There’s a lot of bad press about renters. At one end of the extreme there’s Renters, a show about “the dirtiest, dimmest and most despicable renters imaginable” which warns you against even living next door to any one who rents. There’s the bank by my house, encouraging me to get a mortgage by showing a photo of someone who is mad at his flatmate for drinking his milk.
Then there’s more subtle stuff: the Productivity Commission’s choice of wording as it discusses “progressing people into homeownership”. Or the real estate ad telling you not to be a “slave to rent”. Or the article doing the rounds on the international blogs about New Zealander Lily Kemp, who lives in a caravan: one praises “Kemp’s creativity to live a full life, free of the burdens of the rent trap”.
I don’t like all this partly because I’m a renter and I will be for the foreseeable future, and I don’t like being associated with milk thieves (or indeed, people who get angry at people drinking their milk).
I also don’t like it because paying rent is not being enslaved; it’s not like being an animal in a trap; it’s doesn’t mean someone’s going to steal your milk; it doesn’t mean you are not progressing in life; it doesn’t mean you are dirty or dim or despicable or a bad neighbour.
Renting is a lot of things. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s terrible. Renting in New Zealand for too many people is associated with high prices relative to income, with insecurity, and with poor quality housing.
But talking about ways of escaping renting is just another way we avoid talking about improving renting. And we must improve renting. Half of us rent. There will always be people who rent. We can’t expect everyone to move into a caravan or take on a big mortgage. Renting has to be an okay way to live.
That’s why I was disappointed that the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill failed at its first reading on Tuesday night. This aimed to set some minimum standards for heating and insulation for rental properties, because our rental housing is in poor quality, and this is terrible for our health. Reading the Bill, I thought there were a number of potential issues with enforcement. But nothing that we couldn’t have figured out through the legislative process.
It would have been great to talk about this more. Yet some of our politicians were unwilling even to let the Bill get through to select committee.
So it looks like for now we’re going to continue to avoid seriously considering how we might deal with the serious, tragic, embarrassing issue of poor quality rental housing.
I’m happy for people like Lily Kemp, or Angry Milk Guy, who found a solution for their problems.
But I am more interested in changes that will help renting become a better way of life for everyone.