Time to fast-forward to a future where tenants have control of their housing situations

The year is 1986, and rental videos are still a thing.  You stop by the rental place on your way home, and you’ve got a stack of tapes (those are still a thing, too).  You hit ‘play’ on the VCR, and settle in with a bowl of popcorn when the phone rings.

It’s the video rental place.  You know the guy who owns the video shop?  His brother is moving to town, and he really needs your copy of Top Gun.  Well, not your copy of Top Gun, I mean, it does belong to the video shop, right?  This has always been part of the terms of the rental.

Okay, back to 2018.  You never got that call in 1986.  You probably never got that call for any movie you ever rented, any shampoo vac, any car.  But you might have gotten that call about your home if you were renting the home that you live in from someone else.

Landlords can evict a person for lots of reasons, or for no reason.  Maybe this made sense in 1986; the policy context was different.  Renting was seen as more of a temporary option, but today, growing numbers of people will be living in a home they rent for the rest of their lives.  More than half of New Zealand children are growing up in a home their family rents. 

When our laws don’t protect security of tenure, children suffer.  Their health is more likely to be worse than that of their peers whose families own their homes, and they’re less likely to be enrolled with a General Practitioner.  They may have to switch schools multiple times.  Although their parents would probably say they wish their housing situation was more secure, the fact is, it isn’t — in part because the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) doesn’t go far enough to protect them.

When our local branch of the Public Health Association made a submission on the reform of the RTA, it was with this in mind — how can we better protect tenants?  How can we restore the kind of power imbalance that, for example, sees landlords bring 90% of the cases seen at the Tenancy Tribunal?  Ultimately, how can we make a tenant’s home feel like a home — not just a place where they can stay until someone else needs it?

Recalibrating the Residential Tenancies Act is a start.  We’ll need to use other policy levers to take responsibility for the changes in our society and some of the unfair conditions that have developed.  For example, the Healthy Homes Standards could make a difference in ensuring rental homes have the capacity to be warm and dry (or at least as warm as the homes that are lived in by the people who own them). 

If we are going to do this right, we need to make some wise choices, even if it means taking some big steps.  Consider that the consultation options for the Healthy Homes Standards treated the World Health Organisation’s recommended standard as the strongest option among a range of weaker options that we know make people sick.  Why isn’t the healthy choice the baseline?  

When amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act are introduced next year, we need our policymakers to know that we want them to make fair choices that will better protect our children.  We need to insist our policymakers choose the healthiest housing standards, and that these are enforced.  We may even need to introduce changes to the building code so that we can join our international neighbours in building homes that are warmer, safer, and more sustainable.

The year is 2018.  You never got the call from the video store, and now you’ve got a choice.  You can pop a tired old VHS tape in your increasingly unreliable VCR, or you can put on Netflix.  The great thing about Netflix is you’ve got a sense of control over what’s on, when, and how much it is going to cost.  Imagine if our legislation enabled this kind of life for the people who rent their homes.

Sara Epperson is chair of the Public Health Association (PHA) Canterbury/West Coast branch and a member of Child Poverty Action Group's Christchurch network.