Frustration as Wānaka head tenant unreasonably holds back bonds

by Lauren Pattemore - Feb 22, 2024

One renter's battle to have a hefty bond returned from a head tenant is illustrative of an increasing power imbalance as housing continues to be in hot demand, according to a Queenstown Lakes social service agency.

Crux has spoken with the Wānaka renter who spent two months asking for the return of a $1,120 bond after leaving their room in a Northlake home.

The man says the problem lay not with a landlord, but with a head tenant, who he had to contact 37 times via emails, text messages and phone calls before his money was eventually returned to him.

He says he was respectful and amicable during each interaction with the woman.

"Every time I reached out, I was like, 'Hey, not trying to, like, not trying to have conflict, just want a resolution'." 

He says his requests were ignored until two days ago, when he made an anonymous post in a Wānaka rental group on Facebook asking for advice on how to get his bond back. Plenty of posters empathised with his situation. 

On the same day, he also lodged a complaint to the Tenancy Tribunal. The bond was in his bank account five hours later. 

Following the Facebook post, he was contacted by two other people who had previously lived at the home he had left, and they claimed they had encountered issues with the same head tenant back in 2022.

They say they gave up on trying to get their bond back - together more than $2,000 - after they were blocked by the woman on social media. 

Citizen's Advice Bureau (CAB) Queenstown manager Tracy Poole says disputes between head tenants and flatmates are one of the biggest issues her team deals with.

"The head tenant has all the rights; they can ask what they want. It's up to the flatmate to accept the terms or not, but in the current climate, they usually do."

Ms Poole says there are few legal protections for flatmates who find themselves in these sorts of disputes with a head tenant, because when flatmates are not named on a lease, they are left unprotected by the Residential Tenancies Act. 

She says it seems some head tenants are using the current housing situation to their advantage, although she says not all are. 

"In defence of head tenants, though, they have all of the responsibility if the flatmate leaves without paying rent or power bills or causes damage."

Crux spoke with the head tenant from the Northlake home, to give them opportunity to explain their delay in handing back the $1,120 bond in this situation.

She says she did not initially return the bond because the flatmate had left before the notice period, and owed her one week's rent - $280 - from that time. 

The former flatmate admits he left the rental before seeing out his notice period, which was four weeks, as stipulated in a five-page rental contract he'd signed with the head tenant.

He says he had signed a five-page rental contract with the head tenant, and it stipulated he needed to provide four weeks' notice. 

"My reason for wanting to move out before 28 days was due to unfair and hypocritical enforcement of her rules."

He paid his outstanding week's rent one month after leaving the property, and his room was filled by a new person.

The head tenant says that the property management company doesn't lodge flatmate bonds with the tenancy tribunal, and only deals with one tenant per property - and that's her.

However, the company is happy for her to sublet rooms to other people, and collect bonds to protect against damage to the house.

The head tenant says it is difficult to be in her position because she has to deal with both the property company and manage the other tenants in the household.

Not the first time

However, it appears she does have a history of holding back bonds.

In researching this story, Crux was connected with Irie Abraham, who says her brother was also a former flatmate of the head tenant's, in a different share house in Wānaka in 2022.

Ms Abraham says it was her little brother's first flatting experience, so she helped him out by handling communication with the head tenant.

After the whole house received a notice from the owner to vacate, Ms Abraham says she was told her brother had left his room tidy and his whole $1,000 bond would be returned - it was one year and three months before the siblings received any money, while another flatmate from the same house told them it took four months for them to get their bond back.

"It was a complete headache, she was dodging our emails and calls, or coming up with all these excuses as to why she couldn't pay it back.

"It stressed me out."

Finally, in September 2023, Ms Abraham told the head tenant she was going to make a claim to the Disputes Tribunal, and she heard from them straightaway and received the money in full that week.

Ms Abraham says her brother had been happy to say goodbye to the money, but she wanted to get it back for him and also take a stand to protect any future flatmates.

She says when her brother sent her news of this week's social media post about the head tenant's repeat performance, she was "completely shocked" the woman was still engaging in the same behaviour.

Ms Poole says the CAB sees just as many, if not more, flatmate verses head tenant issues than they do disputes between landlords and tenants.

The latest flatmate of the head tenant says before moving to New Zealand on a working holiday visa in October, he had lived in New York for nine years, where landlords are "ruthless".

However, he says prior this latest rental experience, he's never had any trouble getting his "security deposits" back. 

Main image (file): A resident of Northlake in Wānaka has battled a head tenant to get his $1,120 bond back.

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