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Is your rental your home?
Some lessons from Germany and my former driving instructor Kat
Sometimes I worry that we accept the appalling state of renting in Aotearoa due to a lack of understanding of how it is in other countries.
Somehow, over time it has just become accepted here that a rental isn’t your home. I think this is because over time, rentals stopped being homes in this country and became investments for wealthy people or people who want to be wealthy.
Even the term “investment property” feels like a new one. Growing up, I feel like your neighbours were your friends and not people who owned your other neighbour’s home to build their wealth. But of course that has happened when for so long you could 100% finance a second home on the back of a first home. People bought homes sight unseen then rented them with little understanding or care about what it’s like for their tenants to spend all their income feathering someone else’s nest.
When I was growing up I didn’t even know our family home was a rental, because it was ours. We lived in it a long time, I could put pictures up on the wall, we played in the mud in the garden. These days - you’d need to stop kids from playing in the mud, come inspection time a landlord could claim part of your bond for the garden not being maintained to their standard. I know one family who “applied” to plant a vege garden and were denied this by their landlord.
My amazing driver instructor (former - I now have my full license!) is an awesome woman and in between trying not to side-swipe side mirrors, we talked about all sorts of things.
One thing we regularly discussed was renting in Aotearoa. You see Kat is from Germany, a place that has a very different way of renting than our country.
I wanted to explore this because I think there are two things that really hold us back in this country - 1) the profound lack of vision most of our politicians have to change the system 2) the lack of care for renters and the normalisation of this lack of care. I thought it would be useful to find out more about how other countries handle renting. This is of course anecdotal - but I think it's helpful nonetheless.
Please don't email me with 'not all landlords'. If you're a landlord and you're not like those landlords then you should support renters rights 100%.
Hi Kat! Thanks for taking the time to chat! I reckon we just jump straight into it eh?
Sure thing Emily. Thanks for having me!
How long have you been a renter?
I moved out of my parents house when I was 17 and have been renting ever since. I just turned 31.
I've read more than half of the German population rents. Here it's about 33% - is there a renters rights movement in Germany?
Yes. There are “renters society/union/club/association” and it’s a great idea to be a part of them. There are loose groups like initiatives, and more organised groups like unions. In Berlin for example, the first renters society dates back to 1888. They were classified as non political and non religious organisations to avoid being surveilled by the state.
In 1894, for example, they won the fight over not having to endure the garnishment of all their belongings if they were late with their rent. (Garnishment is seizing assets - Emily).
From the 1960s onwards, these movements were spreading into a more mainstream area and were also fighting for peace, women rights, workers rights, and environmental rights.
Last time I checked, around 1.25 million houses were part of one of the biggest renters rights movement’s organisation - the German Renters Association or DMB in German - which actually translates to 3 million individual renters. There is about 84 million people living in Germany right now.
OK, make us jealous - what is renting mostly like in Germany?
In Germany, when you become a renter, the house rights are transferred from the landlord to you, and you have the full right of owner or occupier of the premises to undisturbed possession.
You have an animal live with you, or have an animal stay with you as a visitor. You can play musical instruments at any time. You can hang your laundry in your flat. You don’t have to clean house staircases if you’re living in an apartment. You can have it as warm or cold in the flat as you’d like.
What surprised you most about renting in Aotearoa?
The control through landlords, but also the lack of fixing through landlords. Like they want to come and walk through your home once a month usually unannounced, but they are not getting a broken window fixed in five months? It leaves me speechless. On top of that, the prices landlords are asking for their rentals. I’ve been to house viewings where there was mould on the ceiling, walls, and curtains. The landlord and I stood there, looking at it, I paused and asked: “Well, will this be fixed or cleaned?” And landlord said “Yeah, it’s the tenants fault so they have to clean it all”.
What is renting like in Germany?
After renting in Aotearoa for around five years, my main thing I’d want to say is it’s warm. Simply warm. Wall-mounted heaters in every room is a given factor. Double to triple glazing as well. Some places I’ve lived in had floor heating in all tiles rooms as well like bathrooms and kitchens, as well as living rooms and bedrooms tend to have wooden floors. I’ve never experienced mould in any flat I’ve rented in Germany. You get the tenancy agreement and are just without worries for the next few years or however long you would’ve agreed on.
Without worries? Pretty sure a lot of renters couldn’t relate to that. What's the one change you wish we'd make in renting here?
I wish landlords would be held accountable for the Healthy Homes Standards with people coming to check on your house and help you work out communication with landlords. There’s a lot of fear of losing your flat when you speak up about issues. I am hoping that the rental market will be improved with warmer homes, combating the dampness once and for all.
