As politicians talk up their housing policies ahead of the election, renters share stories of stress, illness and why the current system doesn’t work.
Cleaning the house of mould and mildew took five people working for three days. That’s before Rhodry Yates, along with his mother and sister, even moved in.
But it wasn’t just the mould. You had to know where the nails stuck out of the deck and where the floorboards weren’t level. This was more than something like knowing which of the drawers was the one that got stuck - an absent-minded step could mean a serious cut or fall.
“There were always little hazards you had to look out for,” Rhodry says.
“The deck was precarious, and it was almost a running joke trying to remember which planks on the deck were actually safe and wouldn't cave in when walking on them.”
Getting the landlord to fix anything wasn’t easy either. The family asked for Rhodry’s broken bedroom window to be fixed multiple times, but that never happened.
Our second winter kicks in, and I'm badly getting sick. Deep painful coughs, it's nasty.
The bedroom was bloody cold, and the duct tape did a shabby job of keeping the wind and rain out, he recalls.
As the sole earner of the household, Rhodry’s mum couldn’t afford much else, but the neglected state of the house was beginning to affect the family’s health.
“Our second winter kicks in, and I'm badly getting sick. Deep painful coughs, it's nasty. It's because of the black mould that has taken over my room. I'm off school and mum is having to take some time off to look after me. Bills don't stop, mum is struggling,” Rhodry says.
Soon Rhodry’s mum’s room also developed black mould. The family were forced to start sleeping in the lounge.
Rhodry’s story is one of 600 from around New Zealand submitted to a “People’s Review of Renting”, organised by ActionStation. The community campaign group says housing is a key determinant of health and well-being, and New Zealand housing, especially private rental housing, is of a lower quality than most OECD countries.
'TENANTS AGAINST LANDLORDS'
Another renter, Ryan Evison, believes the government should be doing more to address the state of rental housing in New Zealand and that tenant rights need to be recognised.
“Look at Germany, Scotland, Ireland, anywhere they strengthen renters’ rights, and it works. They’re not paying extremely high rents for what I’d call, you know, shitboxes.”
A few months ago he lived in a rental property in Te Aro, Wellington, which was “quite nice but a little bit dated”. It desperately needed a paint job and had a bunch of free-loading tenants in the form of a moth infestation.
Seeing that similar properties in the neighbouring area had been well maintained by their owner-occupiers, Ryan expressed interest in purchasing the house.
“We thought we could do it up and make it quite nice, we saw potential in it,” he says.
Whoever comes with a problem, they [property managers] just blame the other person.
However, his request was turned down and he was asked to leave after telling the property manager about the moth infestation.
“After we moved out, the place was put back up on the market for an increased price. You can draw your own conclusions on that.”
Ryan believes the current system pits tenants against landlords, and that property managers aggravate the situation.
“Whoever comes with a problem, they [property managers] just blame the other person,” he says.
“All they do is relay messages and skim off your rent. You complain about anything and you’ll be let go.”
Ryan would like to see better laws around renting, and more regulations for property managers.
COCKROACHES AND ROT
The owners of Ariella-Lee Maynard’s rental property tried to have her evicted twice, on the grounds the property was uninhabitable. They were unsuccessful both times.
Although the house wasn’t deemed officially uninhabitable, the property is still in poor shape. It’s damp, mouldy, dirty and smells foul. The window joinery and carpets are rotten, and there are holes in the walls.
“The gaps in the walls allow the cockroaches to crawl in, and when it rains the damp odour rises even more,” Ariella-Lee says.
And it gets worse. Nineteen days after she moved in, the house flooded from a broken pipe. The pipe was repaired, but flooded again one week later.
“I was beside myself, I felt totally unsupported by my property manager, and still no sign of the owners showing up to check on the situation. I also have a cat & dog and was seriously concerned for them as well with all of this upheaval, and just what it meant going forward.”
The gaps in the walls allow the cockroaches to crawl in, and when it rains the damp odour rises even more.
ActionStation hopes its healthy homes campaign will put pressure on the politicians who voted against the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill during its last reading, politicians who they say often live in warm homes themselves.
The bill is now before the committee of whole house after passing its second reading in July.
Rhodry’s landlord never ended up coming to fix his bedroom window, despite saying he would multiple times. After two brutal winters the family eventually moved on to their next (rented) home. But when Rhodry drove past the house two years later, the window could still be seen damaged and duct-taped together.
WHAT IS BEING PROMISED THIS ELECTION
New Zealand currently in the throes of a housing crisis, and each party has their own take on it.
Labour wants to focus on building affordable starter homes and selling them to first home buyers at cost. They would require rentals to be warm, dry and healthy to live in.
The Green Party suggested a scheme which would allow anyone earning over the repayment threshold of their student loan to defer part or all of their repayments into a housing deposit savings account.
The Māori Party wants to cap the rent for all social housing and create a compulsory warrant of fitness for rental properties.
New kid on the block, The Opportunities Party announced a proposal where tenants would have the right to remain in their homes even if they were sold to another owner. Tenants would only be able to be evicted if they did not pay rent or if they damaged the property.
Clarification: A previous version of this story said according to ActionStation, the current regulations for rental housing quality have not been amended since 1947. However, the Residential Tenancies Act was changed last year to make insulation compulsory in rental properties from 2019.