Generation Rent needs habitable housing – it’s that simple

By: grahamc99

It’s painful to admit, but for a brief moments earlier this year I allowed myself to hope that T might do well enough at his last job that we might be able to afford to buy a house in a year or two.

Obviously those hopes went out the window with that job.

Our current place is only slightly damp, thankfully – no ceiling or closet mould, just window condensation – but it is fucking freezing. It most definitely would not meet the World Health Organisation’s recommended indoor temperature of 18-21 degrees. So, you know, like most everywhere else we’ve rented. /shrug

In nearly 10 years of renting, and moving on average every 18 months, the warmest and driest place I’ve ever lived was a studio under our landlord’s house in leafy Epsom. Dark and tiny, the tradeoff for insulation was having barely enough room for two people to stand up (the rest of the house where the landlord and his family actually lived, though, was reasonably large and very nice) so when the rent went up, we started looking elsewhere right away.

I absolutely refuse to raise my kids in this kind of place. I want to provide them with at least the standard of environment I grew up in. I really don’t think that’s asking too much. We lived very modest lives, but in a dry and warm house in a safe area.

It’s all well and good to say:

“Tenants are encouraged to find a property that not only meets their needs and lifestyle, but does not have any existing issues like [being cold and damp].”

but that totally ignores the reality of our market. That might work in other countries – not here. Nobody wants to live in a cold, damp place, but the majority of our rental housing stock IS cold and damp. Yet everyone needs somewhere to live. So the default question becomes not ‘is it damp and cold?’ but ‘how damp and cold is it?’ in an attempt to gt something toward the better end of the spectrum. Except for the very worst cases, it’s hard to gauge the extent of cold and damp during a 5-minute daytime viewing, especially during the non-winter months.

I’m getting too old for this shit.

I’m not sure what we’re going to do. I’m still hopeful that we might be able to buy at some point. (I’m not going to make any projections or commit to any goals here; T’s work situation has been so variable over the years that it would be frustrating and feels pointless.)

Otherwise, quality rentals are few and far between. Finding a place that’s insulated at all is the first hurdle. The second hurdle: can we actually afford to rent such a place? And the third hurdle … would we even get it? Granted, we aren’t at the very bottom of the tenancy ladder anymore. We’re not beneficiaries or students (oh, the times we house hunted when I was still in uni … how many places we missed out on!) But we are not particularly high income earners and in a tight market, when you have your pick of applicants, are you going to approve the couple making more, or the couple making less? I’m not delusional; the kinds of places we qualify for in Auckland are not the nice ones.

I think it’s really hard to grok the state of the market here unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. There’s the sheer fact that there’s so much competition (one showing per rental and always during work hours; houses almost always sold at auction, or blind tender).

And anyone who’s spent time abroad can testify to the dire physical state of housing here; there are countless expat message boards devoted to this topic. We’ve stayed in many, many apartments and houses throughout Europe and North America, thanks to friends, Couchsurfing and Airbnb, and all of them stunned us in a good way. Yep, even the supposedly crap places – and that includes the depressing grey Stalinist apartment block in Berlin that was astonishingly lovely inside – were miles ahead of anywhere we’ve rented here. Heck, we even have landlords who apparently would have no qualms about renting out meth houses. That is, to put it mildly, somewhat worrying.

And if you need a memory refresh, here’s another reason why renting for life isn’t a good option – here, tenants have very few rights/security.

Change may be on the horizon – at some point. I recently came across a blog devoted to examining the state of housing in New Zealand (hallelujah!). Student Elinor Chisholm is writing her PhD on collective action to improve rental housing in New Zealand.

The poor quality of New Zealand’s rental housing is finally getting the attention it deserves. People seem to agree that our housing is having terrible effects on health, and that it’s not right.

