My last flat was originally a gold-mining cottage built in Thames in 1880. It was utterly charming: a skinny, long, two-story house with lace architraves on the front porch, and constructed entirely of thick, varnished kauri planks. In 1923, it was shipped up to Auckland on a barge and dragged to its Newmarket site by oxen, where an extension was added on to its backside. It was in a seriously convenient area. It was pretty. It had a snug, homey feel to it. We loved it.
But it was anything but healthy to live in.
We could see scenery through the gaps in the walls. In the winter we sat near (who am I kidding: ON) heaters in the lounge in puffer jackets and mittens. Upstairs, scrim and scarping – hessian sacking covered with 100-year-old wallpaper – on the wooden boards was the only thing between the weather and us. Chilly Auckland harbour wind heaved and poured through the holes as the house literally rocked in the breeze.
Despite it, I lived there for four years. Rent was reasonable, and the location was wonderful. Affordable four-bedroom rental houses were scarce. It was, apart from the temperature and excessive ventilation, a nice and rather fascinating dwelling.
But when we got sick, we stayed sick. For weeks. We breathed frigid air; we could see breath misting from our lips as we spoke. The walls of the house were nearly flush with the neighbouring homes on either side, so we saw no sunlight. We had a dehumidifier, though, and we used it nearly 24/7 in some room or another. Its bucket filled up every day. Five adults cooking and breathing deposit a lot of moisture into the air, and even with the windows open, it settled in the carpet and furnishings. That house made us ill and kept us that way.
Our landlord, though, was a darling man. He was kind, friendly, warm; gentle-natured. He came to weed the landscaped garden, and fixed any problems without delay. He was chatty. He was a delight. We looked forward to his visits. When our flatmate was killed, he turned up with flowers, hugged us, cried.
Once I phoned him to ask about whether he was going to look into the insulation subsidies; whether he was in a position to take advantage of them. He had indeed looked into it, and given the age of the house, it wasn’t viable. He was nearly in tears on the phone. He lived in a villa in Arch Hill nearly as old as ours. He didn’t even have insulation in his own home. He had plastic sheeting over two of his own doorways that were drafty. He was anguished over it, and called me back twice more over the next fortnight to apologise again for not being able to insulate the house.
The agent when we rented part of a whistling-wind villa in Grey Lynn was less sympathetic. We mentioned that we could see the laundry downstairs through the floorboards, and the gaps around the windows in the lounge let the wind through; would the landlord contribute to a large rug with underlay to cover the floor?
“Buy your own house if you don’t like it here,” she barked. “Honestly, you people.”
Well, with career landlords buying up to 60 properties to rent out, it is harder than ever to buy your own house anywhere with employment opportunities (yeah, you could probably buy in Mangakino, but you wouldn’t have a job to go to).
Tenant comfort and health doesn’t seem to be the first and foremost motivation in many professional landlords’ lives, whether that landlord is a private owner or the state. When I was teaching, I visited students’ homes that nobody in this country should have been living in. These were state houses – homes the government theoretically considers reasonable – with unpainted cinder-block walls, carpet over concrete, no curtains, no security latches on the windows, no working extractor fans in kitchens, and mould staining the ceilings. There was no heating, little ventilation, and in the winter, they all slept in one room to keep warm.
Unsurprisingly, the children I taught in the area were sick all the time. Absenteeism was high; the kids spent very much time at the Super Clinic or in bed. Asthma and colds bothered them constantly. It is certainly worth the government’s while to address the deficiencies in the 69,000 state-owned properties they are focusing on.
With that in mind, it doesn’t seem much to ask to ensure that homes are insulated; that they are warm and dry in this cold and wet country.
But these things cost, and it is landlords who will pay. Since I have only ever been a tenant, I interviewed two landlords from West Auckland. Artist Kay Rene and her retired husband own a block of three flats in Kelston, while Tess Rickards, a landlord living in West Auckland, owns a three-bedroom house in Ranui.
“We don’t have a heat pump. We don’t have insulation.”
Reading the comments on any mainstream media article about it shows that many landlords feel the same way. Why should tenants benefit at landlords’ expense when those same landlords might just have to endure the cold in their own homes?
Well, New Zealand housing has been found to be of a lower quality than most OECD countries. Furthermore, researchers have found that, in general, private rental housing is in far poorer condition than owner-occupied houses. Research also shows that shitty housing seriously damages people’s health. Cold, damp housing contributes to asthma, rheumatic fever, bronchitis, and prolongs respiratory and other illnesses in general.
Landlords and agents do recognise the problem as a major one.
However, whether it is the house causing damp and mould in many homes, or whether it is habits: this perhaps needs some more research, going by what I heard from Rene and Rickards.
Tess and her husband’s most recently-departed tenants blamed the house for mould on the mattresses in one of the bedrooms.
“That room might not get a lot of sun, but when we lived there, we never ever had problems with mould, because we actually opened the windows. While they were there, the windowsill rotted from condensation. [The tenant] blamed it on rising damp, but we got a builder to check, and he said there was no rising damp at all. They just hadn’t aired the place out.”
Rene agrees that there is a lack of understanding on the part of tenants.
