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When will landlords understand it’s about homes, not houses

New rental reforms aren’t about shafting landlords, they’re about requesting that those who built an industry around housing accept that with industry, comes regulation, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell

Like the alarm you forgot to turn off, a rousing chorus of complaints by the Property Investors' Federation president, Andrew King, greeted the announcement of the Government’s proposed rental reforms on Sunday. 

One of the changes proposed has King very concerned about a landlord’s inability to kick out ‘bad tenants’ without due cause. He is suddenly very worried about the neighbours having to deal with anti-social behaviour. His concern for the neighbourhood is touching, if not utterly insincere. The voice of those who profit from the ripping of societal fabric is one we should be sceptical of when it comes to social contracts.

King told RNZ’s Morning Report on Monday morning the ongoing increase in rents was because of "extra costs of regulation to upgrade properties before they could be put on the rental market". The extra cost comes from ensuring the house is insulated and that black mould isn’t growing on the walls but sure, okay, landlords.

I have lived in 13 rental properties in three cities over 20 years. I’ve had my share of great landlords and awful ones. I have had particularly bad luck with landlords who thought they were renting out a prize-winning Chelsea Garden Show site and not a house. I lost my bond in one place because the roses died. As someone who now attempts to keep plants alive, I can tell you that losing $1500 is a lot more stressful than your orange Abraham Darby rose dying.

Good tenants and good landlords acting in good faith, rather than property investors acting for themselves, are the voices that matter most in this conversation.

Our current landlords are wonderful. We’ve been in our place for three years and the rent has remained the same. We are allowed to have a dog and they fix stuff when it breaks. The house has a heat pump and they’ll pop round (never unannounced) to give the hedges a trim. They are exceedingly reasonable and humane people who understand it is their house, but our home. We reciprocate by looking after the place and getting our parents and their garden power tools around to do the edges. 

We give our landlords money and a promise of responsible tenancy, and they lend us a house where we can live our life, put down roots, love each other and our idiot dog, and contribute to our community. We are also white-presenting (my husband is a fair skinned part-Māori boy) professionals in our late 30s and early 40s who rent in an affluent suburb and do not live with regular financial instability.

The proposed reforms won’t radically transform our own experience of renting in New Zealand. They give my husband and I a little more protection, but we are in a position where our aspiration to own one day isn’t too far flung and the precarity that comes with renting wouldn’t knock us about too badly. 

These reforms are about protecting people far more vulnerable than my husband and I. People who are relying on a rental market that’s become so skewed in favour of those who have, that whole industries have sprung up to profit off it and put up barriers in the way of people’s search to find a home. Pages of forms, rental open homes, prejudicial and intrusive vetting processes, rent bidding, and rent hikes have become the norm. These processes aren’t about building a relationship between landlord and tenant or protecting landlords, they’re about protecting a market. The reforms are designed to repair a few bits of a system that has been so damaged by property investment and speculation that it’s normal for one person to own 73 houses.

The squeakiest wheel in this debate about the proposed application of some basic and fair principles for renters, are people who have made homing human beings a commercial venture.

The concept of landlords isn’t inherently bad despite our cultural obsession with home-owning tainting some of the necessary mechanics of renting. There are plenty of countries where renting is normal and not a signal of personal or societal failure. What has become rotten is the enormous power imbalance that’s opened up between those who view property as a wealth accumulation strategy and those who just need a roof over their head. The reforms aren’t about shafting landlords, they’re about requesting that those who built an industry around housing accept that with industry, comes regulation. 

King isn’t really worried about disempowered neighbours and antisocial behaviour. When King says landlords, what he means is property investors. People who like to manage their empire from afar and who try to avoid the human beings living in their investments by hiring property managers. People who have benefited from a lack of regulation.

If we are to mature in our thinking about renting, having people like Andrew King as a spokeslord is counter-productive. He and his organisation don’t even represent the majority of landlords. In a 2017 study of New Zealand’s rental sector by Massey and Otago Universities, only 5 percent of the landlords surveyed belonged to a property investment organisation.

The squeakiest wheel in this debate about the proposed application of some basic and fair principles for renters, are people who have made homing human beings a commercial venture. Their comments should be regarded as nothing but self-interest.

A year ago, New Zealanders on both sides of the tenancy ledger, among others, had conversations and made submissions that fed into the reforms announced this week and, other than any encouraging developments for renters who would like to have pets in their homes, it looks as though that feedback was heard and acted upon.

Good tenants and good landlords acting in good faith, rather than property investors acting for themselves, are the voices that matter most in this conversation.

Property investors, you’re welcome to join the tenancy club. The first rule is easy to remember: this isn’t a conversation about houses. It’s a conversation about homes. Come back when you understand that.

Until then, save your voices. 

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