Critical Housing Crisis

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 66, Spring 2013

Helen Gatonyl

It is a mark of a caring society that all peoples are given the opportunity to live in environments of safety and security so that both they and the children of our future are given opportunities to participate fully.

The earthquakes that hit the Canterbury region in 2010/11 destroyed a significant amount of rental housing and damaged many homes. This has resulted in reduced supply, increased demand and increases in rental costs. The average weekly rent in the Greater Christchurch area has increased 31% since August 2010. Tenants are significantly affected by issues of affordability, accessibility and suitability of rental housing.

Rental Survey

The Tenants Protection Association (CHCH) Inc rental survey was a response to the concerns expressed by many tenants across Canterbury with these rent increases and with the quality of their housing.

The report considered the results of the survey which asked tenants questions about rent increases, quality of rental housing and the effects of rising rents on tenants’ well-being post- earthquakes.

The survey was conducted in the Christchurch and Canterbury regions (including Ashburton, Waimakariri and Selwyn districts) over a 3 month period – from mid-February to mid-May 2013.

The costs and effects of finding and applying for housing, household moving expenses and paying new bonds and letting fees is huge on tenants. They report high stress and anxiety in not only finding the money to cover the initial costs but also the effects on their children of having to move to a new district and new school and being further away from social supports.

Tenants were asked to explain how the rental increases affected their and their families’ well-being. The main categories identified by the tenants were:

  • Inability to afford / find more suitable or appropriate housing
  • Inability to afford any extras / discretionary spending such as holidays, petrol, school camps, clothes, leisure activities
  • Feeling stress, worry, depression, fear of the future
  • Inability to afford food
  • Lower standard of living
  • Need to move away from the city
  • Inability to afford heating / power bills
  • Inability to save for a house deposit
  • Needing to get extra flat-mates
  • Inability to afford doctor’s visits and medicine

Rising Costs

The rising cost of rental housing has clearly had significant effects on tenants, particularly the vulnerable and disadvantaged such as young people, the elderly, solo parents, families with low incomes, people with health issues, and people with poor credit ratings. Tenants of all income levels with dogs report extreme difficulty finding housing. Many tenants have reported incidents of rent gouging (excessive rent increases e.g. $80per week, $100per week and more) which has far-reaching effects on tenants’ lives, especially those on fixed incomes.

Some tenants have identified the letting fee as being a significant barrier to getting rental housing. With rising rental costs, the extra burden of paying the agent’s letting fee (1 weeks’ rent plus GST) is causing extreme hardship. The Ministry of Social Development does not give an advance on a benefit to pay this fee. With no other financial resources and no assistance from the Government to pay this fee some families state that they are facing homelessness.

Some tenants report that they believe they have received notices to terminate the tenancy so that landlords can increase the rent before the required 180 day separation between rent increases. The legislative provision that allows landlords to end a tenancy with 90 days’ notice without cause is seriously undermining tenants’ security of tenure. Given the current lack of housing supply, the effects on tenants are extreme. More families face the prospect of homelessness or dislocation and all of the social and health problems that result.

Many tenants report that a major effect on them of the rent increases is the inability to find or afford better housing. Tenants who have been encouraged by medical professionals to find a warmer, drier home to address chronic health problems cannot afford a better standard of housing and thus remain unwell. Families that need to find housing with more bedrooms to accommodate a growing family cannot afford the rising costs and end up in overcrowded living situations and face greater risk of the associated problems that go hand-in-hand with overcrowding such as more frequent illnesses, stress and domestic violence.

People living in overcrowded circumstances also fit the definition of homeless as used by Statistics New Zealand:

‘Living situations where people with no other options to acquire safe and secure housing: are without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing’1

While most tenants report that the very basic standards of housing such as toilets, running water, etc as detailed in this study are being maintained, they report other problems with their dwellings such as broken/cracked windows and windows that don’t open, doors that are stuck, broken pipes, unsafe flooring and leaking roofs are not being repaired.

If a Warrant of Fitness for Rental Housing programme was in existence then a landlord would be required to meet standards that would address these problems before they were able to rent out their properties. The recent announcement that the Government will implement a Housing Warrant of Fitness system in Housing New Zealand properties is welcome but must be extended to include the private sector as soon as possible given that this sector houses the majority of tenants.

Helen Gatonyl is manager of the Tenants Protection Association which has for thirty years operated in Christchurch to provide information, advice and support for tenants. It has for many years called for a W.O.F for all rental properties.

1 Statistics New Zealand. New Zealand definition of homelessness. 2009

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