By Wendy Collings
A property investor, a rental agent, and a politician walk into a bar. The politician calls, “Hey, landlord!” and the bartender ignores her.
A drinker tenanting a barstool smiles wryly at the politician. “He’s not being rude,” he explains, “he thinks you’re talking to your friends.”
“Not me!” exclaims the property investor, offended. “I don’t do a landlord’s work. I pay someone else to do that. I put money in and expect to take money out, and I have no contact with the tenant.”
“Not me either!” says the rental agent. “I’m paid to do the work, but my client is the investor, not the tenant. The rent the tenant pays belongs to the investor, who pays me; and the authority for negotiating terms remains with the investor, who pays me to not let the tenant bother her. I have no relationship with the tenant.”
There is a moment’s pause while everyone looks a little confused. The bartender is finally paying attention. “So, who’s the landlord?” he asks. “And what’s the punchline?”
The tenant smiles wryly again. “It isn’t a joke.”
“You’re the landlord,” the investor tells the bartender, “and I’m buying.”
The politician is looking doubtful now. “If it isn’t a joke, is it a problem?” she asks.
“Yes and no”, says the tenant; “It depends. It’s true that I don’t really have a landlord now. I have a contract with the rental agency, but the house isn’t their property, and they don’t have any authority to negotiate different terms. But they won’t negotiate with the property owner on my behalf either, because they don’t work for me. For bottom-line stuff, there’s the Tenancy Tribunal to interpret and enforce Tenancy Law. But if I’m unhappy with a short-term lease, or sick of paying to heat uninsulated rooms, there’s only one kind of landlord I can talk to. That’s why I’m here.” He turns to the bartender. “I’ll have another.”
While the drinks are being poured, the writer takes a loo break to avoid getting bogged down in doubtful analogies. When I come back, the politician is still trying to get an angle on things.
“If it’s not a joke, and not always a problem either, maybe it’s a riddle”, she says. “So, how do we fix the bits that don’t work? Should we be going with this Warrant of Fitness idea for rentals? Will it work?”
“No!” says the property investor decidedly. “There are better ways of helping tenants than paying for an army of clipboard-holders.”
“Knock knock”, says the bartender.
“Who’s there?” asks the tenant.
“Ah, me” admits the rental agent.
“Ah, me who?” asks the politician.
“Ah, me with a clipboard”, explains the agent. “She pays me to do this”, he explains, pointing to the property investor. “I have to inspect the property every three months, and fill out the clipboard papers. I have to report whether the oven’s dirty inside, and if the bedroom’s untidy. Tacky, but it’s true. I have to do it whether the tenant is a mature couple with secure jobs or a gross of students – I beg your pardon, not that many – several students struggling with that difficult balance between adult responsibilities and cheap beer.
“It’s a one-size-fits-all rental contract, you see”, he goes on. “We – meaning the agency – we have to reassure the client that their investment is safe, without actually showing them the tenant. We just show them that it’s a rigid contract that can safeguard them from any Undesirable Characters. And then we knock on the doors, walk right in whether someone’s home or not, and look in the ovens, and tick the boxes, and file the reports, and collect our fees. It’s not like I enjoy it”, he says uncomfortably, glancing sideways at the tenant.
“Nor me”, sighs the tenant. “It wouldn’t be so bad if the clipboard-holders were inspecting the things I care about. For that, I’d feel okay about having a stranger walk right through my home.”
“It would push rental prices up,” insists the investor, “and drive investors out of the market.”
“Knock knock”, says the bartender. “Who’s there?”
“Don’t I ask that?” asks the investor.
“I want to know who’s answering the door, first. Who will buy the houses when you get driven out of the market?” asks the bartender. “And who will live in them?”
“Me, hopefully”, says the tenant. “Whatever happens, I can’t see the houses staying empty. By the way, how much will my rent go up, and how much will my power bill come down? If it’s worth it for homeowners to insulate their own homes, the same maths applies to me, right? It’s too bad,” he adds, “that I don’t get to talk to my landlord, or even know who they are.”
“If the investor won’t talk to the tenant, should their agent have more authority to negotiate?” puts in the politician.
“No way!” exclaims the agent. “She’d sue me if I made changes she didn’t like.”
“I sure would”, confirms the investor. “It’s my house.”
“But it’s my home”, protests the tenant.
“I didn’t say it wasn’t”, says the investor.
“You will, though”, says the tenant. “One day, you will. And when you do, I’ll get lumped with all the costs of moving again. You know what? Just because you employ an agent, it doesn’t mean that what you do isn’t a job. Knock knock.”
There is an awkward pause. Everyone is looking at the property investor.
“Okay,” she sighs, “who’s there?”
“Me”, says the tenant. “I’m here to tell you that the service you provide is as important as food or healthcare. And the way you’re running it is costing us all in time, money, sickness and stress, because you’ve got used to giving control of your investment priority over quality of service.”
“True”, adds the bartender. “We’d all be shocked if you invested in healthcare and then tried to run the hospitals your way.”
The agent is nodding. “The game has changed, I think”, he says. “Fewer people can afford to buy a house these days. Rentals are not just short-term options before getting settled somewhere; they’re the places people are trying to settle in right now. But at the same time, more landlords are shifting to investment without involvement, and that attitude has changed the way they approach things. I’m often stuck in the middle: with no reason – except my humanity – to care how the tenant gets on, no power to change things if I do care, and a mandate from the investor to not get them involved.”
“Hey, not fair!” exclaims the investor. “I trust you to look after the tenant according to the law. How can that be unreasonable?”
“Yes, how?” asks the politician.
“Maybe because the law hasn’t kept up with the game changes”, offers the tenant. “If the law gave me security of lease and rent rises pegged to inflation, I wouldn’t waste countless weekends house-hunting and packing/unpacking whenever I get moved on. I’d put my time into gardening or decorating instead. If the law gave me guaranteed housing standards, I wouldn’t waste so much money on trying to keep the place warm and dry. Me and my family would have better health and less stress. Right now, neither the landlord nor I are making long-term improvements to the property, because each of us would get only half the benefit for the cost – either the immediate convenience or the added property value, but not both. It’s a stalemate. I have no one to negotiate with, good reason to be worried about my lease renewal if I make any complaint, and nothing in the law to back up what I’m complaining about.”
“Well,” says the politician, “I can’t promise anything ...”
The room goes quiet. Everyone’s looking at her.
“Okay”, she admits. “That was dumb. I mean, I don’t know exactly what I’m going to promise yet. But it is election year, so ...”
“I’m going to need another drink”, sighs the investor. “Whose round is it?”
“How about the writer? She’s the one that dragged us into this story”, says the bartender, looking me square in the eye. “And no,” he adds firmly, “I am NOT going to say ‘it’s on the house’.”
“Fair enough,” I agree, “I’m out of jokes anyhow. Have this one on me. But I’m not hanging around here drinking with you lot all day. Haven’t you all got homes to go to?”