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UNHEALTHY HOMES ARE MAKING OUR CHILDREN SICK

UNHEALTHY HOMES ARE MAKING OUR CHILDREN SICK

When builders pulled out the kitchen sink in V’s Auckland rental home, one of them fell through the rotten floor. They found a large rat underneath the floorboards and also discovered that the kitchen floor was a false surface, installed to cover up the poor state of repair without the expense of actually fixing the problem.

Mould is a constant problem in the home, which is damp and cold and has grass growing through the wall next to the back door. V has stuffed wads of toilet paper around the windows to try and block up the gaps. She blames the unhygienic home for her son’s respiratory problems and her own poor health. When the bath was filled, bath water would flush into a wall cavity and grime and slugs would wash back into the bath. V has painted, plastered and done other work on the house herself, as her landlord does only cosmetic repairs when she asks him to fix problems.

V pays $550 rent a week for the 120-year-old house, which has had little work done on it for 50 years. The rent rises by $40 each year.

N and her partner are both working. They pay $750 a fortnight for a studio and car parking in the central city.

“I’m lucky my partner lives with me but imagine one person working and trying to raise a family one rent like that,” she says, “Horrible.”

N and her partner don’t go out much and don’t socialise, because they can’t afford it.

M lives in Manurewa. There are five adults and one child in her rental home. All the adults work and share the rent of $550 a week. She feels lucky that the house is in a good state of repair – they moved from their last house because the landlord refused to do repairs to a property which had had no major work done on it for decades.

T and her husband and blended family have lived in the same house for six years but were recently given 90 days to move. They are both working but high rent payments mean they live pay day to pay day. T’s husband is blind, meaning his employment options are limited. They are struggling to find another house to rent – homes are snapped up almost as soon as they are available.

“I fear that if we stay we will end up under a bridge. We are considering one of us going to Aus, but that in itself presents a real problem with my husband’s disability.”

The Auckland rental market has five key problems –

  • a shortage of houses
  • a very poor state of repair
  • high rents
  • lack of security of tenure, and
  • soaring house prices, making it impossible for any but the wealthy to buy homes.

The priority A waiting list for social housing in Auckland jumped from 941 households in June, to 1200 at the end of September. “Priority A” comprises people at risk and with immediate, severe and persistent housing need.

Despite this, Prime Minister John Key has this year repeatedly denied there is a housing crisis in Auckland. The Government plans to transfer up to 2000 state houses to registered Community Housing Providers over the next year, with Tauranga and Invercargill selected as the first regions for transfers. Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith in August announced that a Crown land development programme would proceed in Auckland, with 20 per cent of the new homes slated for social housing.

The Government does not support mass, government house building and has also ruled out comprehensive warrants of fitness for rental properties. It earlier this year voted down Labour MP Phil Twyford’s Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill, which proposed minimum standards for all rental homes. Finance Minister Bill English described the proposals as “extreme measures,” despite publicity over the death of toddler Emma-Lita Bourne in a cold, leaky house.

Instead, the Government will introduce a watered-down new law requiring rental properties to be insulated and have smoke alarms. Labour is having another go at a member’s bill to introduce warrant of fitness-type standards for rental homes, with a second bill in Labour leader Andrew Little’s name. Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei has drafted an Energy Efficiency Conservation (Warm Health Rentals) Amendment Bill, which she says would benefit thousands of Maori as more than half of Maori rent and they are more likely to be living in the worst-quality homes.

But there is no sign of a comprehensive plan from the Government to address the problems in Auckland’s rental housing market, and few expect that what is being done will bring significant improvements.

HiveNews.co.nz publisher Bernard Hickey says the Government’s housing policies are unlikely to fix Auckland’s issues.

He also warns that a tsunami of rent rises is heading Auckland’s way, as rent inflation has until now been much lower than house price inflation. That will not continue, he says, and landlords will soon start raising rents to close the gap.  

On current projections, the median Auckland house price by 2040 will be $3.4 million – a house price to income multiple of 23, compared to the current 10.

Hickey also says only 160,000 houses are expected to be built in Auckland in the next 25 to 30 years, when 400,000 are needed. Labour at the last election proposed “Kiwibuild,” a plan to construct 100,000 affordable homes over 10 years. Key dismissed the policy as dishonest and said it would “either fail miserably, deliver dwellings that people don’t want to live in, or require massive taxpayer subsidies.”

And it seems that New Zealand will not even consider rent controls, which have been common in parts of Europe and the United States for decades. New York has rent controls and rent stabilisation for some properties and, from October 12 this year, the Rent Guidelines Board froze rents on one-year leases for stabilised units.

In Berlin, new rules introduced on June 1 to limit rent increases in certain areas resulted in a 3.1 per cent drop in the average cost of new Berlin rents within a month. The law aims to put a brake on galloping rent rises which have been making inner city tenements unaffordable.

Hickey believes rent controls are a turn-off for those who provide rentals and can also be easily subverted by landlords.
Green MP Kevin Hague says the party considered including rent caps in Turei’s bill, but it is hard to design controls that would not lead to landlords withdrawing properties from the rental market. He says the Greens favour providing better security of tenure and limiting rent increases to no more than once a year.

Twyford says fundamental reform of the housing market is needed, including a massive government building programme, training of apprentices and using new technology to provide economies of scale. He describes New Zealand as an outlier among similar countries in its lack of rights for renters.

But, for now, around 15,000 Auckland homes known as “ghost houses” are sitting empty, because the owners are making too much in capital gains to bother renting them out. Coincidentally, up to 20,000 Aucklanders are homeless or living in sub-standard housing.

*Written for FIRST Union’s Express magazine, November 2015.

** Initials used instead of names to protect tenants' identities.



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