Yay! Healthy Homes Bill for Renters!

The Government has passed a bill which over the coming years would see more stringent regulations around heating and insulation. The changes would help provide warmer, healthier homes, but won't be without its costs.

Corazon Miller looks at the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill and what it could mean for tenants and landlords

Mouldy shoes, dripping windows, chesty colds and tenancy tribunal hearings were what one Auckland couple got with their Orakei rental property.

Dana Cornes and her partner Jonathan van Campen moved into the house in early August 2017, but struggled to feel at home in what they said were damp, cold conditions that impacted on their mental, physical and financial health.

Battling constant colds and their landlord's reluctance to service a ventilation system led the Cornes to leaving in mid-October.

Cornes said they had hoped to make the Orakei property home for the next two years, but the damp environment made it impossible.

"I have struggled with some chronic health issues over the last few years, but was very healthy before I moved into this house and now I have been literally sick every week," said Cornes.

A copy of a doctor's note she gave to the Herald showed Cornes had significant asthma "made considerably worse by damp, cold housing".

Her doctor said it was important Cornes had a warm and dry house, with an adequate ventilation system.

Images of the rental property showed it was anything but dry, windows were covered in condensation, and mouldy walls, shoes and clothes.

Cornes said regularly opening windows, wiping walls and using a dehumidifier seemed to do little to make the house warm and dry.

"We kept finding more mould in our clothes, drawers, shoes and in our kitchen items."

Cornes said as a tenant she felt powerless to change anything with current avenues for recourse time-consuming, costly and frustrating.

After her landlord initially refused to service the ventilation system that worked to warm the air and reduce condensation, she went to the Tenancy Tribunal.

A copy of the hearing outcome, dated September 26, 2017 showed the adjudicator ruling in favour of Cornes.

"It is the landlord's obligation to provide a house that is free from dampness and it is not the tenants' responsibility to contribute towards the cost of doing so."

Dana Cornes and Jonathan Van Campen were frustrated at how difficult it was to get help with their damp and mouldy home. Photo: Nick Reed
Dana Cornes and Jonathan Van Campen were frustrated at how difficult it was to get help with their damp and mouldy home. Photo: Nick Reed

The Herald was unable to contact the landlord, as the former property manager was no longer managing the property and his former colleagues were unable to ascertain who had taken over.

The health cost

- this year's 2017 Building Research Association of New Zealand's House Condition Survey showed about half (49 per cent) of all houses were damp and mouldy.

Rental properties tended to be colder, and damper than owner-occupied properties with 56 per cent of rental properties showing mould, compared to 44 per cent among private homes.

Last year a Herald report showed more children died as a result of diseases linked to cold, damp, overcrowded homes than were killed in car crashes or by drowning.

An average 20 children die and 30,000 are hospitalised every year from preventable, housing-related diseases like asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis, compared to ten who died in a crash or from drowning.

Married tenants Dana Cornes and Jonathan Van Campen moved out of their rental due to it being damp and mouldy. Photo: Nick Reed
Married tenants Dana Cornes and Jonathan Van Campen moved out of their rental due to it being damp and mouldy. Photo: Nick Reed

Healthy Homes Bill in law

It was statistics such as these, alongside anecdotal reports of the winter struggles faced by tenants in particular, that lie behind Andrew Little's Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill.

Introduced in October 2015, it passed its first reading in mid-2016, its second reading in mid-2017 and its final reading in November 2017.

REINZ chief executive Bindi Norwell said anything that sought to improve housing standards was a good thing. The new bill would upgrade standards under the Residential Tenancies Act.

"[It] will be of benefit to the health and wellbeing of Kiwis, particularly in relation to respiratory illnesses caused by cold and damp housing."

She said the existing measures did not set out specific standards to ensure warm and dry accommodation. The new law would seek to define adequate methods of heating and insulation, indoor temperature, ventilation and drainage.

However, Norwell said it would require a fine balancing act to ensure landlords could afford to meet the new regulations without passing on the cost to tenants.

Landlords' costs

Property Investors Federation executive officer Andrew King said warmer houses were a good thing.

But he said the new healthy homes law must not implement a one-size fits all approach. He there was a risk it would push up rental prices, and if landlords continued to leave the market then it would reduce options for tenants.

"Over the last year to 18 months I have never heard of so many people exiting the industry, because it's getting too hard."

The housing minister Phil Twyford insisted when the bill passed its third, and final reading, the new minimum standards would not push up the price of renting - and help would be available to landlords facing extra costs.

Speaking before the third reading, Twyford said new standards would see extra costs for landlords of between $3000 and $5000, if they had to insulate from scratch and put in a heat pump.

But he said a $1.2b programme would be set up, over ten years, to give subsidies of up to $2000 to landlords needing to retrofit properties.

The Government would also introduce a winter fuel payment of $140 a week for those on low-incomes to help pay for heating throughout the winter months.

Twyford said the new regulations would not be implemented overnight, but would be phased in over the next 18 months to five years, by which point most landlords would need to ensure rentals had been upgraded to meet the new standards.

While the finer details were still being worked through Twyford said these would include a need to ensure rentals could be kept warm, around 16 to 18 degrees, and dry.

"It will set standards for things like insulation, heating, for example requiring a modern affordable fixed heating source, modern heat burner or a heat pump."

Twyford said certain things like weather-tightness and ventilation would be set by regulations and not in the legislation to ensure it could easily be updated.

To ensure compliance he said the tenancy tribunal would remain a key avenue of recourse, and the Government would "beef up" its current investigations team. An inspection programme would ensure standards were kept.

"We know the complaint-based system is not enough... there is an inherent power imbalance and in a tough market, many tenants just won't complain."

The National Party has criticised the bill as meaningless, saying that legal minimum requirements were already in place.