There is growing pressure for landlords to provide some sort of pastoral care to tenants. Peter Lewis analyses landlord obligations, both moral & social…
The legal obligations of a residential landlord are clearly spelt out within the Residential Tenancies Act. In essence, the landlord is obliged to provide a clean sound habitable property that meets all relevant building, health and safety standards. As far as the Act goes, that is the end of it.
Social pressure to expand landlord obligations
However, there now seems to be growing social pressure that landlord obligations should be expanded to include the provision of some sort of pastoral care.
Pastoral care is an ancient model of emotional, social and spiritual support that describes a pastor’s care for the congregation. Today it includes non-religious forms of support as well, especially in schools where it refers to the physical and emotional welfare of children.
In a pastoral care sense, University Halls of Residence may well have a duty of care for those boarding students living within their halls, but does this necessarily translate to a similar landlord obligation in the private sector rental market?
Over the years I have, from time to time, made attempts to help a few tenants in my rentals to sort their lives out and extract themselves from some sticky situations. Of course, I have no particular skills in this area and possibly may have made a few similar mistakes myself in the dim distant past, but perhaps life experience does help.
Usually these attempts relate to those tenant’s financial situation, perhaps where some short-term tragedy has occurred – job loss, relationship breakup, or a sudden large and unanticipated expense. By working with an otherwise sound tenant who is actually willing to make an effort and who is worth keeping in that property, these life hiccups can over time be sorted.
The upset patient
During a recent hospital visit, I got talking to a young fellow in the same ward I was visiting. He had been admitted the previous day, but then his operation was moved back in favour of more urgent cases, so he was fairly upset.
Talking with him further, he certainly had good grounds for agitation. Already the father of two small children, his wife had given birth to a third just two weeks ago, and was still recovering, having had a fairly rough time of it. He works in an hourly-rate contractor gig, so has no sick pay, holiday pay or other income to tide him over while in hospital.
With no money coming in and presumably nothing to fall back on he was, quite obviously, a worried man. So worried, in fact, that by the middle of that day he packed up and discharged himself rather than wait any longer for his treatment.
What would you do?
I assume that he and his family lived in a rental property. How would you handle this situation if you were his landlord and if he now fails to pay his rent as and when due?
Certainly, we know what would happen if he was a heavily-mortgaged home owner – the Bank would issue a sternly worded letter reminding him of his responsibilities and also charge him a hefty penalty on the missed payment.
But somehow landlords are meant to be rather more forgiving, caring and considerate.
Landlord obligations vs charity
So how much social welfare should a landlord offer? There are many landlords who already seem to view their property business as partly an act of charity…
“Oh, these tenants are really good and have been with us a long time. We keep the rent down and they are so grateful”.
In some cases, these landlords even boast that it is quite some years since they last reviewed the rent they charge. While it is their asset, their money, and their choice, quite why this is considered a good and honourable thing to do is never really explained.
A business example
In any other business, just because someone has been a valuable and reliable customer for a substantial length of time seldom leads to favourable treatment.
Consider the enticements your power supplier, your bank or your phone company offers to prospective new customers compared to what they charge you and those others they already have ensnared in their net.
Sometimes a social landlord obligation is appropriate
Private landlords do not.
Property investment is a business
Like any privately-run business, landlords may pick and choose their customers, and if those customers – the tenants – prove to be unsatisfactory, they currently have the right to cease dealing with them.
That is the fundamental difference between private enterprise and Government institutions, the ability to pick and choose your customers. The Government must deal with everyone, private businesses can be selective.
The Government’s “sustaining tenancies” policy
Housing New Zealand (HNZ) has adopted the policy of “sustaining tenancies”. Thus under political instruction HNZ won’t terminate tenancies, even in extreme cases. This has led to a number of well-reported incidents, such as a recent case in Hastings that left many locals living in fear.
The dark side of “sustaining tenancies”
Intimidation, swearing, relentless partying, multiple burnouts and abusive behaviour took over a once quiet street. The intimidation and threats of violence from the tenants were not addressed because of the “sustaining tenancies” directive and the policy of not issuing 90-day notices.
All the neighbours, not just other tenants but also nearby owner-occupiers, have been badly affected. They have to live alongside these antisocial gang members, suffering intimidation and relentless noise every day.
There are no sanctions for bad behaviour. After all, it’s other people’s money that pays for it.
So HNZ are assumed to have the resources, the skills and the taxpayer funding to either undertake this pastoral work themselves or farm it out to other providers. However, I and most other private landlords certainly do not have those skills and resources.
Landlord obligations set to become more onerous
Yet looking at the most recently proposed tenancy law changes it would seem that similar social work obligations are now going to be imposed on private sector landlords.
We will effectively be required to offer life-time tenancies with minimal opportunities to regulate any unsavoury behaviour.
When such behaviour does occur we will be in the front line – vulnerable, unprotected and no doubt the target of reproach by neighbours and social agencies.
This does not bode well for the future.