5 Jul 2015

Insight for 5 July 2015 - Getting Real About Renting

From Insight, 8:12 am on 5 July 2015

The pressure is on to give tenants more rights, as increasing numbers of people find themselves renting for longer and later into life.

The number of people in their early 30s who own their own home has dropped from half in 2001 to about a third.

A father in his 30s holds his toddler on his lap

Aucklander, Grae Burton, and his daughter Lily in their rented Parnell apartment Photo: NZ / Kate Newton

Listen to Insight: Getting Real About Renting

Many renters want more secure tenancies and the ability to make minor changes, such as adding a new coat of paint.

Grae Burton lives with his wife and two-year-old daughter in an older-style apartment in Auckland's Parnell. He never planned to be renting well into his 30s.

"I do feel like it's a lot of money to throw into something that, in the end, isn't yours - that you don't really have control over the length of time you can stay here," he said.

"I want for my daughter to have a home that she can grow up in and not feel like she doesn't have that stability in her life. Anything that can help that I think will be really positive."

Mr Burton isn't alone.

Once a "quarter-acre paradise," New Zealand is increasingly becoming a land of tenants rather than home owners.

Shamubeel Eaqub, a principal economist at the Institute of Economic Research, became so intrigued by a growing generation of long-term renters that he and his wife Selena recently published a book about it.

Since 1991, home ownership has dropped steadily, Mr Eaqub said.

Economist, Shamubeel Eaqub, outside his rented home in Auckland.

Economist, Shamubeel Eaqub, outside his rented home in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

"For the early 30 year olds, nearly 50 percent of them used to have their own home ... but today we're talking about just over a third of those people - so it's been quite a big shift for the younger households, especially for that family-forming age group."

Overall, 51 percent of New Zealanders over the age of 15 now live in a rented house, with home-ownership dropping off across nearly all age groups.

The Government has so far focused its efforts on trying to build more homes in an effort to meet housing demand.

Renting could and should be a viable long-term or even permanent alternative, but the current system condemns renters to a second-rate situation, Mr Eaqub said.

The Residential Tenancies Act, which came into force in 1986 and has remained largely intact since, requires landlords to give tenants three months' notice to end a lease.

But that notice period drops to just six weeks if the landlord wants to sell the property or use it for themselves, family members or employees to live in.

"The way that it's still set up is very much one about flatting."

"Renting doesn't give you security, so you might be asked to leave for any reason - quite often the leases you can get are only for 12 months, and that means that people have that inability to put roots down and make a shelter a home,"Mr Eaqub said.

The European Model

A professor of property at Auckland University, Laurence Murphy, said there were benefits to renting. Some people found by renting rather than buying, they could live in nicer neighbourhoods or in suburbs closer to the city and cultural activities.

However, he believed tenancy laws needed a shake-up, and suggested Germany and Switzerland, which both have large renting populations, as examples that New Zealand could look to.

"What you've developed is a rental sector that has strong controls over issues of tenant security ... so you can have long-term rental agreements."

Many of the rental properties in both countries have large-scale professional owners, such as pension funds, he said.

"So in a sense they're managing it more like a business, and they're interested in the consumer."

Marcel Kelm, a dentistry student in Germany, has rented the same two-bedroom apartment in central Berlin for five years.

When he moved in, he set about re-painting some walls grey, and installed a kitchen, as the apartment came without one.

Making those changes was completely normal, Mr Kelm said.

"They tell you, feel free to paint the walls whatever colour you want, and everything else.

"When you quit the apartment, you just have to give it [back] in the state it was when you moved in. I think it's a standard here in Germany that all walls have to be white, for example, and when you paint them grey like I did, when I move out one day, then we have to paint them white again."

Mr Kelm's landlord is a company that owns the entire 16-apartment building, charging him €400 Euros a month.

An official rental index  kept housing costs relatively stable in Germany for decades, but rents on new leases increased in Berlin, and other German cities, where there was an apartment shortage.

That prompted the government to introduce a Mietbremse recently - a brake on rents that prevents landlords from charging new tenants any more than 10 percent above average rents.

Tenant Responsiblity

But of course, tenants are only one side of the equation.

Woman stand in living room of a property she is insulating and carpeting.

Landlord, Helen Walsh, in a property she is preparing to let. Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

Auckland landlord, Helen Walsh, has rented out a house in Forrest Hill on the city's North Shore for the last 15 years, and said she has had her fair share of "appalling" tenants.

But she is not necessarily opposed to some of the changes renters are suggesting, she said.

"I think the essential, fundamental change that would have to happen is that tenants have to be able to trust landlords, but landlords have to be able to trust tenants."

To make both sides' obligations clear, it would help if the Residential Tenancies Act was more descriptive, she said.

"Then when you go to [the Tenancy] Tribunal it needs to have some teeth - it needs to perhaps lead the way on what's acceptable and what's not acceptable."

There was a danger in granting tenants greater rights over what they could do with a rental property, Ms Walsh said.

"What happens ... is you make sure you tighten up your criteria for who comes into your house in the first place, and then that tends to eliminate any form of risk - and then lots of people will not be considered for rental properties where previously they may have [been]."

Government Action

While home ownership and housing affordability have dominated the agenda for this government, the Building and Housing Minister, Nick Smith, said change was coming for those in the rental market.

"We are not prepared to give up on a generation and say renting is as good as it gets, but equally so we're interested in improvements we can make in the residential tenancy law to try and provide a greater degree of security and to make it work better for those that are renting."

Officials were working on possible changes, with legislation set to be introduced to Parliament in the second half of this year, and announced as early as this month, Dr Smith said.

Reform was unlikely to go as far as the regulations that governed the German rental system, but he was prepared to review the standard tenancy contract outlined in the Residential Tenancies Act, he said.

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