Dilapidated rental homes are a health hazard for children

Today in Aotearoa-New Zealand, being a permanent tenant is a part of normal life for many. But insecurity and unfavourable conditions exist at every turn; whether we like it or not, renters are faced with short-term leases and inadequate housing standards that are hazardous to our well-being, and especially our children’s. One problem that stands out is that the Residential Tenancies Act is designed on assumptions that renting is a stop-gap solution for potential homeowners. The law tends to land heavily in the favour of the landlords, some of who may shirk their obligations, and exploit their rights. 

For eight years, Kate*, a sole parent of two school-aged children, has reliably paid her $400 weekly rent for a periodic tenancy in a home that has typically been in a state of disrepair. But she’s managed to make do, though it’s meant paying high heating expenses and other extra costs. A casual agreement with her landlord that Kate felt bullied into, was that he would forego rent increases if Kate took care of any minor repairs as problems arose, at her own expense.

Kate wrote to CPAG about her experience: "My landlord is a bully and throughout my eight year tenancy he has bullied me into fixing things at my own expense. Last year the whole place was a health and safety risk because the wiring did not meet compliance. He stalled and argued until I threatened him with a work order, he then reluctantly agreed to meet the cost of rewiring."

But when the house showed signs of needing more significant repairs, including deteriorating fittings, dangerous rotting floorboards, as well as threadbare carpet, a “crater hole” in the driveway, loose tiles in the bathroom, and holes in the hallway wall, Kate asked for more help, and the landlord decided to take action.

But the action that was taken was an increase of $150 per week to the family’s rent - to “meet the market”, and the landlord was unprepared to commit to repairing the problems. (The latter concern is a breach of their tenancy agreement which allows both the tenant and the landlord to issue a “notice to remedy or repair”, with the other party obligated to comply within 14 days.) Kate’s landlord asked her to fulfill her bond obligation by topping up the existing bond to the tune of $600 ($150 for each week of a four-week bond). While it is the landlord’s right to require extra bond when the rent goes up, a reasonable expectation is that a one-off increase won’t be financially debilitating.

In a panic, Kate, who works part-time and doesn’t qualify for any assistance above what she is currently eligible for, sought advice from Tenancy Services, but found her rights were very few. The landlord was acting within his rights to put the rent up to “market rates”, and increase the bond. There wasn’t much she could do or say but to challenge the increase, and push for the repairs.

In response the landlord gave Kate a 90-day notice to leave the property.

Kate was distraught, saying, “I suspect from my past dealings with him he has no intention of doing the repairs necessary but just renting it out and raising the rent unopposed. He clearly just wants me out.

“It is devastating for my family,” she said.

“We have lived here for eight years, and although he hasn’t been a good landlord, we have kept out of his way and helped out as needed to keep the rent stable. We don't want the stress of moving and we want to stay within our community.”

Kate said it took a long time to find some stability for her children, and her greatest concern was the effects of the upheaval on their education.

I personally sympathise with Kate’s situation. When my family received a 90-day eviction notice under much the same circumstances, finding a new home was hard, stressful work - and it was expensive. There was no certainty of whether we would find somewhere affordable, within the community we had become a part of, or close to our children’s school. Every day since I am grateful to have found a good house, with good landlords. We are assured of consistent rent, and our landlords pay close attention to their obligations. Despite this, we do have a yearly contract, and a looming fear is that with each year ending we might be back to the drawing board. Moving house is costly and stressful - especially for our young children.

But I find myself thanking my lucky stars to be in this situation, especially knowing that other people have not been as fortunate. Why, though? A good tenancy contract shouldn’t be felt or considered a privilege, it should be a right. As renters, and as parents, we should be assured of safety, security, and to be free from the constant reminder of who wields the power to decide our fate, and the fear of what that fate may be.

The impacts of inadequate tenant rights and poor quality housing are compounded for children and families who are living in poverty. Frequent and uncapped rent increases and the costs of moving regularly can be catastrophic when families have no financial reserves or support to call upon when they are in need. When children are uplifted from school regularly, their education is interrupted and their learning can be delayed. Health problems associated with poor quality housing arise. More and more, families are having to share housing for affordability, or through difficulty obtaining their own, and children living in cars and garages is becoming a common story. Kate’s situation is not uncommon. But in no-one’s reality, is this okay.

The Government is talking about removal of letting fees, that normally apply when a third-party agency is involved in the sign-up. Of course the letting fee should go. That’s just a cherry on the top for agents who profit from every rent payment and every bill. But the Government can’t stop there.

We need a complete review of the Residential Tenancies Act and new, improved policies that reflect a modern society in which long-term renting is normal. There should be:

  • Standard tenancy contracts that offer a minimum of three years tenure security;
  • Clear information within the initial agreement about what the rent increases will be, and increases should be limited to yearly;
  • A comprehensive rental Warrant of Fitness, so tenants are assured that problems which have health and safety implications will be remedied with urgency, and not with the threat of a rent increase;
  • No evictions without good reason, and longer notice periods given;
  • Tougher penalties for contract breaches including criminal charges for serious breaches.

It’s time our nation understood that families who rent need - and deserve the right to have - a stable, secure ‘home’, not simply ‘temporary accommodation’. And our Government must change policies to guarantee this need is met.

* Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.