Academic’s criticism of Tenancy Tribunal doesn’t reflect the reality of its work, says a property law expert.

Academic’s criticism of Tenancy Tribunal doesn’t reflect the reality of its work, says a property law expert.

By Miriam Bell

In her new publication, Home Truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis, University of Otago Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman is harsh in her description of the Tribunal.

She described it as “a toothless kitten designed to do very little for the tenant and even less to encourage landlords to improve their offerings”.

It was subsequently pointed out that the majority of applications received by the Tribunal are indeed from landlords.

Ministry of Justice figures show that, in the 2014/15 financial year, 19,095 applications were received.

Of those 16,808 were landlord applications, while 2,287 were tenant applications.

However, the Tribunal is often the last resort of out-of-pocket landlords.

Property lawyer Joanna Pidgeon said landlords might lodge the most applications in the Tribunal, but that is understandable.

“It is the only resource open to them to get orders for rent arrears, compensation for property damage or to terminate a tenancy for breaches of leases by tenants including non-payment of rent.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson confirmed that the most common issue addressed by the Tribunal is tenants not paying their rent.

Pidgeon, who is also vice-president of the Auckland District Law Society, said the Tribunal also produced successful outcomes for tenants in relation to rental properties being substandard.

These include orders for rent to be reduced and refunded due to poor standards, orders for repairs to be made, and also remedies given against retaliatory terminations of tenancy by landlords.

She said the Tribunal’s role is to determine disputes and grant applications, whether by mediation or by decision.

“Given this role, changing the New Zealand system to one that supports longer term tenancies will not come from the Tribunal, but needs legislative change.

“Proposed legislation which amends the Residential Tenancies Act and requires the installation of insulation and smoke alarms in rental properties is a step in the right direction.”

Councils also have a role in enforcing building standards and in prosecuting landlords with substandard rental properties, Pidgeon added.

“Successful prosecutions like Law v Waitakere City Council incentivises landlords to maintain their properties on an ongoing basis, rather than to terminate tenancies if tenants complain – which is illegal.”

Some tenant advocates have claimed that tenants don’t make applications to the Tribunal about the condition of their property because they are too afraid.

But NZ Property Investors Federation executive officer Andrew King doesn’t think that is true.

He said only 7% of calls from tenants to the Tenancy Services telephone help line are regarding maintenance and poor upkeep.

“This suggests that it is not a significant issue for tenants rather than that they are scared of retaliatory action by landlords.”

The Government is increasing protection for tenants in cases of retaliatory action, King said.

“It is making it an unlawful act and can award damages of $2,000 to the tenant should a successful case be taken against the landlord.”

On top of this, the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill includes provisions which better protects tenants when it comes to addressing health and safety issues, he said.

For example, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment will have the power to investigate rental properties that they think are in poor condition, with or without the permission of the tenant.