The tenants had earlier broached the subject of the landlord’s tiny house being built, and what the power bill might be. Photo / 123RF
It was the dream rental: a house in the country, with trees and a barn, a stream nearby, and room for their two cats to roam.
It was too good to be true, they thought. And soon, they were right.
The owner of the property in rural Tasman, from whom the couple began renting the main house in late 2019, arrived one day to say his daughter was moving into the vacant sleepout on site.
The problems began almost straight away, including what the tenants described as a “serious domestic violence incident”.
“We didn’t want Beirut next door,” they told a Tenancy Tribunal hearing in Nelson today.
A couple of weeks later, the landlord died, leaving the daughter to eventually become their landlord.
In mid-March this year, the tension that had simmered erupted after the tenants received a text from the landlord demanding they hire a chainsaw or an arborist to cut down the trees in their garden.
The couple said the tenancy agreement stipulated they were not allowed to cut down trees, so phoned her to ask.
“We didn’t think it was our responsibility, and then the abusive texts started.”
Tribunal adjudicator Michael Brennan acknowledged the “elevated level of swearing” contained in them.
He later said that a throw-away line from the landlord telling the tenants in a recorded phone call “they could go” was said in anger and did not meet the threshold of terminating their rental agreement.
The six-minute recording was played at today’s hearing, in which the landlord could be heard in a highly agitated state.
The landlord, who has interim name suppression, did not attend the hearing but was represented by her property manager, who had recently inherited what was described as a “highly stressed tenancy”.
The tenants cannot be named because of a suppression order, despite efforts by Open Justice to have that lifted.
Brennan appeared shocked when told today it was the first time the property manager had met the tenants face-to-face.
The property manager challenged the use of the recording, saying it sounded like a set up.
She said it was alarming that someone could call and ask questions of a person in a fragile state, not knowing they were being recorded.
Brennan noted that the existence of the recording had been included in notes to the tribunal.
The tenants said that a stream of text messages from the landlord then followed, including images of available rental properties with a notice they had 28 days to leave.
The property manager told the tribunal she advised all at that point to end all direct communication.
Today, the landlord was ordered to pay $1500 to the tenants for electricity she used from their power supply – including power used to build a tiny home on site.
There was initial agreement she pay $20 a week to the tenants, but she has paid nothing since January 2021.
The tenants had earlier broached the subject of the landlord’s tiny house being built, and what the power bill might be.
“It was the last peaceful interaction with her,” they said.
The tribunal heard there had been attempts since then to fix the problem so that power use was shared appropriately.
The landlord was also reprimanded for sending the tenants an invoice for the insurance excess on an 18-year-old glass cook top that exploded, leaving the tenants to cook on a gas-fired camp stove.
The property manager said efforts had been made to fix the problem quickly, but the insurance company made specific demands before accepting the claim. She said the landlord had since agreed to pay the excess herself.
The tribunal also heard that a new mechanically driven water pump that pumped from a stream into a tank, had once run out of petrol, which left the tenants having to buy bottled water when the tap ran dry.
They also claimed to have paid for the fuel needed to run it, and efforts to get it going by refuelling it prompted an angry interjection from the landlord.
Management of the property changed in March this year. During this transition, the conflict erupted and the tenants applied for redress through the tribunal, including exemplary damages for the damage caused to their quiet enjoyment of the property.
Asked why they had not raised matters with the previous property manager, they said they had not wanted to “stoke the fire”.
“We didn’t have ill-will towards her [the landlord], but we did want things to settle down,” the tenants said.
They also felt at the mercy of what Covid and the associated mandates were doing to the housing and employment landscape, and did not want to be evicted.
But they admitted that the living situation was affecting their quality of life.
Brennan said it would be wise for the owner to take responsibility for the electricity and then bill the tenants, but that would put them at risk of no power if the bills weren’t paid.
He was satisfied that the landlord’s “erratic behaviour” was grounds for compensation, but it was unlikely to be at the higher end.
The tenants said they were less concerned about money than “getting facts established”.