Auckland landlord could lose house after failing to pay $180,000 costs

Author
Isaac Davison, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Mon, 26 Oct 2020, 9:26AM
Widharni "Debbie" Iskander, a former landlord, is being pursued by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment over $180,000 in fines. Photo / Newshub
Widharni "Debbie" Iskander, a former landlord, is being pursued by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment over $180,000 in fines. Photo / Newshub

Auckland landlord could lose house after failing to pay $180,000 costs

Author
Isaac Davison, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Mon, 26 Oct 2020, 9:26AM

A former landlord who was handed one of the largest fines on record for repeated law-breaking could have her house seized because she has failed to pay back money owed.

Widharni Iskander, also known as Debbie, was fined $180,000 by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) last May.

Iskander saw herself as a saviour to the vulnerable and homeless during Auckland's housing crisis, but was found to have crowded tenants into unconsented garages and single rooms and was taken to the Tenancy Tribunal because of her off-the-books bond system.

In one of the largest cases taken by MBIE's compliance team, she was found guilty of failing to lodge bonds on 81 occasions. In all, 197 separate complaints were jointly heard against her.

Speaking to the Herald at her Favona home, Iskander claimed she had paid back two-thirds of the $119,000 in bond money owed to tenants, but on an informal cash basis rather than through the Tenancy Bond Centre. She had provided letters from the tenants and evidence of bank withdrawals to MBIE, she said.

Iskander said she had been unable to find the other third of tenants, some of whom had died.

An MBIE spokeswoman, however, said no payments had been received to date and it was still in the process of recovering the money.

As part of the civil debt process being used to recover the payments, a charging order had been filed against Iskander and a caveat had been placed on her $670,000 property in Favona - preventing her from selling it.

"Should the money remain unpaid, MBIE will pursue other options for recovery, including those outlined in section 133 of the District Courts Act 2016," the spokeswoman said.

Among the options in the law are seizing the property of a debtor.

Iskander said her lawyer was challenging the remaining $57,000 of the fine, which was for illegal activity related to bond payments and the Tenancy Tribunal's costs.

She had sold three properties to pay tenants back. She was left with two properties and was no longer a landlord.

At one point, Iskander was believed to have managed between 80 and 100 properties and up to 150 tenants, often renting them herself and sub-letting them with cash bonds and minimal record-keeping.

Under the name Sanctuary Homes, she saw herself as a one-person housing trust and a last option for people left helpless by the housing crisis. She even had referrals from Work and Income until it discovered that some of her properties were substandard.

"I go to Jellicoe Park, pick up people who have nowhere to live, no references, no money," she told the Herald. "I was just trying to fill a gap. I tried to create a home for them."

A former tenant from a Manurewa rental said people used to call Iskander when they were desperate.

The tenant rented a sleepout with no toilet, bathroom or kitchen from Iskander in 2016 and was charged $530 a week.

"I had tried to look for a house for 90 days. I was heavily pregnant at the time, I was in hospital and I had nowhere to go," she said.

After moving in, a tenant in the main home mentioned that the sleepout was not consented to live in.

"I wasn't sure what was going on, and I didn't like the amount of money I was paying. But when you're in a desperate situation you don't want to cause any problems."

Iskander claimed she "had no idea" that some of the properties were unconsented.

Her ability to keep operating as a landlord after she was fined prompted calls from politicians and lobby groups for landlords to be licensed.

She was one of a small number of landlords to be subject to a restraining order - a little-known penalty which is increasingly being wielded by Government officials against repeat offenders.

A restraining order lasts for up to six years and means that if a landlord commits a similar breach in that time they can be charged with a criminal offence instead of simply facing a fine.

Iskander said she now looked after elderly people for a job, and expressed no regrets about her past dealings with tenants.

"I was a good landlord," she said. "The only thing in my mind was looking after the homeless and bringing them in."