Sexual discrimination, illegal fees, tenants turfed out and filthy, expensive homes. Joanna Mathers finds life has never been harder for renters.

Spanish expat Sara Fernandez's introduction to Auckland rentals was a snapshot of a market gone mad. When the illustrator and her partner, Andreas, a graphic designer, started looking for a house in central Auckland earlier this year, the process was arduous.

In the hot suburb of Grey Lynn, wannabe renters were prepared to hand over cash to a woman they'd never met to apply for a house they probably would never live in.

"This particular landlady told us that she wouldn't put us on the list of applicants unless we gave her $1,000 on the spot," says Fernandez. There were about 40 at the viewing. Fernandez and her partner liked the house and decided to apply.

"After we handed over our references, the owner asked us for a $1,000 bond. We told her we liked the house but we had more houses to see."

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The landlady refused to put them on the list and they left - but not before noticing the queue of other hopefuls drawing out $1,000 from the nearest ATM.

It is illegal to ask would-be tenants for money to apply for a rental home.

Perhaps it is par for the course in a market so hot that renters are left high and dry, while letting agents and landlords enjoy the fruits of record-breaking rental prices.

Real Estate New Zealand figures show that in March 2011, the average price of a three-bedroom rental in Auckland's central suburbs was $590. In March 2015, it was $712.

The soaring price of real estate and the shortage of Auckland homes prompts headlines about the property market and the battle to get on the ladder. But Generation Rent is a growing reality; the last Census revealed fewer than half of all New Zealanders own their own home.

The high demand has led to claims landlords and letting agents are acting ruthlessly with impunity. And renters have little or no recourse against unscrupulous behaviour.

The Government is looking at new laws to better protect tenants as more are left without hope or a home.

The market is becoming a tale of two cities: The haves can afford a piece of the property pie, while the have-nots are struggling renters trying to find liveable, affordable places. Photo / File
The market is becoming a tale of two cities: The haves can afford a piece of the property pie, while the have-nots are struggling renters trying to find liveable, affordable places. Photo / File

Fernandez and her partner started looking for a house in February.

"It was horrible. We are from Barcelona, and are familiar with property managers, but in Barcelona they take their time to show you the house privately and you always can choose the date and time," she says.

"Every time we went to visit a house there were 30-70 people also viewing the house. Even when we applied, we never got a reply."

Her case is not unusual. Mother of two, Maria Hoyle, has seen first-hand how hot the market has become. Eighteen months ago, she moved out of a three-bedroom rental in Mt Albert, costing $365 a week, after the landlord sold the property.

Affordable rentals were hard to find. "One property in Mt Roskill for $420 a week was so awful even the letting agent was lost for words. It was badly maintained and grim," says Hoyle.

The $500 rent for the home she moved into with her new partner and children was affordable on two salaries but when her relationship broke up, she was forced to look for something cheaper. By 2015, rents had spiralled further.

"The availability and quality of places around the $400 mark is just laughable," she says.

The market is becoming a tale of two cities. There are the haves, those who can afford a piece of the property pie, and the have-nots, renters trying to find liveable, affordable places.

The Reserve Bank announcement of a loan-to-value ratio limit requiring a 30 per cent deposit for investment properties has led commentators to predict Auckland's rents will rise.

"This is going to hurt tenants and there is a shortage of rental property in Auckland," Andrew King, NZ Property Investors Federation executive officer told the New Zealand Herald.

Then there's the issue of quality. As Hoyle testifies, finding an affordable part home that is not a glorified slum is akin to striking gold.

Labour's housing spokesman Phil Twyford's West Auckland electorate office is inundated with stories by disgruntled renters. Photo / John Borren
Labour's housing spokesman Phil Twyford's West Auckland electorate office is inundated with stories by disgruntled renters. Photo / John Borren

Over the past three years, the Tenancy Tribunal received nearly 50,000 dispute resolution applications from central Auckland tenancies alone.

Auckland City is the epicentre of the explosive rental market, but horror stories aren't limited to the centre.

When Angie Robertson, her partner Martin and two children found a rental in Wellsford for $310 a week, she was relieved. Sure, it wasn't insulated and there was a lot of wear and tear, but it was cheap.

But affordability came at a different cost. Soon after the family moved in, Robertson started noticing the tap water was filthy. Robertson's partner called the letting agent demanding they fix the water supply, threatening to give notice.

Finally the water problem was fixed but, a few days later, without any explanation, the family was given 90 days notice.

