Is a warrant of fitness scheme for private rentals really the way forward?

Debate over the pros and cons of introducing a warrant of fitness for private rental properties has roared into the spotlight after a ministerial visit to Christchurch.

Tuesday, April 28th 2015, 12:08PM

by Miriam Bell

Māori Development Minister Hon Te Ururoa Flavell says he is outraged by the squalid state of some of Christchurch’s private rental properties following a visit to a number last week.

The minister says his first reaction was to name and shame the landlords in question, particularly those who have had tenants living in substandard conditions for a number of years.

In a number of the rental properties the minister visited, there were gaping holes in the floors and walls, no doors to hold the heat in and a resident rat population.

“These buildings are a disgrace. Landlords are continuing to raise rental costs for whānau often without any improvements to these buildings after the earthquakes.”

Flavell says the Māori Party called for a warrant of fitness on all state-owned houses which was trialled last year, but it would also like to see a warrant of fitness required for all private rentals.

While Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel backed Flavell’s call, saying there is a particular need for such a scheme in post-quake Christchurch, advocates for landlords take a different view.

NZ Property Investors’ Federation executive officer Andrew King says tenants should not be living in rentals such as the five selected for Flavell’s visit.

He says that the Tenancy Tribunal requires houses to be in a proper state before they can be offered as rentals and that, as a result, protection for tenants is already in place – if they feel able to utilise it.

Rather than trying to enforce a rental warrant of fitness on reluctant landlords, King believes there are several targeted measures which should be adopted to better protect tenants in cases of sub-standard housing.

These include:

• Improving the support given to tenants wary of utilising the legal protection provided by the Tenancy Tribunal.
• Providing incentives to all landlords to insulate and provide heating for those rentals which currently do not have these items. 
• Giving low income families fuel vouchers during the winter months to encourage these families to turn on the heating and to open curtains to benefit from any sun there might be.

King points out that Housing Minister Nick Smith has said that a warrant of fitness could take about 60,000 rental properties off the market – due to difficulties installing insulation.

“This would have a large negative impact on the supply of rental housing, making the situation more desperate… And insulation is only one aspect.

“Some of the items suggested for a broad based warrant of fitness would just increase the costs of providing rental housing without improving the living standards of those struggling to afford warm and dry housing now.”

He adds that, while members of NZPIF affiliated associations affiliated are aware of the need to provide quality rentals and are influenced by their organisations’ ethical standards, it is not so easy to influence non-member landlords.

Canterbury Property Investors Association president Lewis Donaldson disputed Flavell’s words and said that many landlords would pass the costs of enforcing a warrant of fitness scheme on to their tenants.

Meanwhile, the government’s opponents support the need for a rental warrant of fitness scheme.

Green Party housing spokesman Kevin Hague says the market is failing the million adults and half a million children who live in rental accommodation.

“They should have the right to live in homes that provide them with basic levels of warmth, shelter and protection… It’s time that minimum standards for rentals are made mandatory."

In his view, the government continues to drag the chain on providing such minimum standards and has not been forthcoming about its trial of a warrant of fitness scheme for state houses [which it started in February].

Labour Party housing spokesperson Phil Twyford has said the government’s state house warrant of fitness trial is a stunt and the minister is refusing to tackle the real problem of poor-quality private sector rentals.

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