I woke up last Sunday morning to pools of water collecting on my windowsill, despite all the windows being firmly shut. Our house will only get colder as winter sets in. While staying at home to save lives from COVID-19 is imperative, I can’t help but wonder how this will play out in a country where poor housing kills up to 1600 people per year, often by causing respiratory diseases. If our landlord can’t find someone to do home repairs during quarantine, I and many other people in New Zealand – many of whose landlords neglect to organise repairs even under normal circumstances – will end up paying over $200 a week for the strategies of ‘google amateur home repairs’ and ‘put a towel on the windowsill and hope the rain stops soon.’
New Zealand housing has long been infamously poor in quality and expensive in price. Upon her visit to New Zealand in February, the UN Special Rapporteur for Housing Leilani Farha recommended a five-year cap on rent increases, amongst other measures. The Labour government’s six-month cap on rent increases under COVID-19 was quite a clever political move, the timing making it look generous rather than subpar. Many homeowners may find the mortgage holiday under COVID-19 somewhat reassuring, although still insufficient, but Labour’s housing policies before and during the pandemic have largely ignored renters – even though we are a much larger, poorer and more precarious social group than mortgage-holders.
Too many of our housing policies, pandemic or not, are premised on the completely fictional generosity of the housing market. When Ardern raised student allowances in 2017, landlords and bosses immediately raised the cost of living to match, meaning we’re all basically worse off than before. Similarly, the $25 benefit raise under COVID-19 – less than what the government’s own Welfare Advisory Group had already recommended before this crisis – was immediately captured by some landlords who raised their tenants’ rents by $30 before the rent freeze took effect.
Landlords’ propensity towards profit-making over compassion has perhaps become more overt under COVID-19. Once the government realised that rich landlords, like those with property manager Quinovic, were prepared to kick out thousands of people even during a pandemic, they restricted landlords from taking people to the Tenancy Tribunal unless they were sixty days behind on rent. Without a rent amnesty and additional legal provisions, thousands of renters could still legally be made homeless after this period if – during a lockdown that makes income lower or work cease altogether for many – they can’t afford to pay rent. That is, if landlords don’t just break the law and pay the $6500 fine, which is pocket change to many property investors.
But what about nice landlords?
Many landlords are solely reliant on rent payments as an income, and resent being characterised as greedy or heartless. It’s worth considering two main groups here. To landlords with multiple portfolios at risk of losing a wealthy lifestyle, I don’t have much to say beyond adding to the suggestions that they tap into that rainy day fund, get a real job and hand out their CV at supermarkets, and stop buying all that avocado toast. As Tess Nichol wrote in Metro, ‘why does it appear to be beyond the pale to suggest that landlords should prepare to cop financial losses like everyone else?’
However, not all landlords are property sharks. Some own only one other property, or are renting out their sole asset while tenanting elsewhere. Some of these landlords are part of the essential workforce, while some are old or disabled and can’t work. For the latter, renting is their sole income, and they really will be financially screwed without it. Nevertheless, there is still a key difference between these landlords and renters: if things get really bad, they can always sell their house to pay their bills. Renters don’t have that option. This is the true class difference between those who own private property and those who don’t. It’s about material security, not varying levels of personal greed.
To be clear, nobody should have to sell their house to pay for medical bills, aged care, disability support or any other basic necessity. However, raising the spectre of landlords without alternative sources of income ignores the basic question: why isn’t the government providing a proper safety net for them? A shared need for social support is the very place where decent landlords and tenants could align, as many tenants are affected by these same problems.
A rent strike could either be universal or targeted towards particularly predatory landlords and property investors. If a universal strike goes ahead and your landlord is a compassionate, comparatively poor person, you may be unwilling to deprive them of income. However, you can still take part by letting your landlord know that while you are participating in a rent strike, you are happy to arrange income and resource-sharing so that you can both stay afloat, and to help them organise better action around their mortgages. Why take this step rather than simply continuing to pay rent? Because it’s important to get decent landlords to understand what’s happening, moving them to empathise with renters rather than speculators. These landlords will then be more motivated to question why the banks aren’t shouldering more of their mortgage-related losses. After all, the current mortgage holiday doesn’t suffice either, and should be updated to an amnesty at the least.
