Why we need to change our rental system to respect basic human rights
Paul Hunt is Chief Human Rights Commissioner.
OPINION: Last week, as part of the Human Rights Commission’s housing inquiry, I pointed out that many tenants have to make trade-offs between their basic human rights, such as the right to adequate food and the right to decent housing.
Tenants are also unfairly burdened with enforcing government tenancy laws.
I suggested two short-term initiatives: a freeze on rent increases and an increase in the housing supplement.
These approaches aren’t perfect, but they would bring immediate relief to tenants while the country has a constructive conversation about the future of leasing.
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Earlier this week a single dad with young children wrote to us asking for help as he had been ordered to vacate their rental after asking for a broken radiator to be replaced.
It’s the only heater in the house and it’s been waiting a year for it to be fixed. “So we suffer, especially in winter,” he said.
This father and his young children are at risk of homelessness this time next week. He has every right to take a case to tenancy court, but said: “I first said [the landlord] it was unusable a year ago. I repeated to them and was notified. I don’t want to do anything like 14 days notice [to make the landlord fix the heater] because we really need a reference.
In other words, this tenant is too scared to take their landlord to tenancy court for fear that it will affect their chances of moving their family to another tenancy.
This heartbreaking story is a case study in how our rental system is failing tenants.
Overall, we are asking tenants to do too much to hold landlords and property managers to account, when this should be the responsibility of a government-appointed accountability mechanism, such as Tenancy Services.
In April, former Associate Housing Minister Poto Williams was asked why it was up to tenants to enforce healthy home standards. She said “the cost of introducing licensed inspectors would outweigh the benefits”. We asked for this cost-benefit analysis; meanwhile, we continue to hear stories of tenants whose homes don’t meet standards and who are too afraid to complain.
The government does not check enough whether rental properties meet healthy housing standards. This is a serious breach of responsibility.
As previously reported, this accountability gap places Aotearoa New Zealand in breach of its legally binding international human rights obligations.
Ineffective accountability undermines housing laws, policies and other housing initiatives. Much-welcomed new rules, such as healthy housing standards, cannot fully deliver on their promises without effective accountability.
Rent increases have outpaced incomes and inflation in recent years. In some areas, the rent has doubled. But the housing supplement is still based on rental data from around six years ago, and the government has only pledged to review it later this year.
Rent pricing is also problematic. If a landlord charges more than “market rent,” the onus is on the tenant to take them to tenancy court and prove that the rent significantly exceeds other rents in the area.
In other words, tenants are overwhelmed by the responsibilities of others. They have to make sure the owners follow the law. Given the power imbalance between landlords and tenants, this is not fair. And keep in mind that one in three households rents.
Tangata whenua, Pacific people, people with disabilities, members of the rainbow community, people living in poverty and single parent families are more likely to experience discrimination in the rental sector and find it harder to find suitable and affordable rentals.
I am encouraged by the leadership of providers iwi and hapū whose innovative programs offer more culturally appropriate rentals. The government is positively investing to support such initiatives and should also steer the private rental market towards more culturally appropriate housing.
A lawsuit in Waitangi Court, filed on behalf of whānau, hapū and iwi across the country, has sparked a review of the impact on Maori of Crown law, policy and practice in the marketplace of private rental housing between 1991 and 2021. This survey will accelerate a long overdue conversation about the future of our rental system.
The government deserves credit for making the most significant changes to tenancy laws in decades, but a deeper change to our tenancy system is needed.
Parliament regulates businesses to advance human rights for all. Investing in rental property should be no different. We must not forget that housing is above all a fundamental human right, and not an investment.
This is why the Human Rights Commission is calling for a conversation about the right to decent housing for the growing number of tenants in Aotearoa, New Zealand.