You have to admit, it's great sport watching that master of the well-timed leak and rumour, Winston Peters, being skewered by his very own weapon of choice.

But let's hope this sideshow doesn't divert attention for too long from the important issues of the election campaign. Like, for example, rental housing.

Last weekend came one of those casual "let them eat cake" comments that highlighted how accepting we've become, as a community, to poverty all around us. Asked by the Herald about calls for a mandatory warrant of fitness for rental homes, Property Investors Federation boss Andrew King said: "A lot of the time they [low-income tenants] haven't got the funds to run electricity or run heating, so without heating, insulation is pretty useless."

Instead of a mandatory WoF to ensure rental accommodation was well insulated, had energy-efficient heaters, had safe wiring, working ventilation mechanisms in kitchens and the like, King's preferred solution is a government subsidy for the electricity bills of poor tenants.


Using that reasoning, he no doubt thinks a government subsidy for raincoats is preferable to landlords replacing the leaky corrugated iron.

As comments go, it took me back to the dark days of the crackdown on Polynesian overstayers in the mid-1970s when police randomly stopped anyone with a dark skin on and around Karangahape Rd demanding proof of citizenship. Police Minister Allan McCready denied to me they were targeting Polynesians, it was a just a case of, "If you have a herd of Jerseys and two Friesians, the Friesians stand out."

Comments like that caused an uproar at the time. Yet the nonsense that today's slums can be repaired by turning up the heaters at government expense has drifted by unremarked.

So far the housing debate this election campaign has centred on ownership and affordability.

The Opportunities Party's call for a reform of the Tenancy Act to bring security of tenure, as in places like Germany, for the 35 per cent of New Zealand households living in rental accommodation got lost amid leader Gareth Morgan's pig's lips tantrum.

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

King's comments followed the release of a report prepared by two advocacy groups, "Renters United" and "Action Station", putting a human face to the problems of 620 adults renting in the private sector.

The "People's Review of Renting" relates tales of people trapped in dilapidated, damp and overcrowded accommodation, many scared to complain for fear of eviction or rent increases.

The report called for a mandatory rental warrant of fitness and the abolition of letting fees and no-fault evictions.

After years of research and dithering by councils around the country, Wellington City Council led the way this month by introducing a rental housing warrant of fitness.

But it is only voluntary. A computer app allows tenants and landlords to check their house against minimum health standards set by public health experts from the University of Otago.

A Rental Warrant of Fitness inspection will cost $250 and has 29 criteria covering insulation, heating, ventilation, structural stability, sanitation and hazard identification.

The idea of a rental WoF has had a long gestation. In 2013, a Canterbury District Health Board report was advocating one, pointing to the majority of private landlords being "mum and dad" landlords with only one rental property and that 69 per cent of them had "no known maintenance budget for their property. A further 21 per cent allocated less than $2500 annually for maintenance".

At the time, councils in Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin put 140 rental houses through a trial WoF and 94 per cent failed.

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester argues that: "I wouldn't drive a car that wasn't safe for my kids [but an anomaly] in New Zealand is that we put up with houses that don't keep us and our families warm and dry."

Sadly it's not compulsory, and in a time of housing shortage, there's no incentive for the landlord to do the right thing.

With a majority of voters now living in the wild west that is rental accommodation, isn't this the sort of thing we should be debating, rather than Winston's red face?