Republished with permission from the Labour History Project Bulletin.
Life isn’t good for many people who rent their home: renters move often; problems of cold and damp housing are widespread; low income households are often crowded; and many people spend more than half their income on rent. Poor quality housing, crowding, and a lack of security and affordability, have major consequences for health.
In thinking about how to make renting a better experience, people have proposed that collective action could make a positive difference, whether through increasing the bargaining power of renters or through influencing policy. For example, Auckland Council chief economist Chris Parker has suggested that council should “support the collective bargaining power of tenants… to make improvements as they see fit”. Activist Robert Whitaker wrote that “we need to challenge those with the power over renters and housing, we need renters demanding change directly”. Columnist Deborah Hill Cone, in reviewing the problems experienced by renters, recently wondered, “Why are renters not rising up? Why is there not a more vocal and activist tenants’ lobby group?”.
The idea that collective action could make a difference to New Zealand’s abysmal rental conditions has a long history in New Zealand. This article outlines five key phases of renter activism over the course of the past century and discusses some of the achievements and challenges of renter activist groups.
A renters’ group first appears in the historical record in 1916, when the Rentpayers’ Association in Wellington successfully pushed for the institution of rent controls. Three years’ later, activists gathered again in Wellington to discuss what a renters’ organisation could do to respond to the problems of poor quality and high rents in the rental sector. Proposals included setting rents, blacklisting bad landlords, organising rent strikes, resisting evictions, and maintaining dwellings. The organisation that resulted from these meetings—the New Zealand Rentpayers’ Association—founded an information service to support renters who were threatened with eviction or rent increases. It also organised a march of several thousand people on Parliament in 1920 and, in response, the government announced the extension of rent controls. In the following years, the organisation continued to push for the extension of rent controls and an increased supply of rental housing, as well as legislation to license tenement houses, protect renters from unjust eviction and limit capital gains. The organisation disappears from the historical record after 1922. Conditions are likely to have improved in this period, as record numbers of people took advantage of cheap government loans to buy homes.
Renters’ issues again came to the fore during the Depression. High unemployment and insufficient relief meant that many renters struggled to pay rent. Alongside a better deal for unemployed and relief workers, the Unemployed Workers’ Movement demanded a reduction in rents, stays in eviction and heating for the homes of the unemployed. Support committees offered advice to renters. Instances of resistance to eviction, sometimes spontaneous and sometimes supported by unemployed workers’ organisations, are recorded at least in Christchurch, Wellington, Wanganui and Auckland. These sometimes delayed eviction or helped evicted renters find alternative accommodation. Renter and unemployed protests died down after the election of the First Labour Government in 1936, with many involved being satisfied by social security measures, higher wages and the start of a state house building programme.
The post-War period was marked by a number of struggles against urban renewal. However, the next phase of protest specifically focused on rental housing covers the late 1960s, 1970s and into the early 1980s. These groups were often associated with the student anti-racist and anti-war movements and included some branches of the Progressive Youth Movement, the Ponsonby People’s Union, and tenants’ unions and tenants’ protection associations in a number of cities. The groups experimented with different methods to improve the housing conditions for renters in their community, including picketing or blacklisting landlords, rent strikes, squatting in government-owned dwellings, and supporting renters to confront landlords at home or in court. In addition, several organisations contributed towards the Residential Tenancies Act, which, several amendments later, continues to govern the relationship between renters and landlords. Some of these organisations continue to exist, providing vital support for renters experiencing difficulty accessing their rights.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, state tenant protest responded to changes in state housing policy. Since 1961, state housing rents had been set in relation to tenants’ income. In 1987, the Labour government instituted a policy that tenants who could pay market rent without it taking up more than 25 per cent of their income, were obliged to do so. As Graeme Clarke recalled in this Bulletin last year, this meant that some people “were forced to pay much more for their housing”. In response to the new policy, state tenants in Porirua organised a rent strike. However, this failed to move the government on the issue. In the 1990s, state housing policy was reformed under a new National government. As part of the reforms, all state tenants were obliged to pay market rents. This increased housing costs for state tenants, and many were forced to move or to live in crowded situations. Community groups agitated in response to the changes. One group, the State Housing Action Coalition, was particularly visible, protesting against state house sales and organising tenants in a partial rent strike. The resistance of Len Parker to his eviction for rent arrears resulting from the rent strike in 1999 drew nationwide attention to the issue of market rents. A few weeks later, the Fifth Labour Government was elected. This government placed a moratorium on state house sales and returned state tenants to income-related rents.