“You know, the house should be kept up to scratch, sure, but the tenants shouldn’t be creating problems through behaviour. The crucial thing to my mind is how much unventilated cooking do you do, how much unventilated showering do you do, and how much moisture is there from people just living? If you don’t put the [extractor] fan on when you cook or shower, all that moisture just goes straight into the air. You’ve got to open the windows, and people don’t realise this. They think they’ll just be letting heat out. The house might not be a damp house to start with, but you can certainly make it that way. What a lot [of landlords] have had to do is drill drainage holes [around windowsills] for the condensation, because people just don’t understand.”
A trial for rental WOFs has been underway this year. January saw fives cities in New Zealand contribute 25 houses each to field research testing the rental property WOF criteria, with the results due in March.
The Auckland Council elaborates on the proposed WOF scheme:
The assessment aims to identify whether the rental property meets basic housing quality standards that impact on the following areas: warmth (or ability to effectively heat), dryness, mould and dampness, injury risk, sanitation, basic state-of-repair and basic living needs. These factors impact the health and safety of the occupants.
But despite Paula Bennett saying she would support a WOF for private rentals as well, the National government is only interested in doing it for state houses. Smug self-congratulation has followed Nick Smith’s decision to trial WOFs with 500 state homes.
Why such back-patting? State houses are owned by the state. They bloody well should be up to scratch for people to live in. Ignore complaints about the cost; we’ll recover cost with no worries, considering we save $5 in health spending for every $1 spent on heating and insulation.
Only 4% of kiwi kids live in state homes, but fully a quarter experience poverty. It is private houses that are a larger chunk of the crappy housing problem. And Labour’s Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill recognises that. The WOF scheme, if restricted to state houses, is nothing but an exercise concerning wool and eyes.
With New Zealanders living in squalid conditions and even garages to make ends meet, the need for decent housing standards across the board isn’t hard to deduce. It’s pretty bizarre that there are no standards to start with.
Rickards agrees, as a landlord, that owners have to take some responsibility for the living conditions of the people who pay to reside there.
“It’s it’s something defective in the building, you have to sort it out. Absolutely. You get these fibrolite boxes, and these houses are cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer, and the construction of the house has created a lot of the problem. We used to live in one, and we could air it out til the cows came home, and it would still be damp. That’s why I think the insulation schemes are good. Because if you can, you should make it so that the house isn’t creating the problem.”
Indeed, the most reasonable criticism so far has been around the idea that landlords will pass costs on to tenants, resulting in price hikes.
Rene doesn’t consider this a valid criticism, though.
“Cost might matter, but more importantly, you’d feel good about doing it.”
Do you think the costs would be widely resented by landlords?
“Getting the walls insulated if it’s not already done would be too [financially] prohibitive. But as a landlord, I’d want to have the ceiling and floors insulated. If it meant that the house would be treated better and get better taken care of, then that would be a positive thing. If you don’t even have insulation in your own house, it would bite a little. But making it mandatory to insulate every ceiling is a good idea. [Insulating under the floor] should be looked into as well, because it’s a useful thing to do. There are [inexpensive] forms of insulation like reflective material and polystyrene squares.”
It is pretty unlikely that the cost would ever be so prohibitive as to result in a noticeable weekly rent increase. Current projections of $200 for an inspection every two years aren’t ruffling too many feathers. And it seems to make sense that being awarded a WOF for a rental property may result in a higher class of tenant – one who wants to stay longer, who will treat the place with respect.
Rene tells of tenants who knocked holes in the walls and filled them with rubbish; of cigarette smoke-stained rooms that needed the ceilings scrubbed with steel wool; of P-labs and decontamination squads; of tenants stealing fixtures, burning curtains and destroying carpet. Under a voluntary scheme, advertising that a rental property has a WOF might be a real drawcard for people who want a home for their families, not just somewhere to park their kids while they cook drugs.
Voluntary is just that, though: optional. And that ain’t going to work. I mean, come on. Most people will opt not to spend any money. It has to be a legal requirement.
The UK has done it already. In 2001 they established a ‘Decent Homes’ standard, which states that houses should be warm, weatherproof and have reasonably modern facilities. The system applies to all dwellings, regardless of ownership.
Rene suggests that “a carrot is better than a stick.” But not many people are going for the carrot as yet. The Herald points out that
Of the 230,000 houses insulated with a Warm Up New Zealand subsidy, just 25,000 have been rentals. That’s only 5 per cent of the country’s rental stock – leaving an estimated 1,000,000 rental properties uninsulated. The Warm Up scheme has been operating since 2009 and provides a 33 per cent subsidy, or up to $1300, for the cost of retrofitting insulation into houses built before 2000. For Community Services Cardholders, or their landlords, a 60 per cent subsidy is available.
Private rentals aren’t up to scratch. And humans deserve decent houses, especially when they’re paying for the privilege of living in them.
WOFs for rental housing is a fantastic idea, and my only criticism of Labour’s bill is that it doesn’t go far enough.
National’s plan to apply the rules only to the government-owned houses is a huge cop-out.
Housing standards must be law.
Perhaps they should start with a carrot, but there is no doubt they’ll need to be backed up with a stick.