In a heated housing market renters are the collateral damage, the silent thousands who can’t afford to buy – or complain. What’s life like when you don’t own your own home? Kim Knight speaks to tenants aged eight to 82.
Renting is a rite of passage.
You leave home and furnish your first flat with second hand couches and cheap wine glasses. There is always that one weird guy who never flushes the toilet, but it’s a means to an end, right? Because one day, you’ll own. One day, you’ll paint your walls Spanish White or Thorndon Cream and spend your weekends planting heirloom tomatoes.
Thirty years ago, less than one quarter of New Zealand households rented. By the 2018 Census, that figure had climbed to 35.5%. Around 1.4 million kiwis now pay a landlord for the room they sleep in.
Home ownership is at its lowest rate since the 1950s. New Zealand’s housing crisis dominates news cycles and at privileged dinner parties a single conversation is on high repeat: When did you buy? How much did you pay? What is it worth now?
Recently, the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand reported the nationwide median house price for March was $826,300 – up $46,300 in a single month. In Auckland, it hit $1.12m, up almost 23% on the same time last year. Numbers roll in like a storm and there is nowhere to shelter. In Ruapehu, the average value of an entry-level home has increased 72% in one year. In Buller, it went up 55% and in Southland, 47%. According to Quotable Value, the biggest rises are happening at the lowest end of the market – the homes that make up the least expensive quartile, the homes that traditionally put people on the first rung of the property ladder.
Sentences like these make my eyes glaze. At 51, my truth boils down to a single number: $730 a week. I’m white, well-paid and well-educated. So is my partner. We have both rented our entire adult lives and the only way we will ever be able to buy a house of our own in Auckland is with a lump sum inheritance. What kind of a world demands dead parents in return for a permanent roof?
My editor wanted me to write about open homes and auctions; that happy-crazy moment first-home buyers sign on the dotted line. But what about the 35.5% of us who don’t and, increasingly, won’t?
Jaxon, aged 8: “Renting is when you don’t have enough money and then if you fail a house inspection you get kicked out.”
Gillian, aged 82: “I am extraordinarily careful. I can’t go to concerts. I have to think twice about going to the movies.”
The media likes to assign catchy phrases to complicated social phenomena, but when more than one-third of the country is beholden to a landlord there can be no such thing as “Generation Rent”. Tenants are grandchildren and grandparents and everyone in between. They’re kids who can’t pin a poster on the walls, entry level workers who, every time their flat is sold, have to find four weeks bond and two weeks rent in advance ($3492 on current Auckland averages) and older people who never recovered financially from a divorce or other upheaval.
Fourteen people, aged eight to 82, were interviewed for this story. They were surprisingly reluctant to speak. A good tenant is not seen, not heard. Nobody wants to anger a landlord or trigger a rent rise (or, worse, a house sale). Nobody said anything particularly damning, but to rent is to live precariously. Eventually, we agreed to use first names only.
It’s a small sample but there were consistent themes: Young people no longer saw home ownership as the ultimate life goal. Mid-lifers were in a state of angry panic. Older renters feared for their futures but were also looking for solutions – more communal living, more targeted assistance.
What does life look like when you don’t own your own home? It depends who you ask.
“I hate renting,” says Jaxon, 8. “I hate the house inspections.”
Every 13 weeks, while Jaxon and his siblings are at school and their mum is at work, a stranger enters their $350-a-week Nelson/Tasman District rental and photographs every room. Later, they email a list of infractions: Mould on a windowsill, a cobweb in the corner, pet rabbit poo on the lawn.
What’s the house like? “It’s pretty bad,” says Jaxon, gravely. “We don’t have two toilets.”
His sister Danni, 14, would like to repaint her bedroom black or possibly purple. Antony, 11, would like an entire extra room so he doesn’t have to share.
“Renting is where you have to keep on paying less money, but it stacks up to more,” he says. “It’s not really our house, but we live in it.”
It was supposed to be short term, this Council-owned rental on land that would one day be turned into a car park. But 10 years later and, finally, the broken tiles on the kitchen floor have been replaced. It’s just two minutes walk from school; three minutes from work. The street is not the greatest but Nelson/Tasman median rents went up 10.3% last year and available housing stock dropped 50% and tenants can’t be picky.
