The cold inside

The new paint and carpet are appreciated, but it is still a cold box with little insulation, Eric...
The new paint and carpet are appreciated, but it is still a cold box with little insulation, Eric Williams says of his Corstorphine state rental. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Prof Philippa Howden-Chapman says that compared with other countries, New Zealand's housing...
Prof Philippa Howden-Chapman says that compared with other countries, New Zealand's housing thermal performance is poor, the cost of electricity and heating is high, and electricity governance light-handed. Photos by ODT.
The Petrie family, (from left) Keiran (5), Caitlyn (8), Alison and Tony Petrie, photographed in...
The Petrie family, (from left) Keiran (5), Caitlyn (8), Alison and Tony Petrie, photographed in 2013 cuddling up in Novatherm polyester insulation which was going to be installed in their Corstorphine home.

Winter is biting deep and heating bills are soaring high. Why, after a six-year, half a billion dollar nationwide home-heating programme are so many of us still living in cold, damp, unhealthy houses? Bruce Munro asks what needs to be done to get real change.

Cold, moisture-laden air flows freely beneath the floorboards of Eric Williams' Dunedin state house.

It would not be such a problem if someone had not stolen the polystyrene underfloor insulation.

But as it is, Mr Williams says it is often colder inside the hilltop Corstorphine house than outside it.

Most winter evenings, the sickness beneficiary hops into bed by 6pm to escape the damp, chilly air seeping through the utilitarian Housing New Zealand-issue carpet.

His bed is in the lounge, well away from the noise of traffic and close to the two-bedroomed property's only installed heat source, a woodburner.

But without insulation underfloor or in the walls, 13-year-old ceiling insulation, and thin curtains over the single-glazed windows, it costs a lot to heat the house.

''I've gone through two metres of wood in a month,'' Mr Williams says.

''You can generate some heat. But it goes away quickly.''

Also living there is Mr Williams' adult son, Jayden.

He has developed an asthmatic wheeze since they moved into the house in May, his father says.

This week, after weeks of apparent inaction, Housing New Zealand staff visited and told Mr Williams underfloor insulation would be installed.

He might even get new ceiling insulation.

The fireplace was not part of the discussion.

''Our job is to provide an adequate heat source,'' an HNZ spokesman said.

''[Heating] affordability; the onus is on the tenant.''

Concerns about the poor quality of Otago's homes are not limited to state housing.

Presbyterian Support Otago's 2011 report on poverty says many private rental properties are also cold and costly.

Nor is it restricted to rentals. Owner-occupied houses in the region are, on average, old by New Zealand standards and poorly insulated and heated by international standards.

It is costing us, in all sorts of ways.

Almost half of Otago households are affected by fuel poverty; defined as the need to spend more than 10% of household income to adequately heat the home.

Some foot the bill by cutting back elsewhere.

But a sizeable chunk in the South have never been willing to pay to see the indoor thermometer rise above the early teens.

And a growing number simply cannot afford what world health guidelines deem healthy temperature levels.

Instead, they pay through a greater number of days sick, lower educational attainment, reduced income, increased physical and mental health issues, and shorter lives. Between 25% and 30% of hospital admissions are due to poor housing.

Each year, 1600 more New Zealanders die during winter than during summer. Excess winter deaths are almost three times more likely in the coldest 25% of houses than in the warmest quarter.

Last month, a coroner's report stated that the death of toddler Emma-Lita Bourne in South Auckland last year was due in part to the poor condition of the state house she lived in.

There is growing recognition of the serious problems being caused by our poorly built and insulated housing stock.

Since 2009, the Government has spent $447 million on its Warm Up New Zealand home insulation and heating programme.

By the time it winds up early next year, more than 280,000 houses will have received subsidised or free insulation.

Local government in many parts of the country has also been involved.

Dunedin City Council has offered rates advances enabling qualifying households to get insulation and heating products and then pay the council back at an affordable rate.

It has made a difference for families such as the Petries, a family of four who live a few blocks away from Mr Williams' rental, in Corstorphine.

Two years ago, Tony and Alison Petrie used the rates advance to get underfloor and ceiling insulation and a heatpump installed in what had been their draughty, cold house.

''We are both working, but we're both low income earners,'' Mrs Petrie says.

''There would have been no chance of getting this done without it.''

Now, the house is still cold in the mornings, but it heats up quickly.

Mrs Petrie's health problems have become more manageable and their son's respiratory condition has also eased.

Despite these efforts, however, the consensus in many quarters is that it is all too little and too slow to bring about the significant change needed to really improve the quality of houses and lives.

Plenty of money has been spent but it has not reduced the number of households in fuel poverty in Otago, Scott Willis says.

Mr Willis is manager of the Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust, a trustee of Dunedin's Cosy Homes Charitable Trust and on the energy committee of the Otago Chamber of Commerce.

There are still many houses that do not have underfloor and ceiling insulation.

But without also having wall insulation, double-glazed windows and curtains, households in the South are not being lifted out of fuel poverty, he says.

''Ceiling and underfloor is not even the minimum we need,'' Mr Willis says.

''We estimate that 45% of Dunedin homes are in fuel poverty or would be if they heated their homes appropriately. That's about 18,000 homes. Underfloor and ceiling insulation does not touch that figure, because without wall insulation and double glazing the cost of heating is still high. We can say we've reduced the severity of the fuel poverty, but we haven't got them out of fuel poverty.''

