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February 26, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Evil Empire

There are a lot of mysteries that accompany the name Naginbhai Neil Ghelabhai Patel. Mysteries including, but not limited to: that he got his money through winning the lotto, that he is frequently seen dancing in the early hours of the Courtenay Place morning in a cowboy hat, that he has achieved such a state of enlightenment that he no longer needs to sleep or eat. These mysteries are clouded in rumour, but one story attached to his name seems to be certain: Neil Patel is not a very good landlord.

The wispy-bearded, absent-eyed man has a whole raft of allegations against him, from dodgy bond manoeuvring, unexpected rental increases, failing to comply with housing regulations, power siphoning, wilful damage to heritage buildings, underpaying employees, unlawful entry of tenant’s homes, and negating human decency when dealing with his tenants. A google of his name turns up an entire Reddit thread dedicated to dealing with him as your landlord, alongside a slew of articles from Stuff, Newstalk ZB, Newshub, and Salient, all about shady acts committed by the man.
He has over 10 active companies attributed to his name, one of which, Challenge Rentals Property Management Ltd., has been involved in over 48 cases heard before the tenancy tribunal over the past two years.

His name is synonymous with terrible landlord in Wellington.Neil Patel

Neil Patel
/ni:l pətæl/
noun
1. A person/thing that utilises their position of power to enact financial harm to others.
“Six thousand bucks a year! This education racket is a total Neil Patel.”
verb
1. An action which causes detriment to another, usually property related.
“Man, can you quit showing up here wanting to redo the carpet! You are totally Neil Patelling me!”

But no man is an island, and this wily cretin is scarily closer to the general rule of landlords in Wellington, rather than an exception to it. The market has become an environment in which renters have had to fight for their rights to be acknowledged, if they can manage to find a place at all.

Speaking to students currently searching for accommodation, it is clear that a harsh reality is bubbling underneath the media hype. Third year student Oliver Clifton has said that “the demand for flats has reached a critical point this year […] obviously this makes it easier for landlords to act how they like and people don’t have much of an option other than to deal with it.” VUWSA President Marlon Drake has spoken of a group of tenants who were given less than 24 hours to sign a contract which saw their rent increase by $36 a week. He says stories like this are not uncommon.


On the 30th of January, Stuff published an article entitled ‘How to stand out from the crowd and secure a rental in Wellington’, in which they quoted the head of Trademe properties, Nigel Jeffries, as recommending, “be prepared to put your best foot forward if you really want the house – an extra $10 a week might just win the landlord over.” This advice, other than being stupidly reductive to the issues faced by most renters, also highlights one of the key problems about the renting situation in Wellington: all attempts to solve the issues are being constructed in ways which ultimately benefit the landlords, to the detriment of renters. In offering his advice, Nigel Jefferies neglects the fact that renters themselves do not need to offer to hike up their own rents, as most landlords are already doing it for them.

Grant Robertson, MP for Wellington Central, put out a call for any Wellington renters who have faced a rental hike of over 50 dollars to get in contact with him. Response to the email was that, “As of the 31st of January, we have received 138 emails and the post has been shared more than 500 times. Of those 138 emails, 42 responses directly mentioned they were students.” It is important to remember that these are the people who were able to take the time to email their local MP. Robertson is empathetic towards the plight of his constituents, saying that Labour is currently reviewing the Rental Tenancies Act (1986), so they can identify how they can give more security to renters. While renters wait for the review, Robertson insists that “it is important to remember that most landlords are doing a good job. It’s a minority of landlords who are exploiting the situation that we need to remedy.”

Mr. Robertson can’t be faulted for his positive outlook on humanity. But Renters United representative Robert Whittaker would agree to disagree. “I think it’s more of a systemic issue than that […] the reality is that landlords and property management companies have a vested financial interest in maximising their rent.” Whittaker says that the issue in rental supply has been brewing in Wellington for a number of years. The key factor he sees as contributing to the current crisis is the combined forces of property management companies booming and most rentals having slowly drifted into an annual market, with fixed term one-year leases becoming the norm. “The fundamental problem with our tenancy law is that the tenant has very little rights to stay in their home. With a fixed term lease, if at the end of the year the landlord and the tenant can’t agree on terms for renewal the default answer is that the tenant is out. People on periodic leases are even more at risk as the landlord can give notice, and they don’t even have to give a reason.”

Hearing a dumb silence on my end of the phone, Whittaker offers a helpful anecdote: “I like to compare it to employment. If you take a job, it’s assumed to be permanent, and if the boss wants to fire you, they have to go through due process, warnings, explanations, chance for improvement and so on. In contrast, renters have no recourse, the landlord can just say you’re out and you’re out, you don’t really have any other options.”

