State House priority for rheumatic fever-risk families

A programme to fast-track families with children at risk of rheumatic fever into state homes will be rolled out from Auckland to most of the North Island.

The announcement from Housing Minister Nick Smith comes as a pilot Warrant of Fitness scheme for Housing New Zealand homes is also launched today to ensure homes are healthy and safe.

Auckland families which had children at risk of developing rheumatic favour have been prioritised in Auckland since last year and Smith revealed today that families in the Bay of Plenty, Capital and Coast, Hawkes Bay, Hutt Valley, Lakes, Northland, Tairawhiti and Waikato district health board areas would receive the same favourable treatment from 1 March.

These areas had the highest rate of rheumatic fever. It was not yet known whether the policy would be rolled out to the of the country.

New Zealand's rate of acute rheumatic fever is 14 times the OECD average and the rate is 25 to 44 times greater for Maori and Pacific children - among the highest in the world.

"There is a strong link between housing conditions, particularly overcrowding, and rheumatic fever," Smith said.

Families with urgent or serious housing needs in those areas will now be prioritised if they have one or more children who have been hospitalised for lower respiratory tract infections in their current housing over the past two years, and if their household suffered from overcrowding, Smith said.

The Government has allocated $45 million in funding to combat rheumatic fever and aims to reduce the incidence of the disease from 4.2 to 1.4 cases per 100,000 people by 2017.

Smith said the criteria had been extended to include families where people are still receiving treatment for rheumatic fever.

Smith also announced today the launch of a pilot programme which would see state houses subjected to a Warrant of Fitness.

Homes will be checked to ensure they are insulated and dry, safe and secure and have all the essential amenities.

Smith said the trial was important to ensure the Warrant of Fitness criteria balanced the need to ensure homes were adequate with ensuring as many homes as possible were available due to the high level of demand.

It will include 500 homes between now and July and will be refined over that time.

Smith said Housing New Zealand would report later in the year on the number of houses that failed, what deficiencies were identified and how much it would cost to bring them up to standard.

It is not yet known whether the scheme will be applied to social housing providers or the private rental market.

It is based on research which shows that high-rates of poverty related illnesses, such as rheumatic fever could be reduced by making houses warmer and drier.

Private sector rentals are reportedly in poorer condition on average than state homes.

But opposition MPs have slammed the programme with Labour's housing spokesperson Phil Twyford labelling the warrant of fitness a "stunt".

Smith was failing to tackle the real problem - poor quality private sector rentals, he said.

"Nick Smith is the housing minister for heaven's sake. If he wants state houses to be kept at a certain standard all he needs to do is write a letter to his CEO issuing that instruction. He doesn't need a photo op, or a big policy programme. That is how government works," he said.

"This is Nick Smith trying to look like he is doing something about the problem of unhealthy housing. But he refuses to do the very thing that is needed, and that is tackle the problem of damp, cold private rental houses."

Twyford said only 4 per cent of Kiwis lived in state houses and said 44 per cent of private rentals were in poor condition.

"These are the cold, damp houses that are causing so many children to be hospitalised for respiratory and infectious diseases."

He called on the Government to back his Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill which would set minimum standards for insulation and efficient heating for all rental properties including the private sector.

Green Party housing spokeswoman Holly Walder backed Twyford's bill and called for the warrants to be extended to the private sector.

"This programme was announced in the Budget in May last year but it's taken until February for even a small, 500-house pilot to get underway," she said.

"Meanwhile people are getting sick from living in cold, damp homes."