Individual and collective action for healthy rental housing in New Zealand: an historical and contemporary study (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy)

Substandard, insecure, and unaffordable housing affects health, contributing to the spread of infectious disease, susceptibility to respiratory illness, and to feelings of stress and anxiety. In New Zealand, people who rent are most likely to experience health problems related to housing. This study explores the connections between power and housing as social determinants of health by investigating the ability of New Zealand tenants to individually and collectively represent their interests in order to obtain healthy housing.

The first part of the study is based on archival records and chronicles the five key phases of New Zealand tenant protest, during which tenants organised for affordable, secure and quality housing through political advocacy, tenant support services, and direct action. Tenant protest groups worked for rent controls in 1916 and 1920, against evictions during the Depression, for better quality and lower rents in the 1970s, against market rents for state housing in the 1990s, and against the redevelopment of state housing communities in the 2010s. Such groups helped individuals retain, gain or improve their housing, and contributed to policy and law change that helped people access healthy housing. However, tenant groups faced common challenges which meant that their actions were small scale and intermittent. In addition, state promotion of homeownership meant tenants were more likely to try to leave the rental sector rather than work towards its improvement. In discussing the results, I draw on Albert Hirschman’s exit-voice framework, Kemeny’s housing typologies, and the literature on collective action and social movements.

The second part of the study consists of a survey of tenants and interviews with tenant advocates, which explore how tenants are able to represent their interests at an individual level, in relation to their landlord or the courts. Key issues facing tenants were insecurity, affordability, and poor quality housing. When tenants were able to represent their interests, often with the assistance of a tenant advocate, they could improve their housing. However, tenants often chose against representing their interests due to a lack of knowledge of or confidence in asserting their rights, as well as the high costs of doing so in terms of time and effort, the experience that reporting housing problems does not lead to their resolution, and the fear of risking their tenancy. In discussing the results, I draw on Hirschman’s exit-voice framework and Steven Lukes’ work on hidden dimensions of power.

This thesis shows that tenant representation can support health by helping tenants access secure, affordable, and quality housing. But tenants are limited in their ability to represent themselves. The health disadvantages of tenants are inextricably linked to their power disadvantages. At an individual level, housing insecurity makes asserting their rights, as the legislation requires them to do, a risky endeavour, especially for low-income people. At the political level, group representation by tenants is limited by resource constraints and policies that make home-ownership the rational option for anyone who can afford to. The thesis makes the case that improving tenant health requires interventions that account for power disparities, and suggests that tenants are important allies in working towards healthier housing.

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