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Tribunal orders landlord to pay $13,000 to tenant over “dreadful” Dunedin rental

Jul 02, 2023

By Emily Moorhouse, RNZ/Open Justice 

An elderly tenant spent the final weeks of his life in a damp and mouldy rental while his health deteriorated, likely due to the "dreadful" and "uninhabitable" state of his living conditions.

The house had broken windows, appliances that didn't work properly and a leaking roof that was never properly repaired and caused the ceiling to collapse in a flatmate's bedroom.

Now, landlord Jonathan Andrew Brown has been ordered to pay almost $13,000 to the tenants for failing to maintain his Dunedin property.

The initial complaint about the house came from a concerned property manager who used to manage the tenancy.

They questioned the property's suitability for residential premises, resulting in an investigation being launched by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) on behalf of the tenants.

A Tenancy Tribunal decision released this month states the house was in a "damning" condition with maintenance issues arising from at least 2016.

The fridge door didn't shut, the oven was "unusable", and the toilet was leaking, leading the MBIE to find that Brown had breached the Residential Tenancies Act 1986 by failing to appoint an agent and failing to keep the house in a reasonable state of repair.

According to the decision, Brown has taken "no active part" in the hearing despite being given instructions to attend and has ultimately "avoided" the issues.

A tenancy compliance officer described her repeated efforts to contact Brown, who had not responded since January 2022. She said he was "very non-committal" and he suggested the rent was low and the tenants did not complain.

The deceased tenant's daughter lived with him at the house for the last 10 weeks of his life and said her father's illness was exacerbated by the cold, dampness and mould evident in the house.

She said an occupational therapist wanted to install a ramp and handles to improve her father's access and make the premises safer, but because they could not contact the owner that was not possible.

Her husband ended up installing the ramp and handrail at their own cost of $2000.

She said the owner ceased managing the property in October 2020 and was living overseas, leaving no one for the tenants to contact.

She said her father lived with another tenant on the premises for about 25 years. They had a flatmate, but he had to leave when the ceiling in his bedroom collapsed because of the leaking roof.

Brown's niece provided a statement to the tribunal, suggesting she was, at times, an agent for her uncle and arranged for some repair work to be done.

"Remarkably, she appears to suggest that the tenants caused the damage to the property," the decision states.

Tenancy adjudicator J. Greene said the photographic evidence is "especially damning" and Brown had committed unlawful acts by causing a serious and sustained loss of enjoyment of the tenancy.

"The photos show premises in a dreadful state, probably uninhabitable for residential tenancy purposes. These tenants, vulnerable due to increasing age and in one case illness, were subject to dreadful living conditions," Greene said.

The tribunal found the landlord failed to maintain the premises over an extended period of time which was intentional and caused harm. His refusal to engage with the MBIE further reflected the damages he was ordered to pay.

Brown was ordered to pay $12,689.86 for exemplary damages, compensation for the filing fee and disbursements, which will go to the surviving tenant and the deceased's tenant's trustee.

* This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.

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