Rental property WOFS: Greens' Chlöe Swarbrick says rental property WOFs would protect 'good landlords' as well as tenants

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick says the party's call to introduce a warrant of fitness (WOF) for rental properties would benefit landlords as well as tenants, arguing the proposal would protect "good landlords" from Tenancy Tribunal strife. 

The party is petitioning the Government to introduce WOFs for rentals to ensure properties are meeting the Healthy Homes Standards. With New Zealand's homeownership rate at its lowest in almost 70 years, the Greens are arguing that tenancy is no longer a transient option for homeowner hopefuls - and is becoming increasingly long-term. With rented homes less likely to have double-glazing and more likely to be older, colder, damper and mouldier than owned homes, the Greens say it's imperative that landlords are guaranteeing renters a safe and healthy home for the duration of their tenancy. 

The Healthy Homes Standards, which became law on July 1, 2019, outline the minimum standards for heating, insulation, ventilation, moisture ingress and drainage, and draught-stopping in rented properties.

Last month, the Government announced that all private rentals must comply with the Healthy Homes Standards within 90 days of any new or renewed tenancy after July 1, with all private rentals complying by July 1, 2024. 

The Greens' petition, 'Let's level the playing field for people who rent', argues that the onus is currently on the tenant to hold their landlord to account if the property does not meet the standards, which can lead to a "stressful and expensive fight" through the Tenancy Tribunal - and a damaged relationship with the landlord. 

"If a rental home isn't up to scratch it's up to the people who rent to challenge their landlord on it," the petition reads.

"Very few renters feel comfortable holding their landlord or property manager accountable. It could damage their relationship with their landlord and put their housing situation at risk. With so few rentals out there, leaving is often not even an option."

Speaking to The AM Show on Wednesday morning, Swarbrick said the proposal would mitigate potential stress for both tenants and landlords by ensuring rental properties are licensed and up-to-scratch from the get-go.

"Renters currently have the onus on them to go to the Tenancy Tribunal and drag their landlord or property manager through that process to enforce those Healthy Homes Standards. A WOF would front-load any of that potential stress and say, 'hey, we've given this a license, it's all good to go' [sic]," she said.

She said the proposal would not only protect tenants, but would offer protection for landlords with certified properties and reduce the number of tribunal battles, a win-win for both parties.

"What this WOF would do, would mean that from the start, there is certification, which would actually prevent the landlord - if you want to talk about a 'removal of bureaucracy' - the landlord wouldn't be being taken to the Tenancy Tribunal if [the property] was certified off the bat, that their home was up to standard."

Conversely, Swarbrick argued that despite tenants overwhelmingly winning Tenancy Tribunal cases, dragging a landlord through the process can risk a "ruinous relationship" with the homeowner, exacerbating the existing "power imbalance" between renters and landlords. It can also result in tenants being blacklisted, she added - however, reforms were made earlier this year to protect renters against blacklisting by allowing tenants to apply for name suppression after a hearing.

Swarbrick also argues that houses rented by Kāinga Ora (formerly Housing New Zealand) - New Zealand's state housing stock - should be covered by a WOF as well as private rentals.

At current, all houses rented by Kāinga Ora (formerly Housing New Zealand) and registered Community Housing Providers must comply with the Healthy Homes Standards by July 1, 2023.

The University of Otago has proposed that the warrant, which would cost landlords an estimated $150 to $250, would need renewing every three years to ensure the rental property is continuing to meet the Healthy Homes Standards.

Swarbrick later went head-to-head with The AM Show co-host - and staunch landlord advocate - Mark Richarsdon, a self-proclaimed mum and dad investor, over the proposal, with Richardson arguing that the Greens' "negative" outlook tarred all landlords with the same brush.

Swarbrick pushed back against his anti-landlord accusation, arguing that the WOF proposal would offer protection "for good landlords". 

"This is a protection for good landlords, Mark, as it would prevent them from going through the Tenancy Tribunal," Swarbrick said. "If you want to make renting a viable, long-term solution for some people, they deserve to live in healthy homes as well."

But some landlords disagree with the proposal. In an opinion piece written for Landlords in September 2018 - when the Green Party again pushed for the introduction of rental property WOFs - Andrew King, the executive officer of the NZ Property Investors' Federation, argued that introducing the WOFs would only make rentals less affordable.

"Private owners provide around 85 percent of rental properties in New Zealand. Do we really think that making it harder and more expensive to provide those rental properties is going to improve rental affordability and choice for tenants?" King wrote.

"This will inevitably add more costs to providing rental property and cause more and more properties to become unable to be rented. This will increase the cost of rent and also reduce the number of properties available for renters.

"Like all industries, customers end up paying more when the cost of a product or service increases. If they don't, then supply of those goods and services reduces."

The Green Party is once again pushing for the Government to introduce Rental WOFs, a proposal that has been floated on-and-off over the years.
The Green Party is once again pushing for the Government to introduce Rental WOFs, a proposal that has been floated on-and-off over the years. Photo credit: Newshub

According to statistics released by Stats New Zealand in December 2020, a pilot housing survey showed that rented homes were more likely to be smaller, older, and in need of major repair, and less likely to have double glazing than owned homes. However, there was no significant difference in insulation between owned and non-owned homes. 

Rented homes more frequently had problems with mould and damp than owned homes, which was consistent with the results of the 2018 GSS and 2018 Census.

People living in rented homes were also more likely to report problems with cold, and less likely to have efficient heating sources such as heat pumps and wood burners.

"Landlords are responsible for maintaining and improving the quality of their rental properties. These standards will help ensure landlords have healthier, safer properties and lower maintenance costs for their investments," says Tenancy Services.

"By improving the quality of rental homes, New Zealanders who rent will experience improved health, as well as lower medical costs and lower levels of hospitalisations. Warmer and drier homes are also less likely to have issues with mould or mildew damage, better protecting a landlord’s investment."