Kirsty, 41, considers her family lucky. “I think we are stuck in the rent trap for now. Kids, uniforms, that sort of stuff, it chews up my income . . . it used to worry me, but we’ve got a roof over our heads. The kids don’t see what I see. I know there are a lot of people out there absolutely struggling to find something – and rents keep going up.”
She loathes the invasion of privacy from the constant house inspections (“What do they say? A messy house breeds creative kids?!”), but is also pleased she doesn’t have to pay for maintenance or repairs.
“We do all right. We manage all our expenses. But we couldn’t manage a holiday, or anything like that.”
According to the Stats NZ report Housing in Aotearoa: 2020, the 1.4 million people who live in houses they don’t own includes 120,000 children under the age of five. Life for those kids is, simply, harder. They are 49% more likely to have moved homes at least once before they were even nine months old; one in ten does not have access to a fridge. Meanwhile, last month, the Ministry of Social Development revealed 3888 children are now living in motels. One Barnados worker shared her concerns with RNZ: “They won’t actually have stability or know what it’s like to have a solid foundation – somewhere they can call home. Research has proven that when you have stability as a child, that helps you with what trials and tribulations you face as an adult.”
Kate, 29, isn’t sure she would even if she could. Emma, 20, proclaims property is not the only path to financial security. Alex, 30, owns a house but lives in a rental better suited to life with a baby. For this demographic, the “my house, my castle” mantra no longer applies. Home ownership is nice, but not essential.
Statistically, these are the milestone decades. Careers, relationships, babies. For women, the median age for marriage or a civil union is 29.2 years, children follow at 30.8 years. The median age of all New Zealanders is 37.6 years. The average age of first home buyers? That’s a little trickier to pin down. ANZ pointed us to 2017 figures that showed it was 34 years, up from 25 years in 1970 and, last year, credit agency Centrix put it at 36 years – up from 31 years in 2012.
“I live in Herne Bay,” says Kate. “I’m not going to buy in Herne Bay, I’m not going to buy in Ponsonby, I’m not probably even going to buy in Papakura. I’m going to have to move out of Auckland if I’m going to buy a house now, and for the foreseeable future. It’s either live the life I want to live renting now, or move down south.”
Kate pays $235 a week for her share of a six-person flat. She saves 30-40% of her income but says she’s not prepared to put that cash into a house.
“You’re taught that you’ve got to let go of this immature idea that you can just keep living with your friends. But I think this generation wants to draw that out just a little bit further.”
Flats come with a built-in community. Kate says her peers are busy; just meeting for coffee requires epic levels of organisation. “I like that I can just come home and have a conversation with five other people!”
In Kate’s experience, home owners her age either have family money or double doctor-lawyer-engineer incomes. She wonders about the role of Covid in some recent “buy now” decisions.
“Buying houses, getting dogs and really settling into that life . . . if that’s all you can do, you may as well get 100% interested and excited about it. I do fear that in a year or two when all our options are completely open again, the people who have done that might feel differently.”
She says: “I sit in a middle camp of trying to save, but also not missing out on the fun things. It’s not about owning a house, it’s about developing your assets. Juggling what you want to be doing and investing in your future.”
Is Kate having her cake and eating it too?
“My parents came from pretty much nothing. They didn’t have university fees, houses were one-tenth the price they are now . . . but literally all they did in their 20s was have one pot of baked beans and sausages and they ate that every night. They owned their first home and worked on it, and then they got their second home and worked on it . . . there are a lot more opportunities for me. You’re kind of bombarded with all these options.”
Emma, 20, lives rent-free with her parents who own multiple properties. Recently, she came home to complaints from her father about the Government’s decision to double the “bright-line” test which means income tax must now be paid on the profits of any investment properties sold within 10 years.
“I said ‘what do you propose they do for me that will allow me to buy a home one day? Because at this rate, there’s no chance’. He couldn’t come up with anything.”
She’s not actually stressing about that home. Last year, a video popped up on her Facebook feed that changed her outlook.
“In America, they make you think you’re supposed to own a home with your family and your white picket fence and that’s what you should aspire to. In a sense, they’ve brainwashed people . . . but the prices these days are so insane and renting is not all that bad.”
