky. Yep. Lucky lucky lucky.
Our tenants (not so lucky) came with the house, a regular little place in an unpopular town where it gets pretty cold – but weirdly they thought they were lucky. They had a roof over their heads for a start… and that’s where it ended too. The stove didn’t work, the back door and the wall of the bathroom had a gaping hole in it, and as I checked out the scrupulously clean newborn baby’s room, my breath came out in frosty clouds. Politely ignoring the awful real estate agent who didn’t take off her dirty shoes before hoofing through their home, they followed me around telling me quietly, earnestly, insistently, that they’d both given up smoking, he had a good job, she loved gardening, the dog never came inside, they’d done their best with the rats, the ants, the mould. In this town there were no empty rentals. Everywhere there was a waiting list, on every notice board desperate pleas for a place to live from little families – and they knew it.
Click to watch Unsettled: Housing in Crisis, an interactive documentary on the housing crisis.
We bought the house. We fixed all the things, they got a new stove, we gleefully disposed of the tons of rubbish left behind by the old landlords (and less gleefully, unearthed the rats.) I fretted about that poor little baby in the winter. My friends hooted that I was no way cut out for landlording: Why don’t you put up the rent? You’re not making money on it. Toughen up. God, you’re useless at this.
When we contacted the council about the subsidy programme to insulate the house, total confusion reigned. Which subsidy? The council one? The government one? The one for old people with asthma? Every time we talked to someone different we got a different story – 80% off, 40% off, nothing off because that scheme finished yesterday. Government websites devoted to the cause were no better. In the end we just did it (let’s face it, it was just going on the revolving mortgage anyway. Lucky.) The tenants were so grateful. They’re lucky.
And lucky, lucky us. It has cost us nothing, not a red cent of our own money. We never mow the lawns or put in any effort, really. (Well last week we had to call a chimney sweep. Phew! The work!) The bank put up the money for us to build up an investment nest egg, the tenants are paying it off, and we’re not.
Every time I hear of landlords moaning about how keeping up maintenance on their properties means they’re not making money on them – and by that they mean making more money from the rent than they put in – I’m ashamed. When you know that somebody else is working and paying for you to collect a couple of hundred thousand (or a couple of million?!) at the end of the 25 years, isn’t that enough? Don’t you at least owe them a decent standard of living in the meantime? I’m saying you do. I’m saying you should respect renters, and stop asking nosy questions at viewings (“So mate, got a job? Your girlfriend live here too? Planning on having any more kids?”) or laughing at their home furnishings or loudly discussing plans to throw them out, gut it and rent it for double in front of them – all things I experienced when we were looking. Start asking yourself how happy you’d be living in that shithole. Ask yourself why not. Do something.
Our tenants are buying us a better retirement and we are grateful for that. It’s not like anybody else is helping us out.
This post is part of Rent Week, our week-long 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.
Unsettled: Housing in Crisis was made possible with funding from New Zealand on Air. Click to begin the experience.