Megan Woods wants to meet with Human Rights Commissioner after calls for immediate freeze on rent increases

Minister of Housing Megan Woods says she wants to meet with the Human Rights Commissioner following calls for an immediate freeze on rent increases to give some reprieve during the cost of living crisis.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Human Rights Commission said too many New Zealanders are "sacrificing their fundamental human rights to pay the rent" and an immediate freeze on rent increases would help them out.

"We're very concerned that some students, low-income or single-wage families are having to make trade-offs between the right to adequate food and the right to a decent home," said Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Government implemented a temporary six-month freeze on rent increases to ease the pressure on renters. The Commission is now suggesting the Government reinstate a temporary freeze on rent increases and immediately increase the accommodation supplement to aid low-income renters.

"The Government of the day has to ensure all New Zealanders can meet their basic living needs. The cost of living payment doesn't go far enough to address unaffordable rents faced by many low-income renters," Hunt said.

Woods said she has since written to Hunt assuring him of the initiatives the Government has underway to support renters. She also suggested a meeting to talk through his concerns.

"Since we came into Government we have taken steps to address some of the worst practices in the rental market, including ending 'no cause' terminations, ensuring our rental homes are warm and dry, limiting rent increases to one per year, and improving the rights of tenants at the Tenancy Tribunal," she said.

"We also have a significant amount of work underway to increase the supply of new houses and remove incentives for speculators, to deliver a more sustainable housing market.

"All the data we have shows that boosting housing supply is the single biggest thing we can do to keep rents down, and that in markets with strong housing growth, rent growth is consistently lower than markets with less supply."

Megan Woods.
Megan Woods. Photo credit: Getty Images

The latest rental price index data for July showed the annual increase for rents in Auckland was just 1.1 percent, Woods said. For the smaller regional markets across the rest of the North Island, the average annual increase was 6.2 percent.

She added that some of the Government's recent initiatives to boost housing supply include a $3.8 billion housing acceleration fund, the affordable housing fund, and tax exemptions for build-to-rent landlords who offer long-term tenancies to support a new supply of higher density homes at scale.

"As for the families doing it tough right now there's no easy fix, with cost of living increases hitting people all over the world, but we're taking a range of measures to ease the pressure and to make a difference," Woods said.

She cited actions such as the cost of living payment, fuel tax cuts, half-price public transport, and more as ways to help ease the cost of living.

"Since the day we came into Government, we've worked hard to lift wages and reduce cost pressures on Kiwis, and we will continue to do so."

The Green Party backed the Human Rights Commission's call for an immediate rent freeze, and wants it to be followed by reform of the rental system to guarantee that everyone has a warm, dry, affordable place to live. 

Co-leader Marama Davidson said these measures are "essential" for recognising the human right to a warm, affordable home.

"A home is a home, whether someone rents or owns it. But for one in three people who rent, the cost of staying in their home is rising, much faster than incomes," she said.

"Despite having so much power over the lives of people who rent, landlords are currently operating in a light touch regulatory system, particularly when it comes to setting rents. Successive governments have stood by and done little to change this, instead watching as rents became less and less affordable."

Marama Davidson.
Marama Davidson. Photo credit: Newshub.

Davidson said that a rental is considered unaffordable when someone has to spend more than 30 percent of their income on it. Every dollar over this limit spent on rent means less money for other essentials such as food and heating in winter, she added.

"The shocking fact is that this is the reality for nearly one in every two people who rent. These people are struggling to pay the bills as rents continue to rise. It should be enough of a reason for any Government to act," Davidson said.

She said the Green Party has always prioritised people who "are left behind by unfair settings".

"The fact that the Human Rights Commission is making the same recommendations shows that the Green Party is the only party with a plan to deliver the human right everyone has to a decent, affordable home," Davidson said.

But the ACT Party didn't agree with what the Human Rights Commission called for and said it shows why they've lost their way and need to go.

"Tenants' fundamental problem is a shortage of houses. Restricting rents will not lead to more homes being built, in fact the opposite," said leader David Seymour.

David Seymour.
David Seymour. Photo credit: Newshub.

"In a time of general inflation, rent controls will only discourage people from building homes to rent. It's difficult to exaggerate how stupid the Commission's latest brain fart is.

"What would help is funding infrastructure properly, streamlining consenting, and making it easier to use competing building materials. These are ACT's policies, informed by sensible economics."

The National Party also doesn't back rent controls. The party's housing spokesperson Chris Bishop said rent controls are a "textbook example of a well-intentioned policy that will actually make things much worse for renters".

"That rent control is a terrible idea is one of the few areas the almost every economist agrees on," he said.

"Instead of artificially trying to cap rents, the Government should focus on expanding the supply of rental properties. That means landlords will have to compete for tenants through higher quality or lower rent. National would work with community providers to get more houses built."

Bishop added that National would also remove Labour's tenant tax by restoring the ability to deduct mortgage interest as an expense.

"The Government was advised that removing interest deductibility would push rents up, and that's exactly what’s happened," he said.

Chris Bishop.
Chris Bishop. Photo credit: Newshub.

The Human Rights Commission said the proportion of people renting in New Zealand is increasing and now a third of all Kiwis and half the adult population now rent their homes.  

Vee Blackwood, the Human Rights Commission's housing inquiry manager, said the current rental system isn't designed for this growth in renters or the emergence of a permanent rental class. 

"Alongside these urgent measures, a systemic overhaul of the rental system is necessary to enable all New Zealanders to achieve their human right to a decent home grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi," Blackwood said.  

Blackwood said they're pleased to see the Government's announcement offering tax exemptions to developers offering long-term tenancy opportunities.

"Longer term tenancies such as 10-year leases will dramatically improve security of tenure, and help tenants build and maintain connections in their community.

"We encourage the Government to continue to explore other proposals that will reshape the rental system and support renters' human right to a decent home."