Her student loan is “around 35 or 40 grand”, but, with a paid internship, she says she’s better off than friends who have switched degrees and won’t be in the workforce until they are at least 26.
“The only reason I would want to get into the property market is to make money off it . . . say I won something that gave me enough money to pay that property off, I wouldn’t. I would go and put that into shares or something that would build more money. I’ve always had big goals and one day I hope to be earning a crazy amount . . . people are like ‘you should live in the moment’ but I’ll always think about what my actions now will mean for the future. That’s why I put my money into shares – long term shares, not short ones.”
Alex, 30, never thought she’d own. But her husband is a saver and so they bought. When the pair decided to enrol in Bible college for two years, they found cheap board and let a tenant pay their mortgage. Now, with a one-year-old in tow, a rental is a better option than their place – “we never intended it to be a family home”.
The value of that first home has doubled in the past six years. Now, the couple are talking multiple property portfolios and passive income.
“Nobody gave us money, we saved, and we worked for it. And as much as we talk about owning multiple homes as a detriment, the person who lives in my house is a single mum who might never have been taken seriously. I don’t charge exorbitant rent . . . and if you can’t provide a home that’s liveable, go away and stop buying houses.”
40s to 50s
Is there a magic number? An age at which you know for certain you are locked out of the housing market? Consider the decisions that have led to this age-and-stage: Creative but low-paying careers. Break-ups. A desire to live on your own, even as rents escalate. Overseas travel. Extended tertiary study. A vocational calling to police-nurse-serve in a meaningful but abysmally remunerated profession.
Income tables show New Zealanders aged 45-49 are the country’s highest earners. Their median weekly income is $1056, or twice that of people aged 20-24. These are the years to knock off a mortgage. So why is anyone still renting?
Sarah, 47, pays $600 a week for her Auckland house. It has wooden floors and loads of natural light. She loves it.
“The anxiety is not that renting is punitive. The anxiety is that if we have to retire in 25 or 30 years, what will be living on?”
Because until now, she has been very happy being a citizen of the world. Renting, for example, provided the flexibility for extended stints in Europe. But now she’s back and the rapidly increasing house prices are terrifying. The Government will help first home buyers into an Auckland property worth up to $625,000. But where do you find one of those in this heated market?
“Even if I had $850,000, I do not want to spend that on a house that I do not believe should be worth that.”
And then she sighs. Because she’s already anticipating the backlash. To be a non-home owner in the 40-plus age bracket is to feel a peculiar mix of failure and outrage. We are cast as partying grasshoppers to the diligent ants. But do the ants really want to live in a world with no artists, authors, international travellers, divorcees, widows or, for that matter, people like Sarah who made a late career switch to teaching?
“Some might argue this has been going downhill for several years and I could have made different choices earlier. The truth of it is that being a newly trained teacher – no. We couldn’t afford to buy a house then . . . I chose to take that salary drop because I believe in education. There shouldn’t be consequences for people who go and work in the social industries that make their futures precarious.”
Phil, 46, remembers the exact moment he might have taken the leap. Newly arrived from the United Kingdom some 17 years ago, he was offered a $200,000 Herne Bay apartment.
“I think it would be worth over $1m now. It had a roof terrace and views of the harbour. It was . . . I try not to remember it, because it drives me mad. After that, it’s just been a case of not having the deposit. I’ve got KiwiSaver now, but I’m a single person, mid 40s and I don’t have much earning time left to have a big mortgage. I’m buggered, basically.”
He pays around $400 a week for his one bedroom, one cat, slightly dilapidated apartment. Sure, he could flat with strangers, never visit his family again and move to the South Island. What he’d rather do is change the conversation to one where owning a home is not the single most important thing we do with our lives.
“I worry about it. Not every day, but every week. I used to think ‘what have I done wrong?’ But the cost of living in Auckland is astronomical and you have to stop yourself from thinking that. Just because somebody else has something, you don’t have to have the same thing. I don’t have any debt. I don’t owe anyone anything and I love that freedom. We can’t all be the same.”
One, alternate, version of the future: “We’d be like the Golden Girls. Rent a big house, have a bloody laugh and drop dead happy!”
What makes us happy? Social scientists have determined it’s things like gratitude, kindness, positive thinking, family and friends. Less important: An en suite on the master bedroom.
