Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick has called for the introduction of the Rental Warrant of Fitness (RWOF) to ensure Healthy Homes standards are being met.

Swarbrick made the call In what was an engrossing interview on the AM Show with host Ryan Bridge. In the interview, Swarbrick went head to head with Mark Richardson, the opinionated and right-leaning sports reporter, over the introduction and implementation of the RWOF. The exchange resulted in Richardson branding Swarbrick as ‘naive’ whilst Swarbrick called out Richardson for ‘victimising himself’ in a fixating interaction.

It was as if you were watching a frustrated Father trying to educate his rebellious but academic daughter as to why so many people invest in property. It was a tense, engaging and utterly compelling viewing. It also highlighted the increasing inter-generational gap that has developed in recent times. The wealth gap between the haves and the have nots has led to a younger generation rightfully feeling aggrieved that the prospect of homeownership has become more and more out of reach.

In truth, both Richardson and Swarbrick were right in their assessment of each other. In particular, Swarbrick was exposed when she did not understand that most Mum and Dad landlords had to ‘top up’ the rent with their own income, believing that the rent would more than cover the mortgage. However, when it comes to the RWOF, I think she is right on the money. 

Yes, everyone is fatigued with adapting to so much change and in such a short timeframe but the management of healthy homes does not and should not end when the final deadline is reached on the 1st of July 2024. Houses depreciate as do the fixtures, fittings and other features that help keep a property warm and dry. At some point in the future, someone will have to go back to the property and check for compliance. The RWOF gives you the ability to do this.

Watch the Chlöe Swarbrick exchange with AM Presenter Mark Richardson

Swarbrick is not the first person to make this call. We beat her to it over two years ago.

Back in March 2019, we predicted that the RWOF would eventually find a home with the Healthy Homes Standards after its attempted implementation by the Wellington City Council ended in disarray and ridicule. Hardly any landlords took up the initiative introduced by the Wellington City Council and those landlords that did were highly critical around the quality of assessment and reporting. 

The RWOF was first introduced by Professor Phillipa Howden-Chapman and her team at Otago University, basing compliance on a set of 29 different criteria. If you failed one of the criteria, you failed the RWOF. The concept of an RWOF is not a silly idea and in principle, I fully endorse it. However, the original concept was too onerous and in my opinion, felt like a ‘Nanny state’ setting criteria for things such as the size of your sink in the kitchen and assessing the temperature of hot water. What we recommended back in 2019 was that the RWOF should be adopted to work in conjunction with the Healthy Homes standards with assessments being undertaken every three years. Now Swarbrick has renewed the call and has taken the mantle of being the undisputed champion and spokesperson for the tenants. This fits her profile perfectly. Being a tenant herself and at the young age of only 27, the Central Auckland MP can easily relate to her target market and most of her constituents will likely be of a similar demographic.

Healthy homes implementation is not without its issues

I have recently finished a stint working as the acting General Manager for Tommy’s Property Management in Wellington and as such have been well placed to see the issues in dealing with the project around Healthy Homes implementation. 

It has not been without its challenges. 

Dealing with landlords can be complex at the best of times however trying to explain to landlords that new builds that they have purchased are non-compliant due to insufficient heating has probably been one of the more challenging aspects of the job. They certainly do not hold back when sharing ‘their opinion’ of our assessments or of the Government! Having these conversations can be incredibly draining for the poor Property Managers working at the coalface. They are simply the messenger doing their job and repeating the same conversation day after day can take its toll. We have also seen Healthy Homes assessors failing houses with central heating as they have no way of calculating the heating output, even though you can tell the home is warm and dry. The law of commonsense has long since been repealed!

Landlords have found out that they may have been unnecessarily installing heat pumps as the Government admits to issues with its Heating Calculator

I do sympathize with landlords in these situations. You are being asked to spend thousands of dollars on heat pumps that will likely never be used as the house is already sufficiently warm enough and tenants do not want to waste money on a heating source they do not need. It has left me scratching my head as to how a new build, which has building consent from your local authority, is all of a sudden non-compliant and cannot be rented out. In a stunning admission by Associate Minister for Housing, Poto Williams, she admitted that the Government were having “significant” problems with the Heating Calculator in regards to new builds and apartments due to the open plan nature of the living space. It comes as no surprise as everything this Government tries to implement with housing seldom ever goes to plan.

The reality is the Healthy Homes implementation has and will continue to be a significant challenge to the Property Management industry. Booking in assessors, dealing with landlords who refuse to comply and project management of contractors is a daily occurrence. And now you also have tenants who are feeling more and more empowered as they have no fear in exercising their rights. They know that they will have name suppression in the Tenancy Tribunal and that they also cannot be given notice by their landlord without a valid reason. Tenants are starting to realise they have significant control and power.

Change is hard, but change is necessary

Regardless of your political beliefs, it is difficult to argue with Swarbrick with regard to certain aspects of her argument. The cost of an assessment every three years is hardly going to break the bank and she is right when saying that ‘people who rent their home shouldn’t have to get sick or complain before the safety of their home is tested and guaranteed’. An RWOF should technically remove that from being an issue and it should lead to a reduction in Tenancy Tribunal claims by tenants which are on the increase. There is also the environmental argument around the implementation of an RWOF. New Zealand has committed to being net carbon neutral by 2050 and for this to happen, every industry will have to play its part including the residential rental sector.

As ever with the implementation of such a policy, the devil will be in the detail and it will not be straightforward. In the exchange between Richardson and Swarbrick, Richardson rightly pointed out that the cost after an assessment will increase as it is like taking your car in for a WOF, there is almost always added expenses. Swarbrick’s response was that the assessor should be independent however policing that will probably cost more than what it is worth and the taxpayer will again have to pay. 

Energy Performance Certification should be introduced as well

If an RWOF is introduced, it should also include a mandatory Energy Performance Certification or an EPC, grading the property energy use as well as giving recommendations as to how to improve energy efficiency. These are mandatory throughout the EU and the UK. An EPC gives a property an energy efficiency rating from A (most efficient) to G (least efficient) and is valid for 10 years. For a property to be rented to tenants, the property must achieve a certain standard. The benefits of the scheme are obvious with a more energy-efficient property leading to lower emissions as well as transparency for tenants who can easily budget what the power costs will be. There will also be health benefits as well for the occupants of the property.

No one in this country should have to live in a property that is bad for their health and the environment. I believe we will see an RWOF introduced within the next five years and no one should be opposed to this. Renting out cold and damp properties is no longer acceptable or ethical. I’m behind Chlöe on this one. It’s a good idea that should be adopted.