Hard News by Russell Brown


Meth Perception

According to a story by Kirsty Johnston on the Herald website today landlords are avoiding telling local authorities if their properties have tested positive for methamphetamine residue – because even if it is cleaned up, the fact of a positive test will remain permanently on the property's LIM report.

This isn't illegal – and, as sketchy as it looks, I can't say I blame them. A remediated dwelling poses no risk to the health of anyone living there. And, as noted here before, even an unremediated place that tests at the 1.5 microgram per 100cm sq level (which is both the Ministry of Health guideline where use is suspected and the forthcoming NZS 8510 standard) is extremely unlikely to pose any risk. Actually, let me rephrase that: at the standard of 1.5mcg there is no plausible risk to human health.

This puts landlords and investors in a bind. If they test, they're stuck with it. And such is is the level of public unease fostered by years of dodgy marketing and inaccurate reporting, any historical positive test is likely to take tens of thousands of dollars off the value of their asset.

And yet that's what some property managers are inviting their clients to buy into. A friend of mine who owns a small apartment in inner-city Auckland recently received the following standard letter from SuperCity Rental Management, a division of Ray White:

You may be aware of the recent changes surrounding methamphetamine and it's [sic] effects on residential investment properties.

SuperCity Rental Management has a zero-tolerance policy for the use of illicit drugs within any property under our management, so on top of the usual checks we do at our inspections for any evidence of drug problems, we are writing to let you know that with your instruction, we can contract a company to perform a methamphetamine test on your property.

This will be a baseline test to determine if there is presence or absence of methamphetamine and its precursors. This baseline test will be carried out in accordance with NZS 8510 standards and meet the Ministry of Health guidelines.

If there is a reading above current safe guidelines, we are happy to assist with facilitating the associated clean up and work to get the property back to safe levels.

This is an optional service to be undertaken completely at your discretion, please be aware that if we do receive a report back with levels above the current Ministry of Health guidelines, we will be obligated to act on this.

We recommend checking your insurance policy and contacting your provider if applicable to check if you are covered for methamphetimine [sic] contamination. Please let us know if there's anything which we should be aware of.

Please feel free to contact us if this is a service you wish to use, or if you have any questions in regards to the above.

Now, let's step back a moment and consider the implications here. If my friend pays Ray White to retain a third-party company to come in and test his flat and the test is positive, he doesn't know who is responsible. Maybe it's the current tenants, maybe it's the ones before. He has no viable avenue of redress. He's just paid a few hundred dollars to reduce the value of his flat by potentially tens of thousands.

From Kirsty's story:

First National Real Estate chief executive Bob Brereton said contamination - even if remediated - could drop a sale price up to 5 per cent.

"In the same way a leaky home has a stigma attached, contaminated houses have a negative public perception," Brereton said.

"They take longer to sell and are harder to tenant. It's a simple reality."

Real estate agents are bound to inform potential buyers when they know a house is contaminated.

But wait, there's more. New Section 59(B) of the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill currently before Parliament would apply.

If tests carried out in accordance with any regulations made under this Act have established that the premises are methamphetamine-contaminated,—

(a) if the tenant is not responsible for the methamphetamine contamination, the rent abates; and

(b) the landlord may give notice of termination, the period of notice to be not less than 7 days; and

(c) the tenant may give notice of termination, the period of notice to be not less than 2 days.

So the rent stops and his tenants could just walk. (But he could also throw out those tenants at a week's notice, even if they're not responsible. The other new sections in the bill clarify tenant liability and insurance issues – which are a bit of a minefield, given that many insurance policies cover costs arising from meth manufacture but not use.)

His position is slightly better if the initial test is below the standard (assuming a below-standard-but-not-zero result isn't recorded somewhere that someone can see and misapprehend it). But he's locked into testing every time he changes tenants – otherwise the original baseline becomes meaningless. And if one of those future tests does come in above the standard, he faces a battle in the Tenancy Tribunal. Even if he is able to retrieve the cost of remediation from the errant tenant, he has no hope at all of redress for the likely fall in value of his property henceforth.

There is a real potential health risk in properties that have been used for methamphetamine manufacture. But that's a different process. The police are usually involved and the council must be notified. But domestic manufacture is far less common than it used to be. Most meth is imported as a finished product.

NZ 8510 is on its way – it was due this month – and there will be properties that test above the new standard. There may even be some properties that present an actual plausible health risk, so the issue can't entirely be ignored.

But in general we're not talking about any real risk to health. There has to be a standard – rather that than the MoH guideline that was inappropriately used for years – and it's conventional that that standard will be set a long way below the level that might present a risk to the most vulnerable infant. But most of the rest is about perceptions. And that's a big can of worms.

My friend, I said, you would be mad take up Ray White's kind offer.

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