Blacklisted tenants: Privacy Commissioner launches landlord probe

The Privacy Commissioner has launched an investigation into landlords potentially breaching the law by asking for tenants’ bank statements and putting them on blacklists if they don’t comply.

John Edwards today said a round of engagements with representatives of tenants, landlords, property managers and related businesses had now begun.

“An initial period of information gathering on privacy practice in the rental accommodation sector has confirmed that large amounts of information is being collected from prospective tenants,” Edwards said.

Around 1.5 million New Zealanders live in around 600,000 rented properties. The biggest reform in 35 years was enacted last month so landlords can no longer seek to end a tenancy without a specific and far more limited range of reasons.

Edwards said his office had now begun a more targeted engagement to understand current practices and business models in the rental accommodation sector.

But a spokesperson for landlords said they complied with the law.

Sharon Cullwick, NZ Property Investors Federation executive officer, said most landlords asked tenants to fill in one of two standards forms.

Both complied with the law and they did not breach privacy laws, she said.

“We do not believe that landlords collect more information than is required. Most people either use our NZ Property Investors Federation tenant application form or the Tenancy Services’ tenancy application form.

“Both of these documents are within the Privacy Commission guidelines for information that can be collected from a potential tenant,” Cullwick said.

But she also indicated frustration amongst some landlords because of the changes from February 11 when major Residential Tenancies Act clauses were amended to swing the balance of power more in tenants’ favour.

“Due to the removal of the 90-day no-cause termination in the Residential Tenancies Act, it is extremely important for a landlord to carry out thorough checks on potential tenants,” Cullwick said.

“We look forward to working with the Privacy Commission again on these guidelines,” Cullwick said.

Edwards said today he was concerned that some property management agencies were asking for very detailed information from prospective tenants as part of their selection process.

Others were using public forums to compile lists of so-called bad tenants, he said.

The stakeholder meetings would help the office understand more about the collection, use and disclosure of personal information and of compliance issues under the Privacy Act, Edwards said.

“We are interested in the different perspectives of all participants in the sector to learn more about what personal information about tenants is being collected and why and how tenants’ personal information is being used and disclosed,” Edwards said.

The office’s engagement was solely focused on privacy issues in the private residential rental accommodation market.

A tenant chief says landlords “can post anything they like” on blacklists they share, yet there was no recourse for people who rented properties against such lists.

Penny Arthur, the Christchurch-based manager of the Tenants Protection Association, said more than one blacklist existed and they weren’t fair.

“We became aware of it at the end of last year,” Arthur said last month of tenant blacklists.

“There are a number of landlord Facebook groups where landlords can post anything they like about tenants,” she said, indicating the tenant might not know nor would be able to object.

Landlord Peter Lewis questioned the amount of information banks required from investors compared to what landlords could ask about tenants.

“Perhaps we could make the point that if a bank is deciding to lend you $600,000 cash, they are apparently permitted to ask for and analyse your income and spending history in minute detail,” Lewis said last month.

“But if a landlord is going to lend you a $600,000 property they are not permitted to do so. Why are banks allowed greater powers than individuals?” Lewis asked.

Tenants concerned about use of their personal information can email [email protected]

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