"There was no explanation. We just had to leave," says Robertson.

Their nightmare didn't end there.

"When we moved in the cupboards were peeling, there was years of grime," says Robertson. "The pot drawers were full of rat poo. We spent days cleaning before we left. It was in much better condition than when we arrived, but the agents refused to give the bond back."

Robertson and family have moved to a new home but theirs is one of thousands of cases waiting for a hearing at the Tenancy Tribunal.

Labour's housing spokesman Phil Twyford's West Auckland electorate office is inundated with similar stories. But in the unregulated market, things are unlikely to improve for renters, he says.

"Homes in the private rental market are in far worse condition than the state housing stock. The rental situation is getting worse. Life is incredibly hard on renters and we don't have the laws to back them up."

Housing Minister Nick Smith says the Government "doesn't accept that renting is as good as it gets for average New Zealand families", but he confirms he is "considering improvements to tenancy law".

The Government's focus remains on getting families in homes, but this is scant relief for the thousands who can't afford to buy, or who don't fit the traditional family unit.

Renter Rachel Clark says she is one of many renters who don't fit a stereotype. "Those who may have wanted to invest their time in travel or more study or creative pursuits rather than a deposit on a house."

"I don't think we should be penalised for choosing a different lifestyle to our parent's generation. Things were easy for them, cheap homes, free education. Times have changed and so should the renting culture."

Healthy homes for families

A cold, damp Housing NZ home contributed to the death of Emma-Lita Bourne, 2, last year.
A cold, damp Housing NZ home contributed to the death of Emma-Lita Bourne, 2, last year.

Labour's housing spokesman Phil Twyford is working on a bill to force landlords to provide warm, insulated homes.

It comes after a coroner's report this week found a cold and damp Housing New Zealand home contributed to the death of a toddler from bronchopneumonia.

Emma-Lita Bourne, 2, died in Starship Hospital on August 8 last year.

Coroner Brand Shortland said the Otara house could not be ruled out as a contributing factor in her illness and subsequent death.

Twyford was behind the Healthy Homes Bill in March, which proposed to make it mandatory for landlords to provide well-insulated homes with sufficient heating.

Despite cross-party support, the bill was voted down by National and Act. Housing Minister, Dr Nick Smith, says the bill was unworkable.

"It would have required every landlord to insulate their homes immediately before signing on new tenants," Smith says. "It also ignores the fact that there are over 100,000 homes that cannot be practically insulated because of their design," he says.

"The bill would have a hugely negative impact on the housing market by prohibiting these homes from being able to be tenanted, thus reducing supply and driving up rents."

Twyford is working on a modified bill to address some of the issues National raised. He hopes to present the new bill within the next few months.

Kicked out by the agents

Nik Boyce, and Rachel Clark, had a bad experience with a letting agent. Photo / Chris Loufte
Nik Boyce, and Rachel Clark, had a bad experience with a letting agent. Photo / Chris Loufte

Nik Boyce is among thousands waiting for his day at the Tenancy Tribunal.

When the 38-year-old IT professional moved into a Ponsonby villa with two others, he felt lucky to have landed such a great home.

Over the years, flatmates moved in and out and each time the rental and bond agreements were updated with the letting agents without issue.

Boyce had impeccable references and a great job.

He loved the villa and, when the existing flatmates decided to move out, he was happy to take over the rental agreement.

Two close friends, both professional women in their late 30s, decided to move in and Boyce bought new furniture.

One of the exiting flatmates told the agent to address correspondence to Boyce as the remaining leaseholder.

"A few days later, the letting agent emailed back. She said they had never heard of me and gave me and the new flatmates two weeks' notice to leave the house."

An email trail showed the lease transfer and the property manager acknowledged the mistake but Boyce and his new flatmates were still given two week's notice.

Boyce was told he was welcome to apply to rent the house. But he would have to go through the same process as everyone else and the rent would be going up from $645 to $730 a week.

Rachel Clark, one of Boyce's flatmates, went to see the property manager, who said the landlord wanted only women in the flat.

Catherine Goodwin, general manager of Goodwin Property Management, says it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of gender.

"Equally, a person cannot tell someone else to discriminate. A landlord would be acting unlawfully if they instructed an agent not to rent to a person on the basis of gender."

Boyce, Clark and the other flatmate had to move out. Boyce has been living an itinerant lifestyle since, dossing on friends' couches, his furniture in storage.

The situation has been stressful and expensive. He is still waiting for a tribunal hearing.