It's one thing for the government to legislate for the protection of tenants from rogue landlords, but the provisions that are now being enacted represent the thin end of an alarming wedge.
One change that will come into effect on August 11 crosses a line that should be sparking outrage, in that the owners of private property will be required, by law, to subsidise those to whom they rent houses.
From that date, a tenant who is the victim of family violence will be able to leave their tenancy with two days' notice, providing they can offer evidence of the abuse. They will not be required to pay rent for those two weeks, and the remaining tenant/s will have their rent reduced proportionately until they come back.
Ergo, one of a couple leaves for two weeks and the one who stays behind gets a 50 per cent rent reduction. How that can possibly be construed as fair to the landlord defies explanation.
Should we be worried that the government is prepared to interfere to this degree with private property rights? Yes we should. It is all well and good to demand that landlords provide their tenants with homes that meet a certain minimum physical standard, and even that long-term tenants be given strictly controlled rights to make alterations, but forcing a landlord to give rent relief to those who are victims of family violence, and quite possibly to the perpetrator of that violence, is contrary to all that can remotely be regarded as just, or within a government's power to bestow.
Changes to the tenancy laws already make it extremely difficult for a landlord to evict a tenant, however badly they have behaved, or whether or not they actually pay the rent. The government would clearly like us to believe that all landlords are rapacious capitalists who effectively farm those who do not have homes of their own. Wealthy people who are driven by greed, while their poor unfortunate tenants pay through the nose to subsist in cold, unhealthy houses that are not fit for human habitation.
If ACT leader David Seymour is right when he says the current government sees business as the enemy, then landlords aren't far behind.
The irony is that while we do see examples of landlords treating tenants badly, all the evidence would seem to suggest that the state is the worst landlord of all. When a substandard home hits the headlines, there is every likelihood that it will be owned by Kāinga Ora, and the tenant has finally gone public as a last resort.
There was another case of that last week, a Napier mother-of-four saying her complaints about the leaking, mouldy state house that she was renting was making her children sick, but had been largely ignored for the six years she had lived there. Kāinga Ora had put a new roof on the two-bedroom house, but the contractor drilled through a pipe in the ceiling, rendering it uninhabitable (if it wasn't before that mishap).
The tenant and her four children, aged from four months to five years, would have reportedly been put out on the street had they not been able to move in with family nearby, Kāinga Ora, formerly Housing NZ, having said it was unable to find emergency accommodation for them in a motel while repairs were made. The best it could do was to offer a shared dorm room at a hostel.
There is no argument that, as far as is possible, it is incumbent upon society to make escaping from a violent home as easy as it can be. Certainly no one could reasonably expect that a victim of violence should, or would, remain where they are living because leaving would create financial difficulties. But are we really expected to believe that anyone in this country would stay put, at the risk of their physical and emotional wellbeing, because to leave would make it harder for whoever remained in the home to pay the rent? Even if that was the case, why should the owner of the property be forced to suffer a financial loss?
The test of this, remember, isn't whether the remaining tenants are going to find themselves unable to pay the rent. That doesn't seem to come into it. Whether or not the remaining tenants can pay the rent is unlikely to be front of mind for the person who is leaving. It's not their problem, and nor should it be the landlord's.
Where will this end? Who knows? Will landlords be compelled to reduce the rent when a tenant falls ill and runs out of sick leave? Or when they lose their job? Are private landlords to be forced to become part of the social welfare system, with Wellington controlling how much they charge in rent and under what circumstances they must reduce it?
The cost of providing a rental home doesn't change. The rates don't go down, the mortgage and insurance premiums don't reduce when one of the tenants walks out for a couple of weeks.
That might not be financially problematic if landlords are making huge profits from their investments, but most aren't. The great majority of rental homes are not owned by individuals with multiple properties. They are owned by ordinary people who have chosen that particular investment as a means of providing for themselves in retirement. And where would tens of thousands of families be without them?
And despite what the government might want us to believe, most care about their tenants. They need to, if they are keep them, to their mutual advantage. They do not set out to treat them like a chattel that can be replaced at a moment's notice. They do not deserve to be treated as if they do, or to have their investments and their own financial wellbeing jeopardised because of circumstances that are not of their making, are beyond their control, and in the vast majority of cases will have absolutely no justification.
And if it's good enough for landlords, what about banks? If the person who leaves is paying a mortgage as opposed to rent, will their bank be told to reduce their payments for a couple of weeks?
The good news, perhaps, is that regulations governing what constitutes 'appropriate evidence' of family violence will be drawn up by the government. Given the current government's record, that could take years.
Meanwhile, the laws around privacy in the Tenancy Tribunal are changing too. Tenants will be able to apply for name suppression following a hearing to avoid themselves being blacklisted. Another brilliant idea. Now landlords, who have a totally reasonable right to decide who they allow into their properties, will be denied the opportunity to reject those with a history of non-payment of rent, anti-social behaviour, damaging other people's property or whatever.
Tenants have rights. No argument. But this government is pushing the pendulum much too far in their direction, thanks no doubt to the fact that it's made a pig's ear of housing generally over the last three years. The outcome might well be that landlords will sell up and invest elsewhere. That might ease the housing market a little, but it will also make finding a home to rent more difficult, and put the price up.
The last government made a shambles of housing, but this one is stripping private property owners of their rights. Housing is well on the way to morphing from a joke to a nightmare.