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull gives a categorical ''No'' when asked whether enough has been done fast enough.

''The standard of some of Dunedin's housing is a major health risk for the community,'' Mr Cull says.

The mayor believes it is also hampering economic development; scaring off businesses and workers who perceive it is hard to find warm, dry housing in the city.

''Absolutely not,'' is Dunedin South MP Clare Curran's response to the question of whether enough is being done.

The Labour parliamentarian says she has ''case after case'' of people contacting her with concerns about the poor state of their housing and their health.

There are good landlords, and Housing New Zealand staff are often trying to do their best, but overall there has been a lack of attention paid to the state of housing by both landlords and the Government, Ms Curran says.

So what is required? And what is being done about it?

Nationally, support continues to grow for a rental property warrant of fitness (WOF). Prof Philippa Howden-Chapman believes a WOF for housing is long-overdue.

The professor of public health at the University of Otago, Wellington, is director of He Kainga Oranga Housing and Health Research Programme and director of the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities.

She says housing regulations have not kept up with the reality that an increasing number of New Zealanders are raising families in rental accommodation.

''There's nothing to require people to provide heaters in the housing, there's been nothing to require them to insulate the houses. If you can't afford it it's tough bikkies,'' Prof Howden-Chapman says.

''This is very different from Europe where most of the rentals are in apartments with distributed heating systems such as boilers which put heating through the building.''

New Zealand has not given due attention to the importance of its housing infrastructure, despite homes being ''the most important environment for encouraging health''.

A housing WOF is ''a fantastic idea'', she says.

''In the same way we should have standards for cars or restaurants, we should have standards for houses.''

The Government, however, is not convinced.

It voted down a Labour-sponsored Bill which would have set minimum living standards, including insulation and heating, for all rental properties.

Instead, on Thursday, National's Housing and Building Minister Dr Nick Smith announced the Residential Tenancies Act would be strengthened.

The new law will, among other measures, require retrofitting of ceiling and underfloor insulation in rental homes during the next four years.

Heating does not get a mention.

''This package is a more pragmatic and efficient way of improving housing standards than a housing warrant of fitness scheme,'' Dr Smith said.

''Such a scheme would cost $100 million per year, or $225 per house for inspections alone, and these costs would be passed on to tenants in rents.''

Whether, in fact, a housing WOF would push up rents or drive landlords out of the market, is about to be tested.

Last week, Prof Howden-Chapman got confirmation of funding from the Health Research Council to investigate whether higher standards would make housing less affordable.

Her researchers will be comparing six city councils; three that signal they will require minimum standards for housing, and three that do not.

They will look at whether it has any impact on tenant health, rents and availability of housing.

Dunedin City Council, which has been involved in investigating the feasibility of housing WOF schemes, has been asked to participate, city council events and community development manager Rebecca Williams says.

The council's community and environment committee has indicated it will take part, if it can have access to the results.

Prof Howden-Chapman expects the study will show a WOF scheme will improve quality without pushing up costs.

Preliminary results are expected within a couple of years.

Locally, we are still at the beginning of a long, important, and costly journey, Mr Willis says.

One of the big challenges is changing the way Otago residents think about housing, both rental and owner-occupied, he says.

''Many people think, `We're Southerners. There's nothing wrong with being chilly. Just put on another jersey','' Mr Willis says.

''When it's socially acceptable to live in cold, damp homes, it's hard to get people to take steps to do something about it.''

Changing the energy culture will take time.

It is done by changing the norms, practices and materials - the accepted ways of thinking and doing - associated with energy use. When one of those three interdependent ''legs'' changes then the others tend to follow suit.

''If it is no longer acceptable to live in a cold damp house, then the materials used and some of the practices will change,'' Mr Willis explains.

''Or, if we switch off lights and stop leaving the computer on overnight and put the dishwasher on the night rate, then we recognise the value of saving money so we might invest in more insulation or plan for doubleglazing.''

The investment required to complete this shift to better housing and healthier lives will be greater than the cost of the $224 million Forsyth Barr Stadium, Mr Willis says.

''But it won't come from any one place, that's the difference,'' he says.

''It will come from people investing in businesses doing good things in the city. It will come from financing opportunities that allow people to invest in their property without costing an arm and a leg.

''There's a whole lot of ways in which achieving the outcome of warm, cosy homes and healthy living environments will require investment that gives economic as well as health benefits.

''It's not ratepayers paying for it, as with the stadium. It will be through a whole range of mechanisms.''

Aiming to help realise this gargantuan goal is the Cosy Homes Charitable Trust.

''It's exciting,'' Mr Willis says.

''For the first time ever, Dunedin is developing a unified approach to this issue.''

The trust aims to increase the collaboration and efficiency of efforts to tackle the city's significant health and housing-related problems Cosy Homes trustees include Mr Willis, Mr Cull and Gillian Bremner, chief executive of Presbyterian Support Otago.

The Cosy Homes goal is ''every home in Dunedin warm and cosy by 2025''.

It is an enormous task. But trust chairman Mr Cull believes it is achievable.

''I would prefer sooner than that,'' Mr Cull says.

''The costs of delay far outweigh the cost of remedying the situation.''

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