by Fiona O’Callaghan
Just over a year ago, I was living in a garage. It was renovated to the extent that it had been carpeted and the interior walls gyprocked (but not painted) and the entrance filled with a ranchslider. I had to go up to the main house if I wanted to use the toilet, shower or cook anything beyond toasting or microwaving. I was paying $180 per week. The garage had been divided into two “flats” with another tenant paying the same amount for the other one. There was a couple living in the main house paying $250 per week, and another tenant in a portable cabin paying $180 as well.
I was there for two years, then two days after Christmas received an email from the landlord, giving me two weeks’ notice. She and her husband had been living in one of their other properties, and had decided to sell up and move back to the house. She said she wanted to turn my part of the garage into a home office. When I told her that legally she had to give 60 days’ notice (confirmed by the Tenancy Advice line) I received a phone call and a tirade of abuse. She claimed that the property was classed as a “boarding house” and therefore she could give 48 hours’ notice if she wished. She eventually agreed to give me three weeks to find somewhere else. Fortunately, I was able to find a room in a shared house which was not only cheaper, but I could use the kitchen and bathroom without having to brave the weather.
A few weeks after I moved out, the room was advertised on Trade Me as a “renovated” garage (i.e. it had been painted inside and the carpet upgraded) for $200 per week.
According to Trade Me Property, in the 5 years from December 2010 to December 2015, rents in Auckland increased by 26.9 per cent. The average rental for an apartment at December 2015 was $450 per week, $400 for a 1-2 bedroom house, $550 for a 3-4 bedroom house. At the same time, the increasing property prices have put home ownership out of reach of the majority of working people, increasing pressure on the rental market. Particularly hard hit are those on low incomes, particularly students, beneficiaries or sole parents.
The New Zealand Bureau of Statistics defines homelessness as “Living situations where people with no other options to acquire safe and secure housing: are without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing.” An Auckland Council study in 2014 estimated around 15,000 people in the greater Auckland area were “severely housing deprived.” This includes people sleeping rough, but the majority are “hidden homeless” – people living in garages, cars, caravan parks, in overcrowded or damp houses, “couch surfing” or staying with friends or relatives.
In a situation like this, exploitation by some landlords is inevitable. In the last few weeks, there have been reports of owners of inner-city apartments advertising shared rooms with 3 or for others, or even “hot bedding” where two shift workers take turns to sleep in the same bed when the other is at work. Recently, a Trade Me advertisement offered a lower bunk bed in a two-bedroom Queen Street apartment for $175 per week. The advertisement said that the top bunk was occupied by a 20-year-old Japanese woman, and that they wanted a female flatmate who would “preferably stay in the bottom bunk alone.” The advertiser, who has since withdrawn the listing, told the NZ Herald that “There are many other listings, if you search on Trade Me, with the same format. It’s very hard and expensive to live in Auckland.”
More concerning are reports of “sex-for-rent” arrangements, where young women are offered accommodation in return for sexual favours. Advertisements have appeared on the North American Craigslist internet site, offering free accommodation for young women. One in central Auckland offered a “nice place to share”. It continued, “I won’t charge any money. Instead I would like to have some real fun.” Another ad from a “sincere and genuine middle aged, divorced guy” asked for an Asian female student to share a 1 bedroom “upmarket” North Shore apartment for free, with “electricity, water, wifi broadband also included, also includes companionship by mutual arrangement”.
Sandz Peipi Te Pou, national manager of TOAH-NNEST sexual violence prevention network, told the NZ Herald: “Our concern is that the power dynamic of someone paying the rent could put people in a position where it’s hard to say ‘no’ to sex they don’t want.”
Unlike many European countries, where renting is the norm and tenants have more protection, renting in New Zealand has been regarded as a temporary situation on the path to home ownership. Those who couldn’t afford to buy could access state housing. However, with the sell-off of Housing New Zealand properties and the overheated property market, private renting is becoming the only option for many.
The government has introduced changes to the Residential Tenancies Act which include the requirement that from July 2016 all social housing properties, and all rental properties from July 2019, be insulated “where it can be practically installed”. It also requires that from July 2016, smoke alarms be installed in all rental properties, and strengthens provisions against “retaliatory notice” (where a landlord evicts tenants for complaining about breaches of the Act). This is not going to make a great deal of difference to the majority of tenants. It is already against the law to rent out a damp house, or threaten to throw tenants out for complaining about it, but in a housing crisis where rental properties are scarce, tenants will put up with poor housing conditions rather than risk becoming homeless.
The Green Party has introduced a private members bill to amend the Residential Tenancies Act. It proposes minimum standards of warmth, dryness and safety for all rental properties, restricts rental increases to once every 12 months and set a standard minimum three-year fixed tenancy (with provisions for both parties to set a term of their choice). However, the bill has to be drawn from the ballot of private members’ bills before it can be debated, and given that the National and Act defeated the proposed Rental Warrant of Fitness last year, would be unlikely to pass. Even if it did, it allows two years for social housing owners, and four years for private property owners, to get their properties up to standard.
None of the major political parties are attempting to address the structural issues that are causing the rental crisis – such as the fact that the housing market has become a vehicle for profiteering by wealthy investors, and the privatization of public housing.