Submission on Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill (no.2)

August 18, 2016 11:13 pm

Renters United made both a written and an oral submission on Andrew Little’s Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill.

Written submissionOral submission

Written submission

Wellington Renters United is an organisation founded in 2014 to organise renters and campaign to make renting better for everyone in Wellington. The majority of our members are private renters in the Wellington region. We also have supporters who rent in other parts of the country or who own homes.

Wellington Renters United welcomes Parliament’s attention to issues of quality in the private rental sector. The right to live in a safe and healthy home is one of our eight key demands. Poor quality housing is a key issue affecting our members.

We believe that the proposed legislation could be improved in a number of ways. In this submission, we outline some of the problems and our proposed solutions.

We wish to have the opportunity to present an oral submission to the Select Committee to provide further information in support of this written submission, including allowing the committee to hear directly from renters about the quality of homes in the private rental market.

Wellington Renters United supports the intention of this Bill to ensure that rental housing is warm and dry, through compelling landlords to provide adequate temperatures, heating, drainage, insulation, draught-stopping and ventilation. However, we have a number of concerns with the content of the Bill.

  1. The Bill instructs MBIE to write the regulations regarding adequate temperatures, heating, drainage, insulation, draught stopping and ventilation. We believe it is important that these are based on the latest evidence. (As opposed to current regulation being implemented by MBIE, which only ensures that insulation meets 1978 standards, rather than those in the current Building Code). There is a danger that, if this Bill passes into law, the regulation that comes about as a result will be insufficient to keep renters dry and warm.
    We recommend that the Bill be amended to specify that MBIE set standards that are based on the latest science, provide the best outcomes for health and wellbeing, including insulation to current Building Code standards.

  2. The Bill does not address safety issues in rental housing. Our manifesto states that renters have a right to a safe and healthy home. Our members report that unsafe housing is a key concern. Many renters live in houses with trip and slip hazards. A recent analysis has found that making low-cost repairs to improve home safety prevents people becoming injured. An MBIE commissioned analysis has found that the safety related aspects of a WOF would result in $456.5 million benefits over 20 years due to a reduction of hazards in the home. Safety standards have recently been tested by the government on state housing, and by five councils, the Green Building Council, and Otago University, Wellington, on private and council rented housing. We recommend that the Bill is amended to instruct MBIE to set standards regarding safety.

  3. The enforcement regime is flawed. If this Bill becomes law, landlords will have to include information about whether the rental property meets the new standards in the tenancy agreement. It will be an unlawful act for the landlord to omit this information or if the property fails to meet these standards. The Bill does not state how this will be enforced; presumably, as the Bill amends the Residential Tenancies Act, the enforcement method for standards will remain the same: tenants will be required to report potential or current landlords who are committing the unlawful act. We submit that many tenants will not do so. Housing is so important, and in many markets, it is hard for a tenant to obtain or keep a home that they can afford. It is particularly difficult for tenants subject to discrimination. In this circumstance, tenants may not report unlawful landlords because they fear missing out on obtaining the tenancy, or they fear damaging the relationship with their landlord. This is the experience of some of our members, and is supported by economic analysis. The MBIE-commissioned analysis of different ways of enforcing rental housing standards found that under this sort of enforcement regime, about a third of landlords will not comply, so many people will miss out on the benefits. We recommend that the Bill is amended to provide for a more effective enforcement regime, such as a universal inspection or audit approach.

  4. We are concerned that the Bill may impact on tenant security and stability. Landlords may use making improvements so that the dwelling meets standards as an excuse to end tenancies, and tenants complaining of their landlord’s’ failure to meet standards may lead landlords to end their tenancy (citing other reasons, to avoid accusations of retaliatory notice). Tenants who assert their rights may be discriminated against in looking for housing in the future. We recommend that the Residential Tenancies Act be amended and policies implemented to ensure that tenants have more secure tenure. This may include longer, more secure leases, a first right of refusal for renewing leases, and removing the option of a 42 day notice period.

