Telling stories is usually soothing, but some of the stories told in this report The People’s Review of Renting are heart-rending and shocking. We know already from all too many studies that there is a rapidly growing problem with severe housing deprivation in New Zealand. The number of people whose rent takes more than 50 percent of their income, who are living in dilapidated houses, overcrowded houses, houses where there is no privacy or security of tenure is increasing. In the 2013 Census, it was one in every 100 people. We know that the quality of private rental housing is worse than both state housing and owner- occupied housing. We can quantify the toll this poor housing takes in recurrent illnesses, all too often leading to repeat visits for children to the doctor and possible hospitalisation for chronic respiratory diseases and, shockingly, premature death. Yet these deaths are usually nameless unless a coroner carefully rules, “Whether the cold living conditions of the house became a contributing factor to the circumstances of Emma-Lita’s death cannot be excluded.”
In this timely and brave report we hear the first-hand experiences of 610 adults, who primarily rent in the private sector. Their stories make sobering reading and provide an emotional underpinning to the statistics. The houses these people - many of whom are students - live in, are less likely to be insulated or have effective heating than houses overall. In other words, people in this report are more likely to live in the poorest quality housing available, because of their low incomes and their preference to be close to the university in order to minimise transport costs.
A disturbing theme in this report, given that tenants are essentially buying housing services from their landlords, is how vulnerable and powerless they feel to even ask, let alone demand rights to a flat that “Shall be free from damp”. Yet this is a right that was established in the Housing Improvement Regulations 1947, which are still extant. Housing rental standards are basically not monitored; the effectiveness of the newly established branch of MBIE has yet to be established. The Tenancy Tribunal hears mainly from landlords, as tenants worry that if they complain their rents will rise or they could be evicted. The rental market clearly does not function well for those on low incomes.
It is a sign of hope in politics that two committed and articulate advocacy groups ActionStation and Renters United have joined forces to bring us these tenants’ stories and to advocate for stronger and enforced rental regulations. We can be grateful for those who took the time to share their experiences. I would also add that we urgently need a high-ranking Minister of Housing in the incoming government, who develops workable strategies with the sector and communities, to bring order to the erratic merry- go-round palliatives in the housing sector, which are currently leading to so much stress, and too much suffering, for too many renters.
Philippa Howden Chapman
Professor of public health at the University of Otago, Wellington, and is the director of He Kainga Oranga / Housing and Health Research Programme and the NZ Centre for Sustainable Cities. Her team’s randomised community trials, in partnership with local communities, provide evidence to inform housing, health and energy policy. Their work focuses on reducing inequalities in the determinants of health and they have received a number of awards including the Prime Minister’s Science Team Prize. She is currently the chair of the World Health Organisation Housing and Health International Guideline Development Group.