people FEEL POWERLESS TO CHALLENGE LANDLORDS
A common theme in the stories was the relative power landlords have over tenants - how this impacts renters’ lives and their ability to speak up in case of problems.
As shown throughout this report, landlords have considerable power over tenants. Multiple factors - insecure tenure; the lack of affordable alternative properties available - have combined to limit renters’ power. This dynamic was particularly evident in the numerous stories that mention neglected maintenance and repairs, landlords abusing power, and how renters responded.
Neglected maintenance and repairs
A high proportion of stories mentioned renters’ experiences living with the consequences of neglected maintenance and repairs. As the stories show, this neglect impacted renters’ quality of life, mental health, physical safety and in some cases imposed additional costs on renters.
Landlords have a legal obligation to keep properties weathertight and to provide and maintain properties in a reasonable state of repair. Many landlords fulfill these legal responsibilities, some even going above and beyond to provide good homes for their tenants. However, in this review the majority of stories mentioned some form of neglected or delayed maintenance that reduced their enjoyment of the property:
Renters noted the stress, frustration and unpleasantness of chasing landlords. They noted:
In some cases delayed repairs caused tenants to incur extra costs. Two renters shared stories of broken hot water cylinders that landlords failed to fix, which added hundreds of dollars per month to the renters’ power bills.
Neglected maintenance also left renters exposed to hazards:
This final story probably refers to foil insulation, which according to Tenancy Services should not be touched without switching off the power at the mains as it is an electrocution risk.
Renters’ reluctance to speak up for fear of retaliation
Given the severity of these situations, it is worth questioning why renters did not pursue their legal rights by issuing a 14-day notice requesting repairs - the first step towards mediation or a case in the Tenancy Tribunal. Among the hundreds of stories, only five responders mentioned that they had issued a 14-day notice to their landlord. Only 12 stories mentioned tenants bringing a case against their landlord.
Based on the stories, there is a clear reason why renters did not assert their legal rights. In multiple cases, landlords interpreted renters’ requests for repairs or maintenance as opportunities to raise the rent or evict the tenants. As one renter noted:
Another renter shared that a leaking septic tank had formed a swamp in his backyard. He and his partner debated whether to report it, fearing a rent rise. They eventually did report it, the landlord did raise the rent, and they had to move.
Multiple responders stated that fear of rent rises and eviction prevented them even from reporting problems:
Several tenants explained how this fear left them “stuck”:
Besides fear of rent rise or eviction, other reasons renters expressed for not pursuing their legal rights included being busy with work or study, and having too little proof. Lack of education about their rights may have been another prohibiting factor.
These stories add weight to previous research showing that tenants often choose not to report problems. Research involving interviews with tenants and their advocates found that this is due to a lack of knowledge or confidence, high costs in time and effort to pursue a claim, the belief that reporting problems will not lead to resolution, and fear of eviction. This research showed that tenants have more success in asserting their rights when an advocate supported them; yet there are few advocate organisations nationwide. In reality, few tenants report problems. In the 2015/2016 financial year, only one in ten Tenancy Tribunal cases were brought by tenants, according to information received in an official information request.
Other forms of abuse by landlords
The stories also demonstrated a wide range of other abusive practices by landlords:
Several renters shared examples of landlords lying in order to give a 42-day notice period, by falsely telling tenants that their family would be moving in:
These sorts of behaviour are not surprising in an environment where landlords and property managers are not regulated, and renters are so reluctant to speak up.
Enforcing the law relies on renters - yet renters feel powerless
These stories emphasise the impacts of the power imbalance between landlords and tenants. As the examples highlight, renters feel powerless to challenge landlords’ behaviour that is illegal or harming their interests. This is highly problematic: the current means of regulation relies on tenants to proactively report problems in order to enforce the law. Local or central government inspectors will only intervene in the most severe breaches of the law.
Unless the power imbalance is addressed, the law that protects tenants will not be addressed. As so many renters shared:
Leaving the wellbeing of renters up to the “mercy” of landlords is an unacceptable way to ensure that people’s right to housing is realised. And the stories show it is not working.