Not long ago a  scheme that sets minimum standards for rental housing was trialled. Criticism has mainly been along the lines of:

a) it’s going to raise rents

b) a lot of the criteria are shallow

to which my responses are:

a) I would be willing to pay more in rent if the property merited it, because I care about my health – I would be more open to renting for life if it didn’t put me at such risk of dying with black mould in my lungs. I suspect the savings on heating and medical costs (we did not need to use a heater at all when we lived in Epsom and didn’t get sick) would even it out. Maybe at the low income end, the government needs to increase Accommodation Supplement – but the current state of rentals is just not acceptable by any standards.

b) as a result, they are reviewing some of the criteria – but really, let’s not nitpick, let’s focus on the important stuff – namely, insulation and heating. I’d love to see minimum indoor temperature introduced as a criterion.

I mean, the fact is that the vast majority of houses in the sample failed: 90 percent, or let’s be generous and knock it down to two-thirds since 36 percent only required “minor” fixes to be brought up to scratch. And given that the surveyed rentals were volunteered by landlords, it’s probably not a big leap to conclude that the real number would be even higher.

Tenant horror stories often make the mainstream media, but how often do we hear about the horror houses we have to make do with? That’s why I’m so glad to see Elinor getting a platform on Public Address (which reaches a fair number of people).

“Horror renters” are a very small issue, about 0.6% of the population, that, fortunately, we deal with through the courts. Horror rental houses, on the other hand, is a huge issue – 44% of our rental homes. Our current system, with its lack of quality standards, and with its disincentives to tenants for taking issues of quality to the court, is not working.

I think it’s safe to assume the quality of owned houses here is overall higher than the quality of rented houses. Maybe it used to be okay to do your time in mouldy rentals before buying your own place (doing it up if need be). But as home ownership slides further out of reach for our generation, we need habitable rental housing to fill the gap.

Because, to borrow a phrase from this Medium piece:

“It shouldn’t be easy. But it should not be this hard.”

20 thoughts on “Generation Rent needs habitable housing – it’s that simple

  1. Why is it that the standard is so low for rental houses in NZ? Is the climate such that it’s difficult to keep moisture out of the homes? You’ve really opened my eyes to a problem I never knew existed over there. I know you wrote about it before which is the first time I heard of this. I just can’t imagine living that way. Today is going to be hot 31 degrees and we were discussing if we should put the air conditioner on. I think I’ll keep it off and think of you, dear eemusings. I hope that you can get the housing you want and deserve!

    1. As I see it, the number one issue is not enough houses are insulated. No central heating either.

      State of housing is probably the worst thing about NZ. Older houses less likely to be insulated (though at least there is now a govt scheme helping toward insulation costs; if we can’t buy an insulated house we’ll be making use of that). Newer houses, well, we had the massive leaky building crisis, so that’s a different weathertightness issue again.

  2. Oh no! I remember looking at some awful rental houses when I was a student in Surrey in England (like one place where the bedrooms had no doors and the bathroom carpet was black with damp and mould, and another which was clean, but you had to stand on the bed if you wanted space to open the bedroom door). But generally, we looked round places that were fairly ok. Sounds awful in NZ though – I feel so bad for you! :-(

  3. you’ve written about the crappy living situation before but now it sounds even worse and I didn’t even think that was possible! I feel that we got really lucky with our place, because we’re renting a bigger space for the same cost of a really nice apartment and we get so many aded bonuses. I love our community and am happy living here until we can afford our own place. I love that our landlord pretty much leaves us alone too, but he’s very quick to respond to stuff that needs to be fixed.

  4. Tenants have pretty decent rights here in Chicago, and one of them is that the housing must be heated to a minimum of 68F/20C during the day (I think from 8 AM to 10 PM) and 65F over night. It’s a crime that you have such terrible tenant’s rights!

    1. Oh my good lord. That sounds blissful.

      Sometimes it is literally no warmer inside our house than outside. I would guess that on particularly cold nights, it might be as low as 13 or 14 degrees indoors. The overnight temperature drop is the worst, waking up to an icy bedroom.

      As I keep trying to articulate, renting here is a pretty grim proposition.

  5. I work for the US government’s Dept. of Housing and would move to New Zealand in a hot minute to be a consultant with you, but “housing standards expert” is not one of your government’s needs. I will have to keep my eye out in a few years, when I could move. My sister just moved to Christchurch last week.

    We have local codes, state habitability laws which vary state to state, and federal laws and regulations covering any housing that federal dollars maintain. In fact, we have two inspection systems just for federally supported housing still, though we are fixing that. That’s one area the US government is good at regulating to the benefit of tenants, at least in most states.

