Evictions lack natural justice
Afew years ago my daughter asked me if some friends could use my flat in Wellington while I was away. I agreed as I wasn’t using the flat and they were to be gone by the time I returned. When I got to Wellington the following week I found these guys still there. They had miscalculated the date of my return and I was not happy when I found a cannabis pipe on the bench. In the last few days I have thought to myself that it was a good job they hadn’t been smoking meth and I wasn’t a tenant of Housing New Zealand. I’d be out on my ear.
The revelations that residue from people smoking meth inside a property hold no measurable risk to health by the Prime Minister’s chief scientist, Sir Peter Gluckman, come as a surprise given previous messaging by Housing New Zealand. This is as opposed to manufacture of methamphetamine inside a property, which is dangerous because of the chemicals used in its manufacture.
Housing New Zealand quickly excused themselves for unilateral evictions, by saying that the Ministry of Health test for the presence of meth was the only test available, but the question of the suitability of the test as a basis for booting tenants out into the street is a valid point. Mere presence of traces isn’t enough. Surely, there needed to be a quantifiable measurement and expulsion would follow once the level could be associated with, say, manufacturing, which would give a better indication of risk. The same test proving the presence of meth on wallpaper has also shown the presence of meth on random $20 notes in general circulation. Nobody suggests the immediate destruction of currency if tests show some previous handler of the cash must have also been in contact with meth.
HNZ should have developed their own test or applied the test they had fairly in every case. This was not done.
Proof is another issue. What is the finding of traces of a drug proof of, in reality? Obviously somebody has smoked meth in the house and smoking meth is a crime. But the question is who smoked and when. There has been no benchmark testing showing the house was clean before tenanting. This must have been incumbent on HNZ to do, or they would be guilty of putting people at risk by allowing them to rent a property that is contaminated.
A court would never accept a positive test as proof against the current tenant on a charge under the Misuse of Drugs Act, so I wonder why HNZ was allowed to impose such a punishment without natural justice being applied in the first place.
When you rent a motor car, you walk around it and check that there is no damage to it before you become liable for any subsequent damage noted on its return. This isn’t done with state houses, and incoming tenants don’t have the means to test for themselves at a couple of thousand dollars a pop. As prior testing is not the policy of HNZ, a prospective tenant insisting on the house being checked for meth before moving in would have quickly been told there were plenty behind them in the queue happy to rent it.
Crimes are committed in our homes every day of the week, regardless of ownership or tenancy. And just because an unlawful act is committed on a property, the owner does not have an automatic right to evict a tenant. A person charged with assault doesn’t automatically lose their tenancy which, as a crime against the person, is a much more serious offence. Nor is somebody growing a few pot plants out the back behind the shed likely to be booted out of a state house.
There is an obvious vulnerability to even be eligible for state housing. On the behaviour of one person, the whole family has been evicted, costing low-income folk thousands of dollars, upset, changes to schooling, loss of contact with support and other difficulties. On the basis of what was thought to be sound advice, furniture was destroyed and the loss of reputation and the everpresent record with Winz and HNZ will remain a black mark against the tenant.
The reason we have state housing these days is to accommodate vulnerable people. We need to accept that we have a responsibility to provide a safety net as much as people have a responsibility to act lawfully. But when they don’t, consequences need to be proportionate and fair. There is an onus to extend natural justice to any situation where those consequences are going to be punitive, like eviction.
Surely that is what living in a civilised society is all about.
Housing NZ did not do benchmark meth testing on its houses.