They come out at night, you know. If you're careful not to startle them you can see them slinking out of their dank, broken-windowed houses with mouldy ceilings and chest infections lurking in every room as they seek out the relative warmth to be found under a tree, under a hedge or in a shop doorway.

They are the most disadvantaged and exploited New Zealanders of all, but they're not homeless. They are renters. The poor unfortunates who are exploited by rapacious landlords, who starve their children so they can pay the rent, forced to live in conditions that aren't fit for animals let alone human beings.

At least that's how Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford seems to see it. Landlords have had it too good for too long, he says, and the worm is about to turn.

'Could these peripatetic tenants be the rogues he refers to? Show us a landlord who will evict a good tenant for the hell of it.'

Historically it has taken Labour governments several years to start telling people what they can and can't do. Helen Clark waited a couple of terms before telling us what lightbulbs we could buy, and was in her final throes as Prime Minister when Shane Jones was given the thankless task of explaining that many of us were using the wrong showerheads.


The current lot have taken less than a year, and while the potential for saving electricity and water might have offered some benefit to those of us who needed guidance a decade ago, Mr Twyford's crusade has no saving graces at all.

He has instigated a discussion aimed at putting an end to 'no cause' tenancy terminations, while ensuring that landlords will still be able to rid themselves of "rogue" tenants. Insecure tenure, he says, can force families to continually move from one address to another, which is particularly tough on children, who have to keep changing schools.

Wonder if he's asked himself why. Could these peripatetic tenants be the rogues he refers to? Show us a landlord who will evict a good tenant for the hell of it. Landlords will tell you that good tenants don't grow on trees, and when they find one they will generally do their best to keep them, even to the point of renting the property for less than it might otherwise command. 'No cause' evictions have to be a myth.

He wants to look at increasing the notice a landlord must give a tenant to move out to 90 days, whether fixed term agreements should be changed to make it harder to evict tenants, limiting rent increases to once a year and limiting the practice of 'rent bidding'.

Rent bidding is offering the keys to whoever is prepared to pay the most. This might well disadvantage some people, but it represents a cornerstone of free enterprise. The landlord owns the house — it is his or her private property — and is surely entitled to pursue the best possible return. If that is not the case, are we going to see similar action taken against those who sell houses?

Should vendors be told that they cannot sell to the highest bidder? Is someone, Mr Twyford perhaps, going to decide a fair price that cannot be exceeded? Is the same going to apply to everyone in this country who sells anything? Will the price of milk, cheese, meat, cars and other commodities be set by the government, to prevent profiteering by the people who produce and supply them? Why should rental houses be in a class of their own?

Mr Twyford wants to "better equip" tenants and landlords to reach agreement about pets and minor alterations to the home. Why should a landlord not have the right to tell a tenant that pets are not allowed? Pets can and do damage properties, and if a would-be tenant wants a pet they should look for a house whose owner doesn't object. The landlord owns the house, and the landlord surely has the right to make the rules.

It's all about tenants being secure in their homes and putting down roots in their community, apparently. Again, show us a landlord who will not value a long-term tenant who will look after their investment, who will not damage it, who will mow the lawns and tend the gardens, who will treat the house as if it is their own.


As is so often the case with bright ideas that emanate from Wellington, this one will not benefit the people it is intended to help. If it is going to become more difficult to evict a bad tenant, and then after giving 90 days' notice — tenants who want to move out must only give three weeks' notice, which in many cases won't be long enough to repair the damage they've done — those without impeccable references won't get a look in.

If rent increases are limited to once a year, and the house cannot be rented to the highest bidder, chances are that the opening rent will be increased before they even get the key.
Landlords, whatever else they are, aren't dumb, and getting around rent restrictions won't be difficult. And it will be the tenant who pays. Mr Twyford's brainwave will undoubtedly make life harder for tenants rather than easier.

And he has already conceded that bad landlords are a minority, so once again we have a politician wanting to make rules based on the lowest common denominator. Everyone pays a price for the failings of the few. He might also consider that when it comes to bad landlords, the state seems to be at the head of the queue.

Of all the stories you've heard over recent years about tenants living in squalor, how many were renting from the state? Not all, certainly, but a good proportion of them.

Perhaps he should compel the state to set the example that he wants private landlords to follow. And he might explain how it is that so many state houses have been so badly treated that they are apparently uninhabitable.

He might also ponder what will happen if a significant number of private landlords decide it's all getting too hard and put their houses on the market. There is no doubt that private landlords are doing his government a favour, and if they decide to sell up and invest their money elsewhere — as he has suggested they do if they don't like what's coming — a lot of people are going to be looking to him to put a roof over their heads.

Mr Twyford's basic assumption, that landlords want to suck as much as they can out of those less fortunate, is flawed from the start. Most private landlords buy their rental homes as an investment, in many cases with an eye on their retirement.

All they want is a tenant who will look after their property, pay the rent on time, resist the urge to punch holes in walls, break windows, smash light fittings, let the section revert to jungle, and, as Mr Twyford describes it, will put down roots.

If landlords fail to meet their obligations, then their tenants already have recourse via the Tenancy Tribunal and other authorities. If tenants fail to meet their obligations, as the system currently functions, landlords can take action too, but are likely to find themselves whistling Dixie.

Forcing a bad tenant to make good on damage done, or to make up rent arrears, or even to move out, isn't easy.

Truth be told, there is no need to 'rebalance' the rights of tenants and landlords. The rights and obligations are well understood.

If there is an issue, it is that those rights and obligations need more effective enforcing, a process that should be aimed equally at bad landlords, who Mr Twyford says are a minority, and bad tenants. Good landlords and tenants should be allowed to get on with their lives without his or anyone else's interference.