“I had the six-bedroom villa, and I was unhappy,” says Jared, 45. His central Auckland two-bedroom apartment costs $485 a week and it is a squeeze when his five kids, aged 12-18, come to stay, but “I wanted to live the art life”.
New Zealand’s median divorce age is 44.4 years for women and 47 years for men. When Jared’s family home in New Plymouth was sold, it hadn’t been owned for long enough to have built much equity. There was enough for a deposit in the same town, but he followed a music and drama related path to Auckland. At first, he and his partner lived in single rooms in shared flats. Later, they got their own places. Flats were disbanded, apartments sold. Each time they shifted, they paid double rent for at least a week because tenancies inevitably overlap.
Jared describes a sense of displacement, but “I’m cultivating a lifestyle I’ve wanted for a long time. There is a cost to that”.
When visitors compliment Carol, 70, on her home, she sidesteps the conversation.
According to Housing in Aotearoa: 2020, almost 80% of people aged 65-74 years own their own houses. But what does life look like without that security?
“I know there are other people in the same boat as us,” says Carol. “We just have to take each day as it comes.”
She suspects her husband, 74, doesn’t really want to retire, but in any case, he can’t. The couple pay just under $400 a week for their three-bedroom Napier house. They both, separately, owned property with former spouses, but when marriages ended and assets were divvied up, buying again wasn’t an immediate priority.
“And then when we did decide we really should, well, we weren’t able to, because we were too old, no-one would lend us the money and the repayments would have been huge. We went to see bank managers, we talked about it a lot with other people, and we just kept coming up against a dead end. So we just gave up.”
Today, she says “I wish we had tried harder . . . I do feel a bit of shame”.
Carol thinks this is her seventh or eighth rental. Almost every move has been prompted by a landlord’s decision to sell.
“We don’t have to pay rates, we don’t have to pay water and if anything goes wrong, the landlord just fixes it. So I suppose that’s a ‘pro’. If we were in our own home, we’d probably be struggling with those things and the mortgage. So I think we’re on the winning side.”
Older renters make good tenants. They are quiet, responsible and other mild-mannered cliches. They do the gardens and paint the fences. But they live at the whim of someone else. When a landlord’s circumstances change, so do their tenants’.
“I was a very, very good tenant,” says Gillian, aged 82. “My landlord was a younger woman and with Covid, she wanted to sell.”
Weeks before Christmas, Gillian was faced with a 50% rent increase. She’s had to delve deeply into savings and says, “I don’t know what is ahead of me. I don’t want to have to be dependent on family. That’s not a comfortable position”.
In her lifetime, Gillian has owned two homes. The first was sold when her marriage broke up; the second was sold to her daughter when she wanted to provide her with security. Gillain would like to see the Government commit to rental relief for older people and suspects there are many people – especially women – in her situation.
“There were a lot of us who came out of marriages in our 50s, who had to begin again.”
She remembers sitting in the bank, opposite a young man in his 20s who wouldn’t give her a mortgage on her single income. And then, again, at the bank she’d been with most of her life the manager who finally signed off on her second house with the comment, “you’ll marry again in a few years”.
Gillian says she doesn’t have the money to buy in a retirement village; she listens to concerts on the radio now. “It’s about cutting back on what you can.”
The median weekly income for people aged 65 and over is $415. But in November, it was reported that nearly one in five in that age bracket still had a mortgage. Meanwhile, almost one-third of pension-age renters lived in social housing.
Mary, 70, neither owns nor rents. The voices in the background of this interview belong to her grandkids. In 2012, her husband died and her world tilted: “Do you want to carry on living in the house on your own?”
That house had already helped leverage her children into their own homes. When a daughter began renovating, the plans included a downstairs granny flat. Mary sold her house, “to a young couple starting out. It felt good.”
She looks after her grandchildren in lieu of rent and says, perhaps, as the housing crisis deepens and demographic trends change, communal, multi-demographic living might become more common. It’s important, she says, that you don’t live in each other’s pockets. She thinks life is as busy now as it has ever been. And if upstairs has a party, “I just put my head under the pillow and go to sleep”.
So far: “It does seem to work well. I haven’t been given my final notice yet.”
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