The early 2010s have seen a return to protest by state tenants. Communities in Maraenui, Pomare and Glen Innes have agitated against the redevelopment of their communities by Housing New Zealand. In the process of redevelopment, homes are demolished, people are displaced and some properties are sold to private owners. State tenant activist groups have drawn attention to the costs to health of displacement. They have also raised concerns about social housing reforms, including: the promotion of community housing providers as an alternative to state housing; the institution of reviewable tenancies, which means that people who are able to pay market rent may have to move out of state housing; the narrowing of eligibility criteria to enter state housing; and the closure of Housing New Zealand offices. State tenant activist groups have organised a number of protests and marches. For example, in 2012, groups from the three communities met with supporters in Wellington and marched on Parliament. In response to the petition they presented, the Social Services Select Committee acknowledged the disruption to the communities and Housing New Zealand’s poor consultation practices.
The archives show that renter activist groups have experienced challenges. Across the past century, they have worried about their lack of funding, members, and allies. Groups that worked to assist renters in need were often overwhelmed by the demand. Private renters move often, and sometimes into homeownership, which has worked against building the links that can support collective action. Finally, governments over the past century have often responded to problems in the rental sector not by improving conditions there, but instead by supporting renters to buy their own homes if they are able to.
Despite these challenges, renter activism over the past century has helped to improve housing. Eviction resistances sometimes gained renters more time to find a new home, or resulted in the household being offered another home or money towards rent. Support from renter activist groups sometimes convinced landlords to make improvements to the home or to reduce rents. In addition, renter protest has contributed to policy change. Rent controls in the 1920s, state housing in the 1930s, the Residential Tenancies Act of 1986, and the return of income-related rents to state housing from 1999, all followed periods of renter activism.
Renter activism in New Zealand continues to develop. As noted above, the current decade has seen protest by state tenants in response to redevelopment and social housing reform. Student union groups, the Living Wage campaign, and Wellington Renters United campaigned for better conditions in the private rental sector in the recent local body elections. Wellington Renters United has made submissions on legislation on rental housing quality, and recently partnered with the union movement to launch a petition for better security in the rental housing market. In Auckland, groups including Save Our Homes and Student Housing Action Group have worked to draw attention to a number of issues, including empty homes and high rents. Like their predecessors, these groups provide a crucial voice and can contribute towards a better deal for renters.
This article was first published in the Labour History Project Bulletin in October 2016. It is based on archival research I conducted as part of my PhD thesis at the University of Otago, Wellington: “Individual and collective action for healthy housing: an historical and contemporary study” (2016).
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- C. Parker, Housing Supply, Choice and Affordability: Trends, Economic Drivers, and Possible Policy Interventions (Auckland: Auckland Council, 2015).
- R. Whitaker, “Launched” [Blog post], Left Align, published 23 April 2015, http://leftalign.cc/launched/.
- Hill Cone, “A rent in the social fabric”, New Zealand Herald, 18 July 2016, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/ business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=11676285.
- All references: E. Chisholm, Individual and collective action for healthy rental housing in New Zealand: an historical and contemporary study (PhD thesis, University of Otago, 2016).
- Graeme Clarke, “2015 Rona Bailey Memorial Lecture: ‘What is to be done?’”, LHP Bulletin, no. 67 (August 2016): 44.