The trials of tenancy

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The easiest way from my old house at the top of Great Barrier Road down to Enclosure Bay if I fancied a fish or a high-tide dip was a straight line. Sure, it meant cutting through a few neighbours’ gardens, but they were hardly ever in residence … no harm in that, surely?

Back then, when the valley was a dark tangle of pines and the majority of homes only occupied briefly over the summer holiday season, that northern nook felt pretty isolated and my little rented single-bedroom pole-house some quiet outpost, an easily ignored uphill hike even to the bus stop at Pope’s Corner.

The rent was affordable – the owner happy to receive some income from an asset rapidly rising in value – and it was certainly cheaper than my previous shared flat in Grey Lynn. And for that rent I could enjoy a hammock’s view up the east coast, over the Noises and a fine-day sight of Great Barrier and the tip of Port Jackson.

That was only a decade and a half ago, but affordable rentals on Waiheke now seem a lifetime ago – heck, at this time of the year any rentals are like hens’ teeth. 

And it’s a serious problem – a problem that’s changing the makeup of the island’s population and dramatically affecting the lives of those who live here.

Just mention the issue in a semi-crowded room and you immediately hear the dismal tales. Of hospo workers arriving back for the summer season, stuck for somewhere to bed down between shifts; of long-term residents whose fixed leases have come up so their homes can get rented out by the night; of workers whose contracts required them to take leases on the island only to have the work dry up leaving them stuck with a weekly payment and no wage; of families facing rental hikes; of people with good jobs having to sleep rough; of tenancy tribunal hearings; of shonky or poorly insulated buildings – and, most dismal of all, of people regretfully moving away in search of a more affordable life.

At the 2013 Census (which is the last year for which we have figures), 981 of Waiheke’s 3567 households were paying rent. Which means that when Associate Minister of Housing Chris Faafoi last weekend announced a major shakeup of the Residential Tenancies Act, a large proportion of people living on the island were sitting up and taking notice.

And, if you’re paying rent rather than letting out your properties, what he talked about seemed to be good news. The probable end of no-cause terminations, the move away from six-monthly rent rises to annual, ending fixed-term tenancy agreements and giving tenants more freedom to change, decorate or install fixtures should all provide more security.

But the immediate commentary from landlords, property investors and property managers points to a stumbling block that is likely to hit Waiheke more than most. Our affordability problem is almost entirely due to supply and demand – and predictions that landlords will opt to sell rather than deal with the new regulations is likely to seriously affect supply.

Property managers on the island say getting rid of problem tenants will become harder and predict a rise in tenancy tribunal hearings – both of which could be off-putting for landlords. And since those property managers also already talk about a complete dearth of not only available rentals but also new potential listings, losing rental stock is only going to compound matters.

Throughout New Zealand, renting has become far more prevalent – up from around a quarter of Kiwis to around a third in the past three decades – and we’re paying rent, on average, until we’re much older. If those rental properties simply don’t exist in sufficient numbers on Waiheke, then we need a concerted plan around where we’re going to house the people who make this island tick: the teachers, the tradies, the seasonal workers, the people who run our hospo, our retail, our public services and transport. 

Talk to people running organisations such as Waiheke Budgeting Services and they talk about the need for more social housing and for landlords to have more of a social conscience around the laughable concept of “market rents”. But those same people also know they’re being overly idealistic.

The days of valleys full of empty holiday homes and peppercorn rents for seaview baches are long gone. Instead, we have more long-term residents, higher occupancy rates on holiday homes and higher rents squeezing tenants. There simply isn’t an answer to Waiheke’s peculiar problem on the horizon – and certainly nothing in the Government’s new proposals. • James Belfield

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