Everyone’s House Is Their Castle

Housing is set to be an election issue. Rightly so. Far too many people are without a warm dry home. Far too many people pay exorbitant rents. Taxpayers are forced to stump up a large portion of this rent for people whose employers do not see it as their responsibility to pay their workers a wage that would enable them to afford the extortionate rent charged by their landlords.

Only a few people are able to afford buy a home to live in. Most of those people live in the less populated/popular areas where sanity has prevailed and houses are still regarded as somewhere to live, not an easy way to make a quick buck.

We all get the problem, but this election let’s not just talk about how many new houses the government – or whoever they delegate the job to – should build over the next ten years. Whatever the amount, if nothing else changes it won’t be nearly enough.

Let’s go back to basics and consider houses only as a place to live. Remember that housing is a basic human right under section 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, to which New Zealand is a signatory. And just make it happen.

The first step is to stop listening to investors and property developers. Their main goal is to make money. Their views don’t count. If they all sold up tomorrow, arguably it would be the best thing that could happen for New Zealand.

And we need to acknowledge that due to the mistakes of past governments, who only listened to investors and property developers, most people will be renters for a very long time, if not their entire lives, so let’s make renting a decent option.

Let’s put length of tenure on the election agenda. Many European countries allow tenure periods of over 10 years. Sweden, the Netherlands, and Austria allow for unlimited leases in some cases. This means that people cannot be evicted because the landlord wishes to cash up, or a developer wants to buy the land. Landlords need to be in it for the long haul.

Let’s spell out in legislation what ‘reasonable condition’ means in practical terms and delete the rider ‘bearing in mind the age of the dwelling’. No houses should be impossible to heat. Roofs should not leak, floorboards should not be rotten, cookers should not have elements that don’t work. Presbyterian Support Otago concluded in their 2014 Dunedin rental housing follow up study, “Clearly neither market pressures nor public awareness have been sufficient to motivate some landlords to carry out essential repairs and maintenance. Far too many (56%) have deteriorated in at least one respect from 2004; 15% deteriorated in all aspects.”

Plenty of work has been done around a warrant of fitness for rental housing. We know what it needs to contain. Legislation is needed now. And it needs to happen without rents going up. The expense to landlords should not be an issue. Landlords who feel this is onerous can always sell up. No one is forcing them to own multiple properties.

Let’s also talk about declaring some areas and types of properties rent controlled. New York city has had rent control since 1943. Rents in rent control zones could be set by local government and frozen for a period of time, for example three years. Landlords would have to apply to local councils once that period was up to for the right to increase rents but only if they could prove expenses such as service charges have gone up. Tenants would have the right to argue against an increase if they feel it is not justified.

Everyone’s house is their castle. Renters should not be second class citizens with no security or say over the conditions they live in. Landlords need to be committed to providing a decent standard of service and value for money. If they are not prepared to do that they should sell up and find some other way to earn a living. This might take the heat out of the housing market and even make it possible for some renters to be able to afford their own homes. At the very least it would allow the government and local bodies to acquire low-to-middle-income rental housing stock at a more reasonable price and do the job properly themselves.