Emma-Lita Bourne is not the first victim of the poor quality of rental housing in this country. Housing researchers have been reporting the health impacts of poor housing for many years. Around 40,000 children end up in hospital each year as a result if poor quality housing. An evaluation of the Warm Up New Zealand housing insulation programme calculated that, among the other benefits of the programme, it resulted in around 18 fewer deaths among older people relating to heart and other circulatory disease.
The laws covering minimum standards for housing in this country date from 1947, nearly 70 years ago. The calls for minimum standards for rental housing have been coming for years, from NZCCSS and many others, but the political will has been absent. Finally, shamed by a coroners court finding that made a direct link between poor quality state rental housing and Emma-Lita’s death, Housing NZ Minister Bill English has hinted that some sort of minimum standards are now going to be introduced, but he described a housing warrant of fitness as an “extreme measure”.
A Simple and Affordable Safety Check
In actual fact, the housing warrant fitness trial that was conducted in 2014 by five local authorities looks anything but extreme. The WoF included a visit from an inspector that lasted usually less than an hour to check basic safety and health aspects of the rental property such as insulation (ceiling and underfloor), smoke alarms, heating, hot water temperature, handrails and window security stays (where required).
Most of the landlords and almost all the tenants supported the trial and most of the landlords agreed that the WoF gave a fair and accurate assessment. Around two thirds of the houses visited needed more than minor work to meet the standard, most common issues were needing to install a fixed form of heating and repair handrails or balustrades that would not meet the building code requirements. Most importantly, only 12% of the landlords involved indicated they would look at increasing the rent if they had to meet the WoF requirements. The report concludes that:
“There is a workforce willing and able to carry out the inspections at a reasonable price and both landlords and tenants appear to generally support a rental housing WOF”
Housing NZ has also been trialling a warrant of fitness and has shared its checklist that does not seem very “extreme” but rather setting out the basics that anyone would rightly expect in a house in a prosperous 21st century country like New Zealand. Unfortunately, the results of the initial trial of 500 HNZ houses conducted last year have not been published, despite the original government announcement signalling that the WOF checks (if successful) would be rolled out from mid-2015 to all HNZ properties.
Measuring Housing Quality
Statistics NZ has produced an excellent overview of the situation in New Zealand and options available to measure housing quality. It is very important that New Zealand gets on with better measuring and monitoring of housing quality and enforces regulations that can help literally save lives. Statistics NZ look at a number of options for collecting data on housing quality and rate those options, with a preferred option for an expanded BRANZ survey or purpose-built survey of housing quality. A housing warrant of fitness would be best combined with a survey or the census to give information about households and their inhabitants. Surveys using self-rating or self-reported quality measures are not effective as research has demonstrated that house occupiers consistently over-estimate the quality of their housing.
Political will is needed to give the legislative and financial support to measuring, monitoring and enforcing housing quality standards for all rental properties. We urge individuals, communities, church groups and organisations to add their voices to the call to introduce housing standards, to encourage MPs and local councils to take action to implement enforceable housing standards.