Housing in Auckland: Profiting from Suffering

I started studying at Waikato in 2010 and stayed in the halls in my first year, paying $225 per week which included a room, power and food. I moved into my first flat in 2011, rent was $100 per week and we lived right across the road from university. The cheapest flat I had there was $75/week rent. In Auckland, $100 per week rent is a pipe dream, even living an hour commute out of town. The rents are close to double of those in Hamilton, and the living conditions are far worse.

Living in Auckland is a compromise between health and affordability. We pay a huge amount of our weekly income just making sure we have a roof over our heads. And even when we do find a house, it’s likely to be an unhealthy place to live. Black mould is commonplace, rental properties are barely maintained. In Auckland, it’s not unusual for a house to cost anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000 a year in rent, which is a lot to pay for minimal maintenance.

Auckland’s rental market is largely different to other rental markets around Aotearoa. Our rents are hugely disproportionate to what we get in return. This is because the market has failed to produce the number of homes we require. As such, there are far more renters than available houses in Auckland. The shortage of housing means we operate in a sellers’ market, where landlords have more strength in bargaining. The only limits to how much they can charge us for rent are how much money we have.

Landlords have no motivation to make sure we’re living in safe houses. Their rental properties are no more than investments to them, they purchase these properties to profit from the capital gains accrued each year. Our landlords are motivated only to bleed us dry. We are disempowered as renters; we can’t complain when our landlords breach tenancy law with unexpected visits, when they ask us for 6 weeks rent as bond, or when they illegally hike up the rent. If we do, we’re likely to end up with a bad reference or evicted from the house. The power dynamic is far skewed to the benefit of landlords. A clear example is that they can terminate a fixed term tenancy with 90 days notice, however the tenant has to effectively go bankrupt and prove they are unable to pay rent in order to terminate the same tenancy.

To top all of this off, those rental properties earn our landlords more than the average family in capital gains each year. For those who can afford it, investment property is a real cash cow. Capital gains in Auckland are so huge that there is a significant sector of the property investment market which purchases houses and leaves them empty. So called “land banking” contributes to the housing shortfall in Auckland, which further drives up rent prices.

For years tenants have pushed for comprehensive capital gains taxes and warrants of fitness for housing, but are shot down by the property owning lobby every time. Our death rates increase drastically in Winter, at least partly because of our sub-standard housing. Landlords have a vested interest in convincing us that taxing them and forcing them to make sure their rentals are warm and healthy are bad ideas. Both of these things reduce the profit they make. Investment properties have that name because their purpose is to generate profit.

Landlords make us sick by not insulating houses. They take more out of our food budget every time they hike up the rent. They charge us exorbitant prices for the human right of shelter. We are over-charged and under-housed, and we are shot down every time we try to solve this problem. The reason for this is that the problem is not due to today’s landlords, but rather because it is systemic. It’s in the best interest of landlords to ignore the social problems caused by their practices.

We neglect heating every Winter, with rent taking priority over power bills. We suffer a much higher rate of sickness in Autumn and Winter due to cold, damp and mouldy houses. We eat cheap, unhealthy food so we can afford exorbitant rents. Even as rent increases year after year, even as living conditions deteriorate and we’re forced to crowd as many people in a house as we can to afford rent we keep paying.

We pay our rent with our health.

This doesn’t have to be the case. We can change the system.

Student Housing Action Group (SHAG) is a group of students who are fed up with the current housing situation in Auckland. SHAG realises the housing situation is failing to provide healthy, secure, and affordable housing, and they fight for systemic change.

Originally published under the title Health: Our New Currency in Debate | Issue 12