Robert Whitaker says that in order to fix housing, we must fix renting

The following article is the eighth chapter from Progressive thinking, ten perspectives on housing, a Public Service Association (PSA) publication. is publishing all 10 chapters from different authors on various aspects of housing.

By Robert Whitaker*

Half of all New Zealanders rent their home and as a renter for more than 15 years I can tell you that everything about renting needs to change, and needs to change now.

New Zealand’s tenancy laws were designed at a time where — for the middle-classes, at least — renting was a short-term arrangement on the road to home ownership.

Today, for politicians and media commentators comfortable in their first, second and third homes, the rental market is viewed through rose-tinted glasses: three character-building years in a freezing beer-soaked flat before getting on the property ladder. But the reality now is that half of all New Zealanders are renters and most are in it for the long-haul.

Cold and unsafe housing now kills 1,600 people a year – more than the road toll and workplace illness and injury combined¹. Despite this, our politicians remain fixated on a barely updated version of the “quarter-acre dream”.

Power and wellbeing

Understanding the power imbalance between renters and landlords is fundamental to imagining a comprehensive solution to the housing crisis.

A person’s home (renter or not) is central to their wellbeing, affecting all aspects of their life. Our current tenancy laws do not acknowledge this in any way, meaning that all renters live in a state of permanent uncertainty. In the landlord is vested the power — for any reason, or no reason — to disrupt or take away a person’s home.

Perversely, the responsibility for ensuring landlords meet their obligations is vested solely in renters, requiring individuals to effectively take their landlord to court to have a dispute resolved. It is unsurprising then that only 5% of cases at the Tenancy Tribunal are brought by tenants.

Taking a case to the Tribunal is considered to be the “nuclear” option, effectively ending the tenancy and relationship with the landlord and also placing future tenancies at risk as win or lose a tenant’s name appears in public tribunal records.²

Most renters want to think the best of their landlords and engage with them in good faith, but competition in the market, and the underlying threat of being booted out for someone else, limits the extent to which a renter is willing to assert their rights.

On the other side, it’s naive to think that even the most warm-hearted and fair landlord is going to act against their own personal financial interest.

When push comes to shove – and the property market is doing a lot of shoving at the moment – a property owner will always seek to protect their investment.

In our big cities, housing supply is constrained and profiteering property management companies have unchecked authority over who is housed and who is not. This means discrimination is rampant, with few options for recourse. Default tenancies are set at one year and aligned to start and finish at a peak in seasonal demand.

This allows landlords to demand top dollar in informal rent auctions and then have guaranteed rent through to the next seasonal increase³.

The only realistic way for someone to escape this cycle is to become a home-owner, which drives house price inflation and the property speculation that exploits it.

Hope and housing security

Today, housing security is denied to half of our population simply to maximise investment returns for the few. This cannot be allowed to continue. Our tenancy laws must change.

Wellington Renters United wants to see all tenancies be made permanent unless there are specific and reasonable circumstances for a fixed-term arrangement. The tenant would have the ability to give reasonable notice to end the tenancy but the landlord would be required to have a specific — legally testable — reason for serving notice. Selling the property, or wishing to move a family member in would not qualify, but illegal activity or failure to pay rent would.

The permanence of the relationship would encourage both parties to behave in good faith and seek to resolve disagreements. Where a dispute did arise, there would be a duty to maintain the status quo until the dispute is resolved. The state should also make well-resourced mediation services available to support dispute resolution so that no renter loses their home just because they have asserted their rights.

Whilst radically different from our current tenancy laws, this is actually very similar to legal framework we have in place for employment.

The Employment Relations Act is a good example of the sort of law we need for renters – a law that recognises the inherent power imbalance between the two parties and seeks to mitigate it.

Sitting alongside this, we also need a thorough set of well-enforced quality standards to ensure every rental home is safe for human habitation. Such standards should be based on scientific evidence and inspected against — at the landlord’s cost — by local authorities.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is precisely the regime we already have in place for food safety.

I see no reason why a hospitalised child is any more acceptable when their illness is caused by their home rather than by their dinner.

These changes won’t address every outrage renters face in our current system (ask any renter you know about “letting fees”) but without delivering a secure, warm, dry and safe home for the 50% of New Zealanders who rent, how can we possibly say that we have “solved” our housing crisis?

¹Nicol, Ruth (2017), “1600 deaths attributed to cold houses each winter in New Zealand” 9 June 2017 in Noted, accessible from : 1600-deaths-attributed-to-cold-houses-each-winter-in-new-zealand/.

²All Tenancy Tribunal orders are published online for three years and landlords and property managers routinely use them to vet tenants.

³In Wellington rents rose more than 10% between December 2017 and March 2017.

*Robert Whitaker is a designer and activist living in Wellington with his growing family. In 2014 he helped found Renters United, a new campaigning organisation for renters in Wellington and across the country.

Note: The views expressed in Progressive thinking, ten perspectives on housing belong to the authors and do not necessarily represent the view of PSA members or the organisation.

The foreword is here.
The first chapter is here.
The second chapter is here.

The third chapter is here.
The fourth chapter is here.
The fifth chapter is here.

The sixth chapter is here.
…and the seventh chapter is here.