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Greens back call for rent controls after Auckland floods

Chloe Swarbrick
Chlöe Swarbrick. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick is brushing off concerns a temporary rent freeze in flood-hit Auckland would just see landlords hike rents even more when the controls were lifted - arguing they should stay permanently.

More than 20 organisations have signed a letter urging Minister for Auckland Michael Wood, Housing Minister Megan Woods and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins to "recognise the difficulties facing families in Auckland" and ban landlords from raising rents for six months.

Among the signees are Renters United, the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Salvation Army, Child Poverty Action Group, Unite Union, Save the Children NZ, FinCap, various student unions and more.

"This is a response to some really troubling calls and comments we have heard from landlords and their representatives that they intend to increase rent, piled on top of the trauma that Aucklanders have just gone through," Swarbrick told RNZ on Friday.

Earlier this week, the Auckland Property Investors Association said "market forces" would [ see rents in the city go up, with fewer rentals available after the record-breaking rainfall of last weekend.

"We will have a shortage of supply of rentals for a period of time just while these repairs are undertaken," said president Kristin Sutherland, denying it was just greed.

"I'm not in a position to say whether it's fair or not. It's the same in any market when the supply and demand changes. I don't think landlords are out there to make an extra buck."

Swarbrick called Sutherland's comments "really troubling" and "disconcerting".

"They've said that these are supposedly market forces at work, but if you lift the lid on that, these forces are their decisions and their disproportionate power being wielded over New Zealanders and Aucklanders who have really, really been through a lot."

She has the backing of Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt, who said the right to a decent home is especially important in a state of emergency.

"What we're urging is for the government to reassure Auckland renters that they're not about to face an escalating cost of crisis to add to the burdens that too many people are facing," Human Rights Commission's housing inquiry manager Vee Blackwood told Checkpoint.

Too many people were already paying high rents and unable to deal with unexpected costs, Blackwood said.

Reassurance could include a rent freeze, she said.

"It could include a rent freeze if government policy analysis indicates that would be the best response," but there could also be other support offered such as an increase in accommodation subsidies, she said.

"We acknowledge that many landlords are working in really good faith with their tenants to respond to that flood damage," she said.

"What I would say is that landlords are businesses as you've acknowledged. Businesses also have human rights responsibilities. So their responsibilities are to respect the human right sof their tenants and to respect the fact that a decent home is a fundamental human right and not something that can just be divorced to making profit, especially when people are doing it this rough."

Kiwi home ownership has been dropping for about three decades, particularly in younger age groups.

The government implemented a rent freeze in 2020 to "ensure that people can stay in their homes during this challenging time" as the country went into strict lockdown to eliminate the spread of Covid-19, back when there were not any vaccines or effective treatments available.

When it was lifted however, landlords hiked rents more than they ever had before.

"That becomes the point of rent controls," said Swarbrick.

"Rent controls are about realising that these supposed market forces that are at play really boil down to the decision of landlords…

"The Greens are backing that call for a rent freeze, but obviously our long-term position has always been for there to be rent controls in place."

Critics of rent controls say they discourage investment, restricting the supply of new rentals, and encourage people to stay in places that are cheaper, but might not suit their changing circumstances - such as having children or getting a new job somewhere else.

Consumer NZ says landlords who own rental properties damaged in the floods should actually be reducing rents, not hiking them. Tenants in properties they can't live in don't have to pay rent at all, the watchdog said earlier this week.