Children's housing needs are too urgent to stall

Our most vulnerable children are being failed by poor policies on housing and the evidence that a much more elaborate response is needed is stacking up, says Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).

The findings by the latest HRV/AUT State of the Home survey should be taken by all Members of Parliament as evidence they should be supporting the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill (No 2) when its second reading is soon to be heard.

The report showed that renters take more time off work through sickness than homeowners, and are having to scrimp on energy use to save money over winter, because their houses aren't energy efficient. Four out of ten New Zealanders are having to reduce their power usage over winter to save money, with at least a third reporting that they had excessive power bills.

Substandard housing and the inability for many households to pay for excessive power costs can have a devastating impact on children’s health and overall life chances.

Of all children who experience income poverty (households earning less than 60% of the national median after housing costs) 45,000 to 50,000 (19%) are likely to be living in social housing, while 130,000 to 135,000 (53%) are living in private rental housing.

Children and young people who have been adversely affected by bad housing may have poor physical and/or mental health, poor educational achievement, and be chronically stressed. These outcomes may be long-term, causing them difficulty in taking up paid work in the future. Premature death is a possibility particularly through chronic illnesses such as bronchiectasis (a condition resulting from chronic lung damage) and rheumatic fever.

The severe lack of social housing means more families are paying rents outside their affordability, rendering them less able to pay higher running costs over the colder months.

Labour’s announcement of a Winter Energy Payment benefiting around one million people, including older people and low-income families would be welcome relief for those many in need, but a much broader and long-term solution to the burgeoning issues associated with poverty for children is needed.

Frank Hogan, housing spokesperson for CPAG says that unless we increase our social housing stock urgently the numbers in need will continue to rise, and the impacts will become more and more apparent.

“The HRV report is a powerful reminder that the impacts of poor housing conditions on our most vulnerable are devastating,” says Hogan.

“New Zealand is in desperate need of thousands of new healthy warm state houses to accommodate the huge numbers on the social housing register, waiting for homes. More than 2000 of these are families with children, who may be living in the worst of conditions in boarding houses, sleeping in garages, tents and cars. Our nation’s leaders cannot in good conscience allow this to continue.”

CPAG submitted on the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill (No 2) in 2016, and said that introducing the minimum standards outlined in Andrew Little's Bill will go a long way to reducing preventable hospital admissions that are costly to children, families and the nation.

But we should be raising support much more significantly for our low-income families.

To improve housing for many families a rental housing Warrant of Fitness is required, so that homes can be warmed efficiently, reducing the impacts on children’s health, and more effective protections for tenants. Family incomes need urgent attention, including raising benefits and tax credits, and ensuring they are indexed to wages, as is done for New Zealand Superannuation.

CPAG is releasing a series of policy priority papers outlining recommendations to improve New Zealand’s healthcare, education, welfare and housing systems. CPAG says that implementing these recommendations will reduce child poverty substantially and improve the lives of all low-income families with children, and meanwhile contribute to a reduction in hospital admissions of children with poverty-related illnesses. The housing paper is due out later this  month.