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Why a renter died from turning on a light, and what we could do

by Elinor Chisholm

After four days living in her new rental home in Ruakaka, Lesley Wehi-Jack returned home from work. She smelt gas, unlocked the door, and switched on a light. The house burst into flames: a gas cooker installed by the landlord had been leaking. Lesley died  the next day from burns sustained in the fire. Her death was tragic, and its effect on her whanau and community is immense.

Energy Safe, which is part of WorkSafe NZ, laid charges against Lesley’s landlord, Peter John McLeod.  The court found him guilty of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the cooker was installed safely. He was sentenced to six months home detention, and ordered to pay $5,000 to Lesley’s family. In response, Energy Safe encouraged landlords to become aware of the law around gas safety; guidelines which, if followed, would have prevented Lesley’s death.

Landlords should obey the law, I agree. But we should also try to understand why landlords might not know about, or ignore, the law. (Not all landlords, of course: for example, about 5 per cent apparently belong to property investors associations, through which they receive a lot of information about landlording).

I think one of the reasons some landlords don’t know about their legal responsibilities is that landlording can be quite a casual business. Some people are “accidental landlords”: they’ve inherited property, or, like Lesley’s landlord, they’ve relocated for work and want to earn money from their own home while they’re away. Some people have bought houses to rent out for investment purposes: the skills and knowledge required to manage a property are secondary.

It’s a strange thing. If you want to earn money through providing accommodation for people, as a landlord or a property manager, you simply advertise the house. You don’t have to register, as a company must, and you don’t have to pass a test to prove you know the rules, as a driver must. As a result there’s no way of knowing which people are landlords. So there’s no direct way of contacting landlords, some of whom might not have any idea of any of the law that now apply to them, to tell them things like “don’t install a gas cooker yourself”. (There’s also no easy way of telling them to pay their tax, or to lodge their tenants’ bonds).

I think it’s not enough to prosecute a landlord for disobeying the law. We need to do everything we can to make landlords aware of the law that protects them and their tenants. A recent reminder of the law around gas safety, and how it exists to protect lives, might not have stopped Lesley’s landlord doing a DIY job - but it might have.

There’s a couple of ways this could happen.

We could have a registry of landlords, with a dose of good marketing to ensure everyone who wants to be a landlord knows they have to register, or face some consequence. That way Energy Safe, as well as the IRD, and the bond authority, can inform landlords of their responsibilities. And one day, hopefully soon, registering could happen as part of getting a rental warrant of fitness.

Or, for now – and here’s something that seems pretty cheap and easy to do - the government could work with websites heaps of landlords use: trademe.co.nz and realestate.co.nz. Anyone who puts up a house to rent could receive an email about their responsibilities, with a whole lot of links – the information’s all on the internet already. I want the new landlords out there to know that becoming a landlord means taking on responsibilities.  

 Nobody should ever pay for a landlord’s negligence with their life.

Elinor Chisholm (@ElinorChisholm) blogs about housing issues at onetwothreehome.org.nz

Thanks to Lucy Telfar Barnard for our discussions about this issue.

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