  5. We note that the Bill is worded confusingly – both 4 (1) (c) and 5 (1A) refer to the unlawful act of failing to comply with the standards, but the latter section does not come into effect until 5 years after Royal Assent. We recommend that the sections on landlord compliance are redrafted for clarity.

  6. The Bill takes too long to come into effect. As presently drafted, even if the Bill were quickly passed into law, some rental homes will not be required to meet standards until 2022. The problems of cold, damp and unsafe homes are far too urgent too wait that long. We recommend that all landlords comply with the standards by 2019.

Oral submission

Submission made by Robert Whitaker and Jordan King.

Wellington Renters United is an organisation founded in 2014 to organise renters and campaign to make renting better for everyone in Wellington. The majority of our members are private renters in the Wellington region. We also have supporters who rent in other parts of the country or who own homes.

In part, our organisation was formed out of the fact that most of the conversation about housing as well as the solutions were exclusively focused on home ownership. We knew this was not the whole picture and felt it was time that renters got together and said so.

We have formulated a set of principles that express what we believe a good renting experience looks like, and I’d like to draw you attention to one of these in particular: we believe renters should live in a safe and healthy home.

At our launch event in 2014, we presented these principles and had around 100 members sign up. Since then hundreds more have joined through our website and at stalls we held at the summer festivals.

We have found that there is a strong appetite for change and many, most, people have a direct experience of the problem and agree something must be done. We’ve seen widespread support amongst home owners as well as renters who see the impact of the dreadful state of rental housing on their adult children, friends and family.

In April we held our first members conference to discuss the issues directly with our members and determine what our focus should be for the coming year. Unsurprisingly perhaps the message was clear: we need warm, dry and safe homes and we need a warrant of fitness to ensure that landlords deliver this.

As we said in our submission to the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill earlier this year, we don’t believe those changes are sufficient to improve the quality of rental housing in New Zealand.

This Bill — and the improvements we suggest to it — is a great opportunity to raise the quality of housing this country to something approaching that which you’d expect in a developed country. We sincerely hope parliament takes that opportunity.

In our submission we suggested six improvements:

  • An explicit requirement for the regulations to set standards based on scientific evidence (“There is a danger that, if this Bill passes into law, the regulation that comes about as a result will be insufficient to keep renters dry and warm”)
  • To include safety requirements within the scope of the legislation (“Our members report that unsafe housing is a key concern. Many renters live in houses with trip and slip hazards. A recent analysis has found that making low-cost repairs to improve home safety prevents people becoming injured”).
  • Introduce an effective enforcement regime for the new standards
  • Enhance security of tenure
  • And some tidying up of the details around how and when the new standards come into effect.

We’d particularly like to stress again two areas:

First, we have no confidence in the current enforcement regime for renting. MBIE’s analysis for the previous Bill found that under the existing regime roughly a third of all landlords would not comply with the changed standards. As these standard are more rigorous we could expect that number to be even higher.

The fact is that bad landlords rely on the lack of independent inspection and audit, short term tenancies and, sadly, bullying tactics to avoid existing legislation. The tenancy tribunal is an inaccessible and time consuming process that most renters see as a “nuclear” option, only to be resorted to when the relationship with the landlord is unreconcilable. It is hardly surprising that only 10% of cases are brought by renters under these circumstances.

Instead we would strongly recommend the Bill include provision of powers for local authorities to inspect rental properties and enforce the regulations, along with provisions to resource LAs to do this effectively.

Second, the lack of secure tenancies in New Zealand exacerbated both the enforcement of the proposed regulations and also introduces risk for renters in their transition into law. If renters knew that their home was secure they would be far more inclined to assert their rights.

We recommend that the Bill introduces provisions to abolish “no cause” notice, instead requiring that a landlord give a reason for serving notice that can be tested for reasonableness if in dispute. The test for this should be that the reason for ending the tenancy should be balanced against the renter’s right to a safe and secure home. We also recommend that the minimum notice period be changed to 6 months and the exceptions for sale and taking possession for family use be removed.

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