OPINION: A study out this week confirmed what every skint student and current or former tenant of a dodgy flat already knew: rentals can be a cold, damp nightmare.
The anecdotal truth was now an empirical one. A survey by the Building Research Association of New Zealand (Branz) found that rentals were twice as likely to have poorly maintained features as owner-occupied homes. They were also twice as likely to smell musty, three times more likely to feel damp, and more likely to have visible mould.
But they are getting better. Branz has conducted the survey periodically since 1994. Housing conditions had improved since then, it said, but the gulf between rental and owner-occupied homes was resolute. Since the last survey, the proportion of poorly-maintained houses had fallen from 44 to 32 per cent in the former category and from 25 to 14 per cent in the latter.
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* Christchurch’s housing paradox – the downside of a building boom
The gap is understandable – being a landlord is a tough business. But being a landlord has always been a tough business and the business is right now in the middle of what could conservatively be described as a once-in-a-generation property boom. It’s encouraging that the poor maintenance numbers have fallen – perhaps a sign that home owners are using their newfound equity for good – but it would be nice if the market could claw back some of the difference as well. We have soaring property values, a legislative push to upgrade rentals with compulsory insulation and fire alarms, and a host of central and local government incentives for home improvement. If it’s not going to happen now, then when?
Christchurch faces its own particular struggles. Tens of thousands of properties were damaged in the earthquakes and the resultant shortage of available, habitable rentals placed huge stress on the local housing market. Stories of people sleeping in cars, garages and substandard homes abounded. Weekly rents climbed steadily. Capital improvements were not priority number one.
Now, the city’s housing stock has been repaired and rebuilt to the point that rents are falling and landlords are offering incentives to fill tenancies. This gives renters bargaining power – a rare commodity – and is as big a motivation as any for property owners to do some work around the place. The spectre of earthquake-damaged as-is-where-is homes, in which there remains a healthy trade, still looms, but not on a level that would knock the market off course.
More likely the gap between landlord and tenant will remain. The legacy of a pioneer tradition of building a house and then warming it up, rather than building a warm house. The quality of the national housing stock will continue to get better as standards and expectations rise and the tolerance for damp, draughty hovels falls, but one segment of that stock will probably always be playing catch-up.
Tenancy Protection Association Christchurch manager Di Harwood put the dilemma in stark terms: “Owner-occupiers are far more likely to maintain their properties . . . whereas in tenanted homes, the landlords are less likely to want to understand what’s going on for tenants.”
No legislation or government initiative can eliminate that truism. Let’s hope the current market can at least introduce some doubt.