Renting? It’s more than just a flat

Make sure your landlord respects your rights

Recent deaths of state housing tenants have resulted in anger and uproar about poor conditions of rental housing in New Zealand. This has exacerbated the policy debate about how strictly New Zealand’s rental market should be regulated to ensure that houses are safe enough to inhabit has been exacerbated. According to a 2013 report from Statistics New Zealand, one-third of New Zealanders live in homes they consider “cold, damp, or overcrowded. These factors have been blamed for New Zealand’s high rates of asthma, skin infections, and winter deaths”.

In response, a group is advocating for the development of warrants of fitness for rental properties, because even though a largely forgotten 1947 law requires homes to be “free of damp,” Tenancy Tribunals today often side with landlords, even when dampness inflicted serious health problems on tenants. For example, because there is currently no explicit requirement for rental properties to have insulation or efficient heating, the Tribunal declined to grant a Wellington family any compensation after members had to be admitted to hospital after developing breathing problems and infections of the liver and urinary tract within two months of moving into a leaky, damp residence. While the government has spent millions insulating state homes and subsidizing insulation in the private housing market, it has yet to “[commit] to minimum standards for rental homes.” Warrants of fitness would establish such minimum standards.

Besides inadequate housing conditions, housing shortages in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch allow landlords and leasing agents to act with impunity. For example, although it is illegal for landlords to demand money from potential tenants in exchange for allowing them to apply for a rental, this practice is becoming increasingly common in Auckland. So severe is the housing crisis that “the market is becoming a tale of two cities. There are the haves, those who can afford a piece of the property pie, and the have-nots, renters trying to find liveable, affordable places”.

Recently passed legislation aimed at strengthening the Residential Tenancies Act will place more legal obligations on landlords to ensure that tenants, especially low-income ones, have safer, drier, and warmer homes.  First, in an effort to hold landlords accountable and stop them from operating with impunity, new tenancy laws grant the government power to sue landlords for committing major breaches of the Residential Tenancies Act. The first deadline landlords must meet under the new legislation is next year, by the end of which all rental properties are required to have smoke detectors. Further, the Government estimates that 280,000 rental properties fall short of the insulation standards established in 1978. The new tenancy legislation gives landlords until mid-2019 to insulate all their properties so that they meet those decades-old minimum requirements. However, it should be noted that 100,000 of the 280,000 properties will be exempt from the new insulation laws because they are so close to the ground or lack the ceiling space for adequate insulation. The government argues that the exemptions are preferable to exacerbating the current housing shortage by removing these 100,000 properties from the rental market. It is expected that renters will pay an extra $3.20 per week to account for the installations of smoke alarms and ceiling and floor insulation which many people argue is worth the cost, especially because the insulation could result in lower heating costs.

Though the recent legislation is largely cost effective and is indeed a victory for tenant rights, critics contend that the laws remain inadequate since they do not mandate the installation of modern heating systems. Advocates argue that such a measure is the only way to stop making renters unnecessarily vulnerable to respiratory disease and other complications.

By Laura Faas

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