Editorial: Bring in standards for rental houses

Finance Minister Bill English has poured cold water on a warrant of fitness scheme for rental houses.

Finance Minister Bill English has poured cold water on a warrant of fitness scheme for rental houses.

OPINION: Can we improve the baleful state of New Zealand's rental housing stock – or is that too expensive to contemplate?

The tragic case of Auckland toddler Emma-Lita Bourne, who died after contracting a severe respiratory infection, makes it clear what is at stake. A coroner's report said the poor condition of her Otara state house contributed to her death.

Everyone should be pained by this, but no-one should be surprised. Researchers have made clear the links between poor housing conditions and children's hospital admissions.

A team led by Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, which has pushed for a "warrant of fitness" scheme for rental properties, won last year's Prime Minister's Science Prize. John Key said he was interested in the work and would ask them back for a briefing.

Now it's not clear they should bother. Finance Minister Bill English says the Government won't be taking up "extreme measures" of the sort proposed by the Labour Party – and the researchers. If they did, he says, tenants would see rent increases or houses removed from the market, another cost pressure in a time of shortage.

These fears have some merit to them, and they argue for a staggered approach to regulation, but they must not excuse the status quo, where anything goes.

The truth is, as economist Shamubeel Eaqub argues, more and more New Zealanders have no choice but to rent (52 per cent of us now) – yet tenants have comparatively few rights, and the houses they live in are frequently cold, damp and bleak.

As Howden-Chapman has pointed out, this is most dismal for children, who spend a large amount of time in their houses. It's one thing for a student to live in a mouldy Aro Valley dive, quite another for a two-year-old.

Will fixing up damp houses break the bank? Not necessarily. Installing insulation and basic heating systems are discrete, one-off costs that might be spread over years of rents.

The comparatively low cost of rent in New Zealand, and the various perks that landlords enjoy, including tax advantages and flexibility with tenants, also suggest room for improvements.

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Finally, the Government can play a useful role, as it has with the excellent scheme that saw 200,000 houses fitted with insulation. (Sadly, relatively few landlords took it up.)

English has been outlining his theory of preventive social investment lately; he ought to apply it to inhumane rental houses. Howden-Chapman's research suggests that retrofitting houses with insulation and heating leads to huge savings through reduced hospital admissions, medication bills and energy consumption, and fewer premature deaths.

Making more homes available is ultimately the best way to lower costs and give renters options. But introducing basic standards for warm, dry houses is a direct way of fixing the worst cases. We do this for safe cars, for clean restaurants, for proper building work and for umpteen other things.

There is a public health problem with our rental houses. We should have standards for them too.

 - Dominion Post


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