Why a rent amnesty helps (almost) everyone
There are myriad reasons why many tenants, even the better-off ones, could use money right now. Some will need funds towards a nest egg towards leaving their abusive partner, family, or flatmates, as domestic violence rates are set to rise under COVID-19. Some might be saving towards a car that would let them enjoy independent transport and/or qualify them for a wider variety of jobs. Some renters may want to blow savings from a rent amnesty on getting drunk and buying video games – and why should we scrutinise them for it more than the landlords who do the same, usually with money from their tenants’ pockets?
However, the benefits of a rent amnesty go beyond renters themselves. Even from a conservative economic perspective, keeping spending money in tenants’ hands will help stimulate an economy hit hard by business closures. When wealth is concentrated into the hands of rich people, it just sits in their bank accounts and stagnates – the buck literally stops there. Moreover, relieving a financial source of renters’ stress will improve their wellbeing, thus potentially easing some of the need for mental health and addiction services, both of which were already stretched far over capacity prior to the pandemic.
Even renters who have kept their wages or salaries under COVID-19 should be granted a rent amnesty. The main reason is to stop a transfer of wealth upwards to people who don’t genuinely need it. The other reason is that most of the workers currently keeping the country going are owed cultural compensation for years of low pay and social degradation. Society en masse is now realising that workforces hitherto classified as unskilled labour are essential to our survival; we can easily function without advertising executives, but without medical staff, food producers, garment manufacturers, garbage collectors, builders, plumbers, and sewage workers we will literally all die. Conversely, many landlords are afraid of people realising that their job – demanding payment for housing that someone else built and that other people maintain – is unproductive at best.
Coordinating a rent strike
Organising a rent strike from a distance is particularly difficult and precarious. For tenants to feel safe in participating, they need to know first and foremost that they’re not alone. Political and practical support for a rent strike from unions and prominent community groups could help here. At first, tenants with more swayable landlords will need assistance in order to negotiate with them.
If and when this diplomacy doesn’t work, tenants need to know they’ll have political and physical backup if landlords or police try to throw them out of their house – not just during lockdown, but in the period in between this lockdown and the probable next one. This would require organised community groups to arrange large numbers of people – particularly sympathetic mortgage-holders at no risk of eviction – in each neighbourhood who can be mobilised at short notice to block these impending evictions (while keeping a two-metre distance from each other!). If this went ahead, it would be advisable to try vet these people for safety issues. The whisper networks that have long preceded #MeToo could help weed out potential abusers and stalkers who shouldn’t receive anyone’s personal address. Like most activism, a successful rent strike requires people to build healthy nationwide, local and suburban relationships and meaningful solidarity. (Some practical guidelines for rent strikes are linked at the end of this piece.)
Of course, all of these hassles could all be avoided if the government passed an urgently-required rent amnesty. While the Labour-led government’s response has overall been much more comprehensive and effective than many overseas – and more equitable than what a National-led government would produce – it still has its limitations. Workers have to count on employers actually paying the wage subsidy rather than taking it for themselves. Contractors and workers in the informal economy who can’t access the subsidy have been left to the mercy of the welfare agency Work and Income NZ, which is prone to avarice even during a crisis. We’re told that there’s not enough money to provide for everyone by a government that vetoed a capital gains tax in 2019 which was estimated to raise $290 million in its first year, reaching up to $6 billion by 2031. It’s unclear if the government has even considered taxing the wealth of our billionaires or tapping into the $4.3 billion set aside annually for military spending rendered almost entirely irrelevant during a medical crisis.
The more compassionate economic responses to this crisis have shown that the workings of our society could be changed at any time. Who knew that we had the capacity to house homeless people after all, rather than scapegoat them for the problems caused by a predatory housing market? Who would’ve thought that public transport could be made free? And who knew that mortgages and evictions could be suspended en masse within a day? Not all these changes are good, as emergencies can also be used for greater surveillance and policing of already-marginalised populations. Keeping up the political pressure to make currently-equitable changes permanent will require a lot of work, but the benefits will be beyond most people’s wildest dreams.
During the pandemic, the Ardern Government has repeated the mantra for everyone to ‘be kind’. So far, the government has been far too kind to employers and landlords, who will take all special treatment as their birthright while doling out suffering and pain to whoever remains under their control. It seems like this is unlikely to change without a push from the have-nots for something different.
Image: Christopher Paquette, Flickr