    The nicest thing about owning a home is that ultimately you have the control. I hate renting, even with our protections!

    1. Hmm. I suppose it depends how you look at it! Improving housing standards is definitely a NEED from the point of view of anyone who rents (and some who own), but whether the powers that be agree and will put resources behind that is a different matter entirely. And state housing is on the way out…

      What does your sister do? Similar stuff? Definitely lots of jobs in Christchurch with the ongoing rebuild. Too cold for me down there though.

  6. As I understand it, the climate in much of New Zealand is sort similar to that of Vancouver/the West Coast of Canada and the US (minus the very occasional snow in the winter here and colder temperatures). We just dont’ have those problems; is it just the older homes that have no insulation or weather proofing, or is it an issue with the building code?

  7. I honestly don’t know how you do it, renting in NZ. (I’m NOT saying there is a better alternative!) I still shudder every time I recall the one time you wrote about finding a mushroom growing in your carpet. !!!!!!!!!!!! The rental market in DC is pretty awful in terms of pricing (MONSTROUSLY expensive) but at least all of the places I’ve lived in have been decent to pretty darn great. I’ve been lucky, too, that most of the rental management companies that I rent from have been good to excellent, with only one being crappy (and that was when I was a student, so crappy digs were the norm).

  8. This is so interesting to me, but definitely something I wouldn’t want to deal with. I’ve viewed some absolutely dives in my day (one of them was a basement apartment that you needed to use cellar doors to get into… like the kind that pull up from a slanted hole in the ground – I thought I was going to die going into that place with the landlord showing it).

    Do dehumidifiers not work because there is no insulation? That would at least remove the dampness that is causing the mouldy environment? My parents are going to Australia/New Zealand for 5 weeks in a few months, and are staying in VRBO places – I hope they’re decent!

  9. A very thought provoking piece here. I think the situation is a little better here in the UK, but I’ve still had my share of cold, damp houses. This has reminded me of all the reasons I chose to move back in with my parents, but I can’t stay here forever!

  10. Continue writing about this, I think you will continue to draw attention to it and keep this issue part of the conversation. This is truly terrible that cold and damp can’t be escaped. Around here there might be one type of issue at an apartment, but then it has other benefits that will outweigh it. We were told that our old apartment had mold and that the landlord had just repainted and hadn’t addressed it (the same one you guys saw). But we were there for almost a year and it never came back. It had the lowest rent for miles and it helped us save enough to buy. That was a minor tradeoff. But to live in poor conditions yearround with no payoff in the end and no other real options, means it has to be talked about ad nauseam until things move forward. Shame ‘em!

  11. It’s amazing what people complain about and take for granted. I would never think that an insulated living space would be a luxury or something that was difficult to achieve. In the US, just like most places, it has become near impossible to become a home owner, because of mortgage requirements and costs; however, the rental spaces have improved because of that. Hopefully the same thing will eventually happen in NZ.

  12. Wow, I had no idea rental homes in NZ were such a problem! Despite living in a few crappy cockroach-infested places, I can honestly say I’ve never lived somewhere with the poor insulation and dampness you’re describing. It sounds like buying a home is a smart choice, even if it takes a while to get there.

  13. We bought one of the those horrible cold ex-rental properties for our home in Christchurch, NZ. It was built in the 1940’s and made of wood. There were huge drafty gaps between the floorboards and all the single glazed windows were slightly bent. Last winter it was less than 10 degrees celcius inside most mornings. We can’t do anything to it as we are stuck int he mire of earthquake insurance claims (it still could very well be demolished) so we have taken off to Europe for the winter and rented the house out to a lovely family. We made sure we put in new carpet and underlay and ceiling insulation before we left so the tenant (and her children) wouldn’t die of cold.
    When we purchased the property inspector told me houses of that era were built without central heating or insulation as the time between 1930-1970 was New Zealand’s hydro-electric heydey and electricity was cheap so everyone had their heaters going all day long. Our house also had two (decommissioned) fireplaces so I’m sure that with two fires roaring it would have been toasty.

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