17 May 2023

Loafers Lodge fire: What are tenants' rights? Community law expert explains

From Checkpoint, 5:29 pm on 17 May 2023

The deadly fire at loafers lodge has raised questions about the rights of residents living there and at other boarding houses. 

What happens if they've paid rent up front? Is the building owner obliged to help them find replacement accommodation? Or could they be entitled to any compensation? 

Wellington Community Law senior lawyer Oscar Upperton told Checkpoint boarding house residents were technically tenants for the purpose of rental law: "As long as they are intending to stay at the property - or they stay at the property in fact - for more than 28 days". 

"Then they are covered just like any other tenant. Their landlord has the same obligations that any other landlord would have." 

Oscar Upperton

Lawyer Oscar Upperton  Photo: Russell Klein

The landlord must provide the property in a clean state, repair and maintain it, provide it with working and compliant smoke alarms and meet all other laws that are relevant, for example the Building Act, Upperton says.

In the event of a catastrophic event that means tenants can no longer live there, they can give two days notice to end their tenancy. 

"Their rent abates accordingly - so if they've already paid some rent up front, they should get that rent back, if they're currently paying rent their rent can stop from that date."

But "it's not on the landlord to find them some place to live", he said.

Upperton said news people were working with the Loafers Lodge hostel residents to find them somewhere to live was good: "It's obviously an emergency situation for them".

More information would be needed about the causes of the fire before any questions about whether compensation could be claimed could be answered, he said: "We're just not in a position to say what's happened here yet".

But generally speaking, "certainly tenants can claim damages and compensations if landlords breach the law," he said 

"If it's found that a landlord has breached a relevant other piece of law like the Building Act for example, or if the landlord hasn't provided compliant smoke alarms and that causes some kind of harm to the tenant, then they can claim damages because of that breach. 

"But they can also claim compensation for something that they've lost, which could be for example belongings." 

Asked if there was a requirement for on-site managers to be present in a building like the Loafers Lodge building, where many tenants lived, Upperton said it depended on the particulars of each facility.

Emergency tape remains at the scene of a fatal fire at Loafers Lodge in Wellington on 16 May, 2023.

Loafers Lodge in Wellington's Adelaide Road yesterday, following the fatal fire. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"There's a requirement to provide the place in a safe way and also to make sure that people are following house rules. What that means in a specific situation is really going to depend on how the building is set up, the number of tenants there and those kinds of things.

"But certainly there's a lot more obligations on a boarding house landlord than a regular landlord, because you can imagine that if you've got a lot of different households or different people living in one building with shared facilities there's just a bit of a higher risk of something going wrong." 

Getting tenants' rights enforced was "actually, really, really difficult", he said. 

"There's a real power imbalance.

"In the case of a boarding house tenancy, a landlord can end that tenancy for no reason with 28 days notice.  That's in contrast to a more regular kind of tenancy where a landlord has to fit into a specific category in order to end the tenancy. I don't think that's fair at all. 

"It's a situation where people are in these properties because they don't have anywhere else to go."

Transitional and emergency accommodation was specifically exempt from the tenancy laws, he said. 

"Despite that being almost by definition where our most vulnerable people are going to be living."

Community Law Aotearoa had made many submissions on changes it believed were needed to tenancy laws, Upperton said.

"One of them that's really front of mind for me ... because I know this property was used at one point as emergency housing - is either including emergency and transitional housing in the Residential Tenancies Act - where it's currently exempted from - or at least providing a proper and enforceable code for those housing providers."