Hard question but what's the single most depressing thing about renting in Aotearoa?
Oh my, this is a tough one. Just one thing? I can think of multiple hands full already but I’ll go with the dampness.
I've been trying to figure out why renting is better in Germany than here - I wonder if they have the balance better around renter rights? I read that once the tenancy has begun, the landlord can only end it by evicting the tenant through the courts or giving at least three months’ notice. Obviously here - people are given 28 days - still well short of three months. And anecdotally we hear of many families given less notice.
This sounds about right. It’s really hard for landlords to evict a “nice” tenant. Even if you’re in a fight or dispute with your landlord, if they’re playing a part in it, you’re still safe in your home. Obviously if you’re not paying your rent for multiple months and not making any effort to do so in the next months, landlords are able to get you out of there. But if you’re the average nice person, that just wants to live and breathe in peace, a landlord won’t be able to evict you.
Exemptions here are if the landlord wants to claim the flat you’re living in to move in themselves. They still need to give you multiple months of notice. If you’ve lived in the flat for up to five years, it’s three months. If you’ve lived in the flat for over five years, it’s six months. If you’ve lived in the flat for over eight years, it’s nine months notice.
Holy shit. That would be life changing for tenants. It really recognises that your rental is YOUR home. I read it's not uncommon for a landlord to request an initial lease period of two years - does this stop frequent rent increases and landlords kicking out tenants to increase rent?
Yes. Common minimum time for a rental sits between one and two years. I’ve heard of flats that had minimum rental time for up to five years even.
There usually is no such thing as a maximum time for a rental. You just agree to extend if you love it, and if you don’t, you move on. There is always the option of sub-letting your flat if you can’t leave your rental agreement. This is legal. The minimum time definitely helps with random rent increases and the fear of being kicked out, which I honestly never had renting in Germany.
Let's talk about rent - is the system more transparent for rent increases in Germany? I read that it's by cost per square metre and landlords have to justify rent increases. Is that your experience?
From my experience, yes. It’s quite transparent. However, there are still lots of rules around it as you’d expect from Germany loving bureaucracy. For example, if a landlord wants to increase their rent, they need to obey court rules. A landlord can only increase their rent under certain circumstances, like they’ve been charging a lower rent than most other similar built houses in the same suburb? Then they can hand in a note, stating why they want to increase their rent like they might have renovated the rental. This is what you would’ve heard about regarding the cost per square metre. Gentrification plays a big part in this sadly.
Landlords are not allowed to go over an 20% increase within three years. They have to inform the renter in writing, including a proper explanation for why rent would increase. The renter then has two months time to lodge an appeal or they can decide if they want to move on.
There is another way of rent increase. It’s called “graduated rent”. This one’s clear from the beginning and you would’ve read about it before signing your rental agreement. From my experience, you can argue with the landlord about these numbers as well. In one of my flat experiences in Hamburg for example, we’d signed an agreement beforehand that stated that our rent would increase by 100 Euros every three years. Germans are used to paying rent once a month, around the first, as most of us get our wages once a month, towards the end of it, as well. To us, that agreement was all good. We knew what was coming and were able to prepare for it beforehand.
In Aotearoa we are meant to have “quiet enjoyment of your home” is there an equivalent? And being able to make your rental a home, that seems common in Germany?
Absolutely! Yes! It is so common to paint any wall, put whatever construction up into the ceiling or wall, as long as you paint all walls back to white and restore the wall and ceiling surface - like you put some putty in it and paint over it. You should’ve seen my last rental in Hamburg. It looked like a baroque dream as we were allowed to style everything. From the handles, to the lights, to the ceiling decoration. A dream come true and it was such a pleasure, every day, living in it.
Ultimately, what do you think we need to do to fixing renting in Aotearoa?
Easier access to help. I would love to see more renters rights movements to build a bridge between the what sometimes feels like low life of a tenant and the sitting in a throne, untouched by laws and sanctions) landlord. I would like for people to not shudder anymore when they hear the word landlord because we all should be fighting for safe homes and not run after the cheapest fix to get the highest amount of money out of “your investment” - which is just someone’s home. It’s an awful, unequal imbalance out there. That would be a great place to start.
Please remember with all of the above though, it’s only my personal experience. I’m sharing my experience because I’m coming from a place of wanting to improve the situation- for everyone.
Thanks Kat. I really appreciate your time.
I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on whether your renting experience has changed over the years as a long-term renter or if you’ve been able to turn your rental into a home.