Article: Speak Easy

How Well Do  We Treat Our  Renters? with Michael BoturHow Well Do We Treat Our Renters? with Michael Botur

Renting is a significant experience for a great proportion of our population, especially as house prices rise. 42 per cent of New Zealanders live in rental accommodation at the moment. Some of us even grow up in rentals – 43.7% of Auckland children under 15 now live in rental accommodation.

Owner-occupied home ownership declined from 73.8% in 1991 to 64.8% in 2013, with a corresponding growth in the rental housing sector. Increasing house prices and high rental costs relative to incomes, and the associated decrease in affordability since the late 1990s, makes things doubly hard for people trying to enter the housing market. Good thing we live in Northland instead of Auckland, although there is plenty of competition for people to get into rentals up here.

The New Zealand Rental Sector Survey this year was conducted by BRANZ, Massey University’s SHORE and Whariki Research Centre, the University of Otago, and the Building Research Levy. It surveyed people in the four main cities, getting data from 1100 tenants and over 400 landlords.

“Homeownership/owner-occupation for ‘ordinary New Zealanders’ is a strong cultural norm and continues to be seen as the ideal,” the report found. However, poor quality rental housing and lack of secure occupancy for tenants often reinforces the status of renting as a ‘second-rate’ option, the report authors added.

I’m not suggesting renting is always exploitive or that most landlords don’t have the best interest of tenants at heart. It’s just that the Rental Sector Survey repeatedly stresses how many families across the country aren’t getting treated optimally in their rental situations.

The survey unfortunately found “A sense of powerlessness over how long tenants may be able to stay in their rental accommodation” and said “For many tenants, the multiple moves required to stay housed was an important driver of people’s desire to buy a home.”

“In New Zealand a rental property is seen first and foremost as an asset to benefit the landlord,” the report authors add. “The Residential Tenancies Act provides some legal protection for tenants and landlords but it does not address the issue of secure occupancy – or even basic security of tenure for a tenant.

Anyway, here are some of the most poignant findings from the report:

• Pacific peoples are most likely to live in rental accommodation, followed by Maori.

• Renters are getting older - There was a substantial increase in the median age of
Auckland renters – from 36 years in the 2001 survey to 43 in 2015.

• TradeMe is the most common way tenants find rental properties, followed by via
family and/or friends.

• The median weekly rent nationwide is $370. Highest median is in Auckland ($410)
and lowest in Dunedin ($270).

• 86% of tenants reported smoke alarms were fitted in their accommodation.

• Just 40% reported they had ceiling and underfloor insulation, while 23% did not
know (insulation becomes mandatory in all rental homes from July 2019)

• 92% of landlords reported having signed tenancy agreements (this isn’t good,
because every tenancy agreement must be in writing and must be given to a tenant
before tenancy commences)

The conclusion of the report authors call for “palliative measures which improve the physical condition of rental dwellings and increase tenants’ rights to secure occupancy” and say that renting must not be a “second rate option.”

It’s fascinating to read through the responses of landlords and hear that so many have good intentions, that three quarters of them have just 1-2 rental properties, and that most distance themselves from the exploitive landlords out there.

But it is worrying that some ethnic groups have disproportionate dependency on rental housing and worrying to hear some places lack smoke alarms, insulation and tenancy agreements.

If you’re a landlord following the law and looking after the tenants who depend on you, that’s excellent. Keep being a great example.
If you’re involved in a substandard rental home whether as a tenant or landlord, please read over your legal obligations then act on them:

Michael Botur has published journalism in NZ Herald, Herald on Sunday, Sunday Star-Times and Mana and he writes a lot of fiction. He moved to Whangarei in 2015 and was ecstatic to be able to afford a house here.

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