Heating our homes

At this time of year many people retreat to the warm heart of their homes: the one or two rooms where heat from the wood burner or other heater raises the ambient temperature sufficiently for life to continue into the evening.

Bedtime then involves the quickest possible passage through the rest of the house to bed, where an electric blanket perhaps at least takes the chill off the sheets. The air often remains unheated, and below the World Health Organisation recommended minimum of 16degC, providing eight hours of life in a chiller.

For the most part, we shrug off such travails as part of the rich seasonal variety of life in the South. It's up there with choosing to drive on unpassably icy city streets and the tradition of insisting that junior members of our high school communities wear shorts in winter.

But for many, a cold home is a more irreducible and insidious challenge. It grips their homes and exacts a cost.

New Zealand has a high rate of excess winter deaths. About 1600 more New Zealanders die in winter than summer, and fuel poverty is thought to be part of the reason. On top of that, between 25% and 30% of hospital admissions are estimated to be due to poor housing. Last month, a coroner's report found the death of a toddler in South Auckland was at least in part due to the poor condition of her family's state house.

Having voted down a Labour-sponsored Bill that would have introduced minimum standards for all rental properties, a warrant of fitness for homes, the Government this week moved to address the issue. Housing Minister Dr Nick Smith is to strengthen residential tenancy laws to, among other measures, make ceiling and underfloor insulation mandatory in rental properties within four years. State subsidised rentals will get it sooner.

It is a start, and builds on the almost half a billion dollars the Government spent between 2009 and 2013 on the Warm Up New Zealand insulation and heating programme. For that, most credit must go to the Green Party (National dropped the Warm Up initiative in 2013).

Dr Smith's new measures appear pitched to placate; the least that could be expected. He says his Residential Tenancy Act approach is a more pragmatic and efficient way of achieving improvements than introducing a warrant of fitness for housing.

That will only be true if it works, and while it might be the case that ceiling and underfloor insulation will do the trick in Auckland, it is not enough in Dunedin or other parts of the South. Nor will it be sufficient where housing has more serious deficiencies of the sort that would have been picked up by a fitness inspection. In those circumstances, fuel poverty, defined as spending more than 10% of income on heating, will remain.

And what of the privately owned cold homes of the working - and retired - poor? What is the plan there?The approach being championed by Dunedin's Cosy Homes Charitable Trust, supported by the Dunedin City Council and Presbyterian Support among others, is more thoroughgoing. It plans to have every home in the city warm and cosy by 2025. It will take more than just ceiling and underfloor insulation. The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority says houses lose up to a quarter of heating through their walls and up to 30% through windows.

There is strong argument that health savings from warmer homes more than offset the cost of programmes to heat and insulate.

On the other hand, the cost of doing just enough to address the political risks associated with poor housing is likely to be carried by those least able to pay. Children in relatively poorly resourced households will continue to carry compromised health into their adult lives; the elderly continue to turn down their heaters and go to bed.

Turning that around must be the standard against which Dr Smith's plan is measured.

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