By Amanda Morrall
Rental hikes on a shrunken pool of habitable houses in earthquake ravaged Christchurch have triggered calls by tenants' rights group for the Government to impose a freeze.
Tenants Protection Association manager Helen Gatonyi said the move was urgently needed to protect renters from being gouged by landlords looking to capitalise on what was shaping up to be a scarcity situation.
"We'll be asking for support from all of our stakeholders that there be a rent freeze for at least the next six months,'' Gatonyi told interest.co.nz.
While it's estimated that as many as one in four residents have left Christchurch, Gatonyi said it was only a matter of time before people returned to the city to much reduced and damaged housing stock.
"People are being accommodated right now but it's only going to be short-term. When they come back, that's when the real problems begin. And the truth of the matter is that the people who are most affected are often the most disaffected and they are of course, going to be the most difficult to house, hence there being social housing.
"Private sector landlords have traditionally been known to hike rent, and I can't imagine that is going to change. It's brutal but it's the truth.''
'Back to where they were pre-recession'
New Zealand Property Investors Association President Martin Evans rejected suggestions landlords were using the earthquake as an opportunity to jack up rents.
He attributed any current rental hikes to supply and demand and said whatever increases have been imposed merely restored rents to what they were before the economic downturn.
"So they're not actually raising them, they'd be putting them back up there anyway,'' said Evans.
Evans said a rental freeze at pre-Sept 4 levels would unfairly target landlords who were already suffering themselves financially because of increased costs and devalued properties, on top of earthquake related challenges.
"Landlords are suffering more than anyone else because they have properties that once the tenants leave, they can't get new tenants. If they have damage to them, they're not going to get any rent. So they have to make it up with the property they have left.''
Evans suggested that a freeze on food prices, petrol and power would be more effective than a rental freeze in terms of providing support to victims.
"You'd be hitting the people who are already hurting,'' he said of the TPA's proposal.
Meanwhile, the Department of Building and Housing is urging landlords and tenants to "work closely together and maintain their relationships as the state of emergency continues in Christchurch."
While the Tenants Protection Association was urging the same, Gatonyi said landlords were increasingly becoming 'very unreasonable' in their dealings with tenants.
Under current laws, tenants whose rental properties have been rendered uninhabitable are required to give two days notice to quit a property.
Although not having water and or power was technically insufficient grounds to deem a house uninhabitable, Gatonyi said there was reason to suspect - in light of the National State of Emergency - that existing sections of the law were open to interpretation.
'Tenants can just leave'
She said it was her 'position' that if there were health and or safety issues arising from not having power or water, that tenants were within their rights to stop paying rent and leave.
"We're all struggling around definitions around the (Residential Tenancies) Act," said Gatonyi.
"In terms of the advice we are giving, we are giving advice on the individual's immediate need and that may be the immediate need in terms of health and safety.We're saying, if you feel your property is changed to the extent that you feel unsafe in it, then you must make that decision for yourself and your family to move."
Ordinarily, the TPA could deploy staff to make a determination on whether a house was safe or not, but as the TPA (and dozens of other social service type agencies) were affected by the earthquake, there wasn't the available manpower.
An assessment on whether a house in habitable can be made by emergency services, Civil Defence, or according to Gatonyi, a health inspector from Canterbury Community Health.
As for rental obligations, Gatonyi said it remained ambiguous.
"You may still be required to pay rent. If you are able to do so, then you should. If you are not able to do so, go but be aware you may be chased up later on.''
She urged tenants and landlords to do each other courtesy of keeping open lines of communication.
"Don't leave without telling the landlord or the property manager where you have gone, equally landlords should do the same.''
Gantonyi said the association has been besieged by hundreds of calls daily from tenants scrambling for advice. While they were taking as many calls as they could, the TPA's sister branch in Auckland was also available to help.
See the release below from the Department of Building and Housing:
The Department of Building and Housing stresses the need for landlords and tenants to work closely together and maintain their relationships as the state of emergency continues in Christchurch.
Our contact centre is fielding large numbers of calls from landlords, tenants and property managers in Christchurch who have questions about their properties and the laws that apply in these special circumstances.
Please see below for guidance on what to do if you suspect your property is uninhabitable after the earthquake.
This guidance is not exhaustive; anyone with further questions is encouraged to phone us on 0800 TENANCY (0800 83 62 62). Please also bear with us as we handle larger than usual call volumes.Tenants
If you believe your property is uninhabitable, contact your landlord as soon as possible, and discuss the situation with them. It’s best to reach agreement together to terminate the tenancy ahead of any formal assessment by building professionals.
If your property has been deemed uninhabitable, you may cease paying rent. Emergency Services, local Council or Civil Defence staff should be able to ascertain whether it is able to be lived in or not.
If your property has been deemed uninhabitable DO NOT re-enter it to retrieve belongings unless Civil Defence or Emergency Services determine it is safe enough to enter.
If the damage to a rental property has made it uninhabitable, then you may give your landlord two days’ notice to end the tenancy. (This is under Section 59 of the Residential Tenancies Act 1986).
If you are unable to contact your landlord, you can contact the Department on 0800 83 62 62, to determine if other options are available to you.Landlords
If you have not done so already, attempt to contact your tenants to check that they are safe and find out what condition your property is in as soon as possible.
You may give tenants seven days’ notice to end a tenancy if your property has been deemed uninhabitable. Emergency Services, local Council or Civil Defence staff should be able to ascertain whether it is able to be lived in or not. If it is declared uninhabitable, the tenant is not required to pay rent.
We also suggest you contact your insurance company to let them know if you may need to make a claim.
The three-week rent suspension offered to Housing New Zealand tenants does not apply to private rentals. Landlords and tenants should be open to discussing alternative rent arrangements and come to amicable agreements where possible.
Although it is understandable that many tenants may not wish to stay in Christchurch, and that the earthquake has caused great distress and hardship, it is important that rental law remains in force just the same as laws governing many other parts of society, which are necessary to maintain order during a crisis. This is to ensure that landlords and tenants are treated fairly should any disputes arise.
Applications can be made to the Tenancy Tribunal to deal with any disputes that can not be resolved between the tenant and landlord.
If you require emergency housing help, contact 0800 HELP 00 (0800 435 700).