Whittaker says that “the fundamental problem that we have with our tenancy law is that the power is too much in the landlord’s favour, and that’s massively driving the price rises at the moment.”

With all of this in perspective it is easy to see why so many landlords are following the suit of the most infamous of their ilk. Wasn’t it John Key, naked beneath his quilt stitched of the many faces of Apirana Ngata and Lord Rutherford banknotes, who whispered, wet with saliva into Brogan’s ear, “absolute power, corrupts absolutely.” We can never be sure, but it sounds right to me.

Housing minister Phil Twyford has isolated rent bidding as “a symptom of the landlord having all the bargaining chips and the tenants having no power”. But it is not just rent bidding that is a symptom of this. There are also the undue hikes, the early termination of leases, the inappropriate questioning, tenants too scared to bring up issues, and property management companies twisting the living situations of people for their own financial gains. The overall sickness that causes these symptoms is the position of power the law has placed the landlord in. What we are seeing now is what that looks like when the rental market is at strain.

Grant Robertson and Renters United both agree that Labour is moving in the right direction with housing standards being addressed in the Healthy Homes Act. But there is still a whole raft of issues needing a policy update, such as tenancy termination, rent increases, and the rights of the tenant to challenge these.

Students know that asking landlords to voluntarily change is not going to work. Oliver Clifton says, “the fact that the rental warrant of fitness is voluntary is so silly, only two houses were given a WOF in the programme’s first six months, which suggests hardly any landlords are applying for it.” It is clear that what needs to change is the structure that allowed this situation to arise in the first place. Renters United would like to see more power for the local authorities to take a role in regulating housing quality. This would mean that it would be the council’s prerogative to keep an eye on housing. Issues would not wait to be resolved until a tenant brought their landlord to the tribunal. They would also like to see a change in issues of tenure: leases being made permanent until the tenant decides to move on, creating an assumption that you will continue on in the property indefinitely. This would help shift some of the power from the hands of the landlord, who would no longer be able to so easily change up to a tenant offering a higher rent.

Renters United also want to see landlords licenced. “At the moment anybody can be a landlord, you can be a landlord from prison, you can be disqualified from owning a company but not from being a landlord.” The fact that most students are dependent on just anyone who may have enough money to own another property for a place to live is a scary thought. It becomes less of a surprise that some landlords are acting the way they are, when they have been allowed to for so long.

Until these changes come in, and hopefully they are coming, the outlook for student renters in this market is not completely bleak. Marlon Drake, president of VUWSA, wants students to be aware of the resources that are offered through the student’s association. As well as a full-time student renters advocate, and the highly recommended VUWSA flatting guide, Drake says that VUWSA are currently lobbying for more student accommodation. “We have seen huge amounts of first year accommodation built over the last five years. It’s not realistic to build all that and not have second and third year accommodation as well. We would really like to see the council and the university work together to find space for this long-term solution of student villages.”

The solutions to the issues faced by renters in Wellington will most likely be coming at the snail’s pace of bureaucratic policy changes. Until then, students do not just have to lie down, open-mouthed, and take the shit of the landlord. Even the case of such monumental jerks as Wellington’s own resident conniving property mogul Neil Patel, the landlord is not unbeatable in a court of law. As we have seen, the law rests in landlord’s favour out in the property market, but taken to the tenancy tribunal, a more equal footing is provided for the tenant to fight for their rights. Tenants do not have to do this alone. Help is offered in the form of the VUWSA’s Advocacy service, Renters United and Council Tenancy Services (see your local Citizens Advice Bureau). This can be a scary prospect, but until the policy changes, issues must be brought up to this level for a misbehaving landlord to be held to account. A moment of victory of this is seen in the judge’s notes for a tenancy tribunal hearing for Neil Patel’s Challenge Rental Ltd., “The landlord appears to believe that because the tenants signed the agreement they are unable to pursue a claim… This is not the case. I find having considered all the evidence from both parties in its entirety that the landlord [is a huge dick].” The same court ordered Mr. Patel to pay around three grand in damages to his former tenants.

Although it is a tough time, it is important to remember that renters are all in this together. By abiding by and answering landlord’s questions of “what is the maximum you are willing to pay?”, renters are playing into their hands. Robert Whittaker wants renters to remember that “when you go to flat viewing it is easy to see it as a competition with people eyeing each other out. […] Remember that all renters are in the same boat. What we need is a bit of solidarity, and renters acting together, to change the situation overall.”

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