The tenants of a Levin house owned by the country’s transport agency, who put up with sewage and flood water flowing through the bedrooms, have been awarded $40,000 in compensation after concerns were raised about whether it was fit to be rented in the first place.
The four-bedroom home on Arapaepae Road belonged to Waka Kotahi, which bought the property by negotiated agreement under the Public Works Act in December 2019, for the Ōtaki to North of Levin highway project.
The tenants have now succeeded in a claim against the landlord for the “significant” longstanding breaches bad enough that the property, which had a rateable value of more than $1.3 million, may not have been in a condition to be rented from the start.
They had sought compensation equivalent to all the $67,830 rent paid during the two-year and nine-month tenancy which started at $470 a week when they moved in during June 2020 but increased to $510 by the time they left in February this year.
Their specific claims were around the inadequacy of the septic tank system, which meant sewage flowed back through it and into the house on four occasions.
They also said the sewage system was inadequate to support a four-bedroom house; rainwater flowed freely into the attached workshop and then into three of the four bedrooms; two dead trees in the driveway were not removed; a hole in the kitchen bench was not repaired; and the floor tiles in the home’s entranceway were not grouted and represented a health hazard as they were difficult to clean.
Soon after they moved in they complained to the property manager about plumbing issues in the main bathroom, including that the sink and shower did not drain properly, but then “bubbled” and drained away when the toilet was flushed.
The tenants, who have name suppression, said the property, made up of the home and workshops, was built on one concrete pad. They said the soak pits for the downpipes were clogged up and did not operate, the water from the workshop roof flowed onto the ground through rotted guttering, and the field tiles were blocked.
In their view, this caused water to rise on the section and come into the property, the tribunal said in a decision released in July.
At one point they told the property manager that “three inches” of water had flooded the shed and entered the house in one bedroom “to approximately three feet”.
Two or three months into the tenancy, the occupants complained that sewage flowed up through the toilet and bathroom drain and then flowed into a bedroom, which they were left to clean up.
They said the property smelled of mould and sewage throughout the tenancy but they stayed living there on the assumption they had to because of a separate lease of adjacent farmland.
Once they became aware that they could terminate this tenancy and continue with the lease of the farmland, they did so.
They said they raised these problems repeatedly with the property manager by email, phone and in person. Some of the required work was carried out but the issues were never fully resolved.
According to the decision the property was inspected by the landlord’s agent about every six months but neither the tenants nor the landlord had seen any written report arising from these inspections, other than the list provided to the tribunal.
Waka Kotahi told NZME it was now engaged in discussions, following what it described as an unfortunate instance, with its provider under the property management services agreement for that region.
The landlord’s own reports confirmed that it was aware of the issues with water getting into the outbuildings since September 2020 and into the house since November 2022 and was aware of the sewage issue since November 2022.
A risk register report carried out by the landlord’s agent in September 2020 noted “multiple leaks in the barns, but none within the house”. This was noted again in June 2022 along with a leak to the shed roof caused by overflowing downpipes and a dead tree in the driveway that needed felling.
A further report in November 2022 noted there were multiple leaks in the barns, but none within the house, and that during heavy rain, water flooded into two bedrooms. In the bathroom “waste can backflow through [the] floor drain and shower”, particularly if several people were in residence.
The report also noted the field drains off the septic tank appeared to be blocked, dead trees beside the driveway that were dangerous in winds, and rusted spouting and guttering which added to drainage problems.
An exit inspection report in February this year showed little had changed and that three bedrooms were affected by water and one bedroom’s floor coverings were “badly affected by damp, possibly sewage”.
Adjudicator Geoffrey Baker said the watertight and sewage issues were serious and required urgent investigation and repair. He said that based on the evidence the landlord appeared to have made some “sporadic attempts at investigation” and at one time tried, unsuccessfully, to patch the roof to the outbuildings but did not remove the dead trees in the driveway which were an obvious hazard, despite having been notified by the tenants on numerous occasions.
“From the evidence, it appears that the tenants’ complaints were not taken seriously until November 2022.”
Baker concluded that the tenants had proven on the balance of probabilities that the landlord had failed to maintain the property.
He said the landlord had a fundamental duty to provide watertight premises and a sewage system adequate for a four-bedroom house “that does not regurgitate sewage”, whether or not the property was or is to be demolished at some later date.
“I am satisfied that the deficiencies were of such a nature and extent as to significantly breach the tenants’ right to the enjoyment of the property.”
The compensation awarded was for general damages for the inconvenience, stress and loss of amenity of living in a poorly maintained property over an extended period of time.
General damages for distress and anxiety were refused. The tenants’ claim that the landlord hadn’t complied with the Healthy Homes Standards was dismissed because the standard did not apply to tenancies that began before July 1, 2022.
Waka Kotahi told NZME it accepted the findings and that some minor work has already been completed, including removing dead trees on the property.
“Quotes are being obtained to address the more significant problems outlined in the decision, such as drainage on the property. The dwelling Is currently empty and will not be tenanted until we are satisfied that it is safe and healthy to live in,” Waka Kotahi said.
Tracy Neal is a Nelson-based Open Justice reporter at NZME. She was previously RNZ’s regional reporter in Nelson-Marlborough and has covered general news, including court and local government for the Nelson Mail.