Rogue landlords are being targeted with a tough sanction by tenancy investigators - an unprecedented step that could see the worst offenders convicted in a criminal court.
A Herald investigation into tenancy law breaches found at least 15 cases in the past three years where government officers had sought to have a landlord "restrained" on behalf of tenants they'd wronged.
Most of the cases involved repeat breaches of the Residential Tenancies Act - including failing to provide smoke alarms, lodge bonds or install insulation - or a single breach where the landlord showed minimal understanding or remorse.
The investigators, who work for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), were using an obscure section of tenancy law enacted in 2010, but unused until now.
It allows them to apply to the Tenancy Tribunal for a restraining order that lasts up to six years, meaning that if the landlord commits a similar breach in that time they can be charged with a criminal offence instead of simply facing a fine.
• Landlords say Govt plans will make it harder to get rid of bad tenants
• Now and then: Landlord/tenant law overhaul, how 1.5m lives could change
• Premium - 'I don't know why there isn't a revolt': How mum and dad are crowding out the hopes of a generation
• Premium - Big Read: Inside New Zealand's unending state house crisis
Last year three landlords were subject to the orders, and two in each of the years before that.
Cases included both repeat offenders and those who the tribunal found to be wilfully ignorant.
For example, Debbie Iskander, who illegally rented out garages in South Auckland during the housing crisis, was restrained for six years. She was also ordered to pay nearly $180,000 after 197 complaints were lodged against her - including a failure to lodge a bond in 81 cases.
But it also restrained one Mark David Phillip, a landlord in Mt Eden, for two years, after finding he was "patently unaware of his obligations as a landlord".
Phillip failed to uphold a number of provisions in the act, including smoke alarms. The tribunal said he found the hearing "funny" and failed to understand the seriousness of the hearing at which he was sanctioned.
"I have no confidence from Mr Phillip's evidence today that he has even a minimal
understanding of his obligations as a landlord," the tribunal said, in doling out the order.
"Such orders are not made lightly as a further breach may result in a conviction,
which is far more serious than an award of exemplary damages."
Property law expert Joanna Pigeon said the restraining orders were being used to deal with landlords where the tribunal felt the breaches were likely to recur, rather than being a one-off.
"It's making sure these things - smoke alarms, insulation - are dealt with on an ongoing basis. It protects tenants - these ones and in the future," Pigeon said.
"It's good because an individual tenant isn't going to know their landlord is a repeat offender, and the [government] is much better placed to deal with widespread breaches. They're taking a much more active approach in terms of systemic issues."
Pigeon said given information was available on the Tenancy Tribunal website, tenants should be reference checking their landlords in the same way landlords checked them.
Steve Watson, the national manager of the Tenancy Compliance and Investigations Team at MBIE, said part of the team's strategy was to deal with the most cynical and seriously offending landlords, and in some cases, it was appropriate to seek the restraining orders.
"It sends a clear message about the seriousness of the case and the offending," he said. The team also followed up the orders to check whether behaviour changed and the landlord remained compliant.
The restraining orders are so far the most serious sanction landlords can face. There is currently no way to "ban" landlords in New Zealand. Calls for a mandatory landlord licence have so far been rejected.
Law-breaking landlords' names remain a secret
Names of at least 160 landlords who breached tenancy laws are being kept a secret, with an investigation into whether they should be released now spanning more than a year.
The Herald requested information in September 2018 about all landlords who had faced compliance action by MBIE's tenancy unit since its 2016 inception.
The information request was part of an ongoing investigation into unlawful conduct by landlords.
It wanted copies of compliance reports, where the landlord had signed a document that specified a potential breach and remedial action; and also warning letters.
Most of the cases involved either persistent breaches of laws - such as failing to lodge a bond; or health or safety issues - like failing to install smoke alarms.
MBIE initially sent through copies of the 160 compliance reports, but with the landlords' names and the property addressed blanked out.
The Herald complained to the Ombudsman that the information was important to the public - for example, given that only the most serious cases make it to the Tenancy Tribunal it was another way for tenants to be able to reference check their landlord.
Equally, other similar reports into other kinds of businesses are frequently made public - where company directors are banned, for example.
The Ombudsman agreed to investigate and sent a preliminary decision to the Herald in August 2019, saying it appeared MBIE was not entitled to withhold the identities of the landlords - although releasing the addresses may have breached tenants' privacy.
However, MBIE argued that before it released the information it wanted to consult with the landlords whose names would be released.
In December, the Ombudsman said the case was ongoing. A date for the consultation had not been set.