Landlords the 'unsung heroes' of the pandemic - business leader

An Auckland business leader has gone into bat for the city's commercial landlords, calling those who didn't evict their tenants in 2020 the "unsung heroes" of the pandemic.

It's been a tough year for many small-to-medium businesses thanks to COVID-19 and the lockdowns used to wipe it out. The Government spent several billion dollars on its wage subsidy scheme to discourage employers from firing staff when revenue slowed to a crawl.

This has been widely credited with keeping unemployment in check, while eliminating the virus has allowed the New Zealand economy to return to near-normality, unlike many other countries that are still dealing with restrictions

"The wage subsidy was so that jobs were kept, and when things got better your job would be there - it was great for employees," Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Barnett told The AM Show on Friday.

"But for the employers, they were in a situation where they were paying rent... double that, and that was their overheads. They had that money going out every month and they had no money coming in. They had no tourists, they had no students, they had low turnover - and yet they were expected to have their businesses there to continue employing afterwards. 

"We certainly went to the Government, we asked for money to support them - unfortunately we didn't get anything. I can assure those businesses out there we are still asking." 

Earlier this week, The Spinoff published an open letter from an anonymous Aucklander whose business failed due to a combination of the August lockdown and disruption from the CBD's ongoing construction. He's now being chased for two years' worth of rent from the landlord, who is allegedly also threatening to take his house if he can't pay up. 

Labour tried to put in new laws stopping this from happening, but was stymied by New Zealand First. Finance Minister Grant Robertson said even though New Zealand First is no longer in Parliament, there are no plans to revisit the issue unless there's another lockdown

Michael Barnett.
Michael Barnett. Photo credit: The AM Show

Barnett said many landlords have been sympathetic to their tenants' plight.

"Some of them are the unsung heroes. Look, from a business point of view, we at the Chamber own our own building and we have tenants - the cost of giving a freeze to our own tenants was $100,000, and we had to wear that." 

Landlords able to "wear that" will do better in the long run than those who moved to evict struggling businesses, Barnett said.

"I need my tenants and so do other landlords. So to me, the good ones, they thought about the future - they had their eye on the long-term, and most of them were great." 

Despite the hard times, many small businesses are planning to close over Christmas and New Year that normally wouldn't, he said, for their owners' mental health. 

"Many of those small-medium businesses are coming up to Christmas, they're saying 'we're out of juice'. I'm saying to them, it's time to take a break - come back in the new year. For many of them it's been nothing but money out and uncertainty."