Government's commitment to solving housing crisis in doubt with just a handful of staff working on renting issues

The Government's commitment to solving the housing crisis is in doubt due to just a handful of staff working on residential tenancy issues.

Official information obtained by Newshub shows the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has just 5.95 full-time employees working on the Government's changes to the Residential Tenancies Act

The team "did not ask for further funding for permanent staff" because there were a "number of vacancies" to be filled. As of February 14, there had been one appointment, three roles were being advertised and a further two would be advertised shortly. 

It comes at a time when rents are soaring. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE)'s Tenancy Services Rental Bond Data release for December 2021 showed median rents nationwide reached $540 per week, up $50 from last year - the highest yearly increase on record. 

And for many people, buying a house is just not a realistic prospect. Median prices for residential property across New Zealand increased 20.5 percent from $730,300 in January 2021 to $880,000 in January 2022, according to the Real Estate Institute.

Geordie Rogers from Renters United says the Government needs more than six policy staff committed to helping renters. 

"I certainly don't think it's good enough," he told Newshub. 

"We've got massive work programmes the Government has committed to, like the regulation of property managers, and even if you look at a sample size of six people - even if they're the best researchers in the world - I think it's pretty clear that you need more people working on it than that to ensure that you are understanding the breadth of the issue."

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick says far too many of the 1.4 million New Zealanders who rent are forced to live without basic needs met.

"Political decisions turned housing in this country into a pyramid scheme and political decisions and prioritisation is the only thing that'll change that," she told Newshub. 

"I don't doubt the 5.95 FTE staff members are working their hardest. The problem is that there's only half a dozen staff tasked with leading a job that's supposed to be a key Government priority, likely seconded into other issues as they come up.

"Renters can't be left out in the cold any longer."

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick.
Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick. Photo credit: Newshub

A HUD spokesperson told Newshub rental policy work "doesn't happen in isolation but is supported and supplemented by work across a broad range of work streams". 

However, HUD could not provide a comparison of how many of its 86 policy staff are committed to other areas of work.

"We are actively recruiting for employees to work specifically on the Residential Tenancies Act linked work programme.

"HUD undertakes salary benchmarking to understand how its pay compares to other organisations across the public and private sectors, and the ministry is comfortable that its policy staff are paid appropriately."

As part of its Residential Tenancies Act reforms, the Government has tried to make renting easier by limiting rent increases to once every 12 months and forcing all private rentals to comply with healthy homes standards.

Associate Housing Minister Poto Williams has just released a discussion document outlining the Government's plan to require residential property managers to comply with a Code of Conduct with fines of up to $100,000 for companies that do not comply. 

Geordie Rogers from Renters United.
Geordie Rogers from Renters United. Photo credit: Newshub

But Swarbrick says it's too little, too late. 

"Nearly 15 years ago, back in 2008, Parliament was arguing whether property managers should have professional standards apply to them in the same way real estate agents do. While we're finally moving ahead on this basic point, we're lightyears behind where we should be."

Williams in Parliament last week pointed to "work to increase overall supply, including looking at how we can specifically increase the number of purpose-built rentals". 

Annual figures for the last nine months of 2021 showed more new homes were consented than ever before - 48,522 in November, up 26 percent on the same period in 2020. 

Rogers said while building new homes is great, it's not an immediate fix. 

"We can't just have everyone building homes because yes, that's going to be great for people in six to seven years' time, but that means for a lot of people, there's a long period of time where they're just being told to put up with it. 

"This comes on top of having to put up with it for years and years and years and sometimes, for some families, even generations."

He, like the Greens, is calling for rent controls - a policy Williams floated but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ruled out.

"There is evidence to suggest that rent controls aren't an effective way to deal with renters' issues long term. So the Prime Minister and I agree," Williams said in Parliament. 

Rogers acknowledged rent controls have failed in some parts of the world, like in San Francisco where, according to a Stanford University study, landlords responded by converting their buildings or replacing them with new ones that did not qualify for rent stabilisation. 

But Rogers said the Government should learn from international examples and apply something temporarily to help renters while the supply gap is filled - something like rent increases indexed to inflation or wage growth.