Homeowner refuses rental to woman with multiple sclerosis receiving Work and Income

Sharon has been searching for a house since May last year.
Sharon has been searching for a house since May last year. Photo credit: Getty Images.

An Auckland woman looking for a new home was hurt when a homeowner hung up on her after confirming she was on Work and Income. 

The beneficiary, who asked only to be referred to as Sharon, has multiple sclerosis and receives the supported living benefit. 

She told Newshub she's been searching for a house since May last year. 

Sharon currently lives in a two-bedroom South Auckland home with her 28-year-old daughter and grandchild. 

The family are happy in the home, where they have lived for the last four years, but would like to move to a property with a section so Sharon's daughter's young son can run around. 

"He loves the outdoors, so we're really looking for a two to three-bedroom house with a section," she said. 

She came across a house she liked on myRent, a platform for NZ private landlords to advertise their properties, in Greenhaven and an application. 

Sharon says she was half asleep when she got a call at 8:30 pm on Wednesday night from a woman asking questions about the enquiry. 

"She asked me my name, and she said 'are you with WINZ?' and I said 'yeah', and she said 'will they pay me?' and I said 'no, they pay me my benefit and then I set up an AP to pay you', and she said 'not doing that', and hung up," Sharon said. 

"I thought 'aye', you can't discriminate against someone being on a benefit. I thought 'um excuse me, why don't you get to know me first'. 

"At least you're going to get your rent every week. Someone who comes in who is working, they could lose their job and be without money for weeks." 

In an email to Sharon, a myRent company representative confirmed the person she spoke to was the property owner of the home she was interested in renting. 

"We have sent them a stern email explaining discrimination, referencing the Human Rights Act. We have flagged the user, we will check their other communication and will monitor future messages. If this is to be repeated they will be banned from using the site," the email said.    

One of the prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Human Rights Act 1993 is "employment status". 

This is defined as "being unemployed"  or "the recipient of a benefit", which can apply to tenancy situations. 

Thomas Clements, CEO of myRent.co.nz, says he sympathises with anyone looking for a home in Auckland, no matter their circumstances, as there is "not enough rental properties" out there.
Thomas Clements, CEO of myRent.co.nz, says he sympathises with anyone looking for a home in Auckland, no matter their circumstances, as there is "not enough rental properties" out there. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Sharon says she and her family are good tenants, and although would like to stay in Papakura has expanded her search in hopes of finding something suitable. 

"Our neighbour came over the other day and said our landlord had been telling her that he wants someone exactly like me when we leave. 

"Basically he doesn't want us to move out, but we need something bigger." 

The owner of the home Sharon applied to told Newshub because she is not set up to receive direct debit from Work and Income, she turned her down. 

"Listen, I have an asset and I want to be guaranteed payment. WINZ has a system when they do direct debit on behalf of their clients, and if the landlord wishes to have that in place then the landlord can request that."

When asked what was preventing Sharon from paying her directly out of the money she receives, she said: "Nothing but I want my money to be direct debited. I said I am not looking at her application because I am not set up to receive money from WINZ and I am not going to go through the red tape to set that up.

"When I see a lot of people applying on sole-parent benefit, with two adults, not this particular person, but with two adults, children and a baby on the way, but behind WINZ back, they are receiving benefits they are not entitled to." 

She said, "such people, when they get caught in the system, their benefits stop automatically, they still remain in my house, and not paying my rent, that's why I want direct debit in place."

The woman told Newshub she treats each person on their merit but when probed again as to why Sharon can't pay directly with benefit money, the woman said: "I am not willing to go through that. Then she chooses to pay me or not pay me." 

Ministry of Social Development client services manager Kay Read told Newshub in some circumstances, it is possible for a client's benefit to be paid directly to a landlord but generally happens when clients are in social housing. 

For a private rental arrangement, a redirection request needs to come from the client and the landlord needs to fill out a registration form, which requires supplying supporting documents proving home ownership and bank account details. 

"We consider applications for redirection of payment on their individual merits and only where good cause for such a redirection to be made can be shown." 

Thomas Clements, CEO of myRent.co.nz, told Newshub discrimination "shouldn't happen" and they won't protect anyone who is breaking tenancy laws.

"We saw a situation that could be [discrimination] so it needs to be investigated properly." 

He recommends any renters who feel like they've been treated unfairly to speak with Tenancy Services, and that was reiterated to the tenant in this situation. 

"If they made a judgement there has been discrimination, we'd take action." 

He says it's important to report any issues so the correct authorities can realise how big the problem is. He added his sympathy with anyone looking for a home, no matter their circumstances. 

"It's though as a tenant to find a place at the moment. There are not enough rental properties there." 

The Human Rights Commission told Newshub the criteria for choosing tenants should focus on personal qualities rather than stereotypes or any preconceived idea. 

"Landlords should outline the actual qualities they would prefer, rather than make assumptions based on stereotypes."