“We don't just need to keep people alive. We need to allow that life to have some joy, resonance and quality.”
Declares Adam McGrath, of Christchurch’s The Eastern. Having just finished soundcheck before his closing performance of the One Night Only: Renters United fundraising gig, I ask Adam how he got involved
“I swing pretty far to the left politically, so I pop up at a lot of poorly-attended, but politically right-on events...I don’t say no if I can.”
In the end soundcheck was eschewed, Adam took his rousing part spoken word, sing-along, and storytelling set like a street preacher, or any one of his Irish ancestors would, right in amongst the crowd with no mic or PA.
Adam’s passion for the subject of affordable and adequate housing stems from his own upbringing in a warm, dry state house with his solo mum.
“Two or three bedrooms for just my Mum and I. Every couple of years people would come and paint it. If you needed something fixed, it’d get done. We had space, a vege garden. Nowadays that seems less and less likely.”
Renters United is a Wellington-based collective campaigning for a change to rental property laws and regulations, the organisation’s current aim is to lobby the local council to implement a warrant of fitness system on rental properties.
Robert Whitaker, one of the evening’s organisers, explains that private rentals in the capital are comparatively more poorly-maintained than owner-occupied homes, meaning that those paying market rental rates are also more likely to live in colder, damp homes.
To Robert the assumption that the typical student dive is a Kiwi rite of passage is outdated and incorrect. Robert reckons that 10 percent of rentals are the students or young professionals across the country.
"If you’re looking at that traditional flatting idea, that’s actually a small segment of the rental market, the majority of the rental market is families and/or people living alone."
Jessie Moss, vocalist of Paddy Burgin and The Wooden Box Band, another of the evening’s acts, lives locally with her partner and their two children. “You really want a warm, dry and clean house.” Jessie considers her family to be lucky in the rental property they have, the landlord lives nearby and is pretty attentive. But being on a standard residential lease agreement, where the either party can terminate the lease with 42 days notice, she doesn't have the stability she wants.
“Should you plant the lemon tree? We’ve been here five years now, and we probably should have. But you just don’t know. However if we had a lease where I know that we could be here for three or five years, maybe even 10 - that would be cool.”
Jessie cites Germany’s rental laws that give tenants more rights to modify and secure longterm tenure in their rental homes.
For Robert, who also has a young family, this is particularly important
“At the moment in the law there is no idea of the rental property being a home. Basically it is a transaction between a landlord and a tenant as two equal parties just like a commercial real estate transaction... It is a home and that’s not just a roof over your head, it’s actually about where your kids live and where you community is, you know all those wishy-washy things that economists and law makers don’t think about often, but are pretty fundamental to our experiences.”
Robert has been renting most of his adult life, “since my second year of university, which was about 17 years ago.”
This is an experience shared by many of the gig attendees. Lissa Chong, a thirty-something public servant who has been renting since 1999 explains that despite her progressing public service career the burden of student loans “which is the norm for her generation has meant that saving for a house deposit has been a lot harder.” Meaning that there is a growing cohort of professionals who will be longterm rental tenants, for Robert there seems to be disconnect between policymakers and media understanding this demographic shift. “They seem to look at it as a temporary thing that they did in a grotty flat in Dunedin for a couple of years on their way to home ownership. But the reality is that it is a permanent or at least a longterm experience now.”
Joseph Kelly, a First Union organiser, says most of his members from the retail and finance sector are renters.
“Most retail workers, regardless of seniority, are mostly renters and can’t afford to buy property in Wellington - in fact council rentals are their only option as most private rentals are too expensive".
A renter himself, Joseph says he and his wife are not sure what they will do when they start a family.
The evening draws to a close as Adam McGrath challenges the crowd to fill an empty beer jug with donations.
As if encouraging an audience, predominantly made of renters, who don’t carry cash to give more than their already paid door charge isn't a challenge enough, he prompts the 100-plus crowd to also sing along with him. Something that Kiwis, at the best of times, are not keen to do. But with Adam on their case the joyful sing-along ends with a beer jug laden with money.
Artist: The Eastern
Song: State Houses By The River
Album: Hope and Wire
Label: Rough Peel
Artist: The Phoenix Foundation
Song: Black Mould
Composer: S.Scott/The Phoenix Foundation