Chlöe Swarbrick:’Two birds, one stone. Economic efficiency, even.’

OPINION:

“If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.” It’s a phrase usually used to exert power over those already at the bottom of the pecking order; those who are challenging power; those who live more insecure lives than the ones demanding all the details on how they’re surviving.

We’ve got a tonne of local examples. We saw it in the 2017 rollout of CCTV cameras across Dunedin’s popular student flatting streets; in the justification of ever-more intrusive measures in the lives of New Zealanders receiving income support; in the rationale behind active state monitoring of pro-Te Tiriti, anti-corruption and environmental activists across Aotearoa; in the recently-unveiled webcam-monitoring of students doing online exams in lockdown, which one characterised as “far more effort making sure we don’t cheat than making sure we’re able to learn”.

When the escalating housing crisis met a global pandemic, we saw it in the property managers and landlords demanding “Zoom property inspections” for locked-down tenants. These demands were so egregious that the Privacy Commissioner has now established a “rental tipline” to enable tenants or prospective tenants to report concerns about the handling of their personal information.

We know that there are approximately 120,000 landlords in Aotearoa. We also know there are approximately 450,000 rental properties. While pulling apart data from Stats NZ, Land Information NZ, the Companies Office Register, MBIE bond lodgements, surveys, and CoreLogic can give us an insight into the distribution of these properties, the honest truth is we don’t have a clear figure on who owns what. We don’t know how many owners, through the many potential companies and trust configurations, have been found liable in the Tenancy Tribunal – and how many have gone on to repeat offend.

Landlords expect to be able to scrutinise a whole lot about renters, but renters have little to no choice, transparency or quality guarantee when it comes to landlords and property managers. This is a bit of an international anomaly. Landlord registers exist in every country in the United Kingdom bar England, which as it happens is presently debating legislation that may be amended to bring one in.

Northern Ireland explains their register as, “allow[ing] landlords to receive regular updates on the duties and responsibilities of landlords and tenants,” “provid[ing] education and support to landlords,” and “improving tenants’ confidence in their landlords and increas[ing] landlords’ accountability by promoting good practice and ensuring the right advice and help is available.”

These are the things that the “good landlords” we hear a lot about would, surely, want in place. The Tenancy Tribunal exists to resolve problems after they’ve happened, often without a huge amount of satisfaction from either side. A register and the front-loaded education on rights and responsibilities would help us begin to get a grip on not just the numbers, but the state of play in the rental sector. It could also proactively solve potential disputes around Healthy Homes Standards if we were to flip it into a Warrant of Fitness, certified at scale.

Two birds, one stone. Economic efficiency, even.

Sifting through Parliamentary debates from just 13 years ago, it’s staggering to think that we could have settled one part of this issue under the Clark-Labour, then Key-National Government. A 2008 Justice Select Committee report on the passage of the Real Estate Agents Act saw cross-party support for urgent regulation of property managers. Even dissenting MPs argued, “Property management is often an integral part of real estate work and National believes that if the real objective of this Bill is consumer protection then property management should be included.”

A change of government saw then-associate justice minister Nathan Guy review the problem, and subsequently dismiss it in 2009, arguing issues could be sorted in the Tenancy Tribunal and that the majority of them were for claims worth less than $15,000, anyway. Who said Parliamentarians are out of touch?

As we’re finding a new political consensus on basic principles in housing, like the need for greater density, I’m hoping our Parliament has the wherewithal to establish proper systems on behalf of the 1.5 million New Zealanders who rent – and vote.

We need and deserve accurate and transparent data to make good public policy decisions. There’s a huge added bonus in that we can begin to respect adequate housing as a human right, whether you rent or own.

• Chlöe Swarbrick, Green Party, is the MP for Auckland Central

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