Parents aren’t asking for the earth, just a safe, affordable home for their kids
The latest announcement from Housing Minister Phil Twyford on the new Healthy Homes standards is really great news. The new standards will mean low-income families who are renting will get homes that are able to be heated more efficiently and are better safe-guarded against dampness. Anything to stop children getting sick and being hospitalised in winter because of poor housing conditions deserves encouragement and celebration.
But housing standards and the critical link between incomes and living standards are issues that aren’t mutually exclusive, and they must be considered and improved in tandem. Homes are far from affordable, and electricity is expensive.
When I was a young renter sans dependents, I shared a gorgeous 19th century Wellington villa with a bunch of flatmates. It was elevated with high ceilings and featured its original kauri floors and wooden sash windows. With the kitchen and bathroom modernised and a recent exterior paint job it appeared in great shape.
In winter it was comparable to an icebox. The elevation protected it from dampness. But it didn’t stop condensation pouring through the windows, leaving puddles on the sills which were permanently laden with towels. There was no insulation, the fireplace was off limits, and the gas heater, mounted to the wall in the main living area, sent warm air to the loft bedroom and nowhere else. Running it constantly was ineffective and our power bill was hefty.
But I wasn’t a parent then. I shared with three other young single non-parents. We had the luxury of huddling in our (separate) beds with our respective heaters and electric blankets and DVD players all winter long without a care in the world, except a quibble over the power bill occasionally. Though we also had the luxury of four separate incomes to apportion parts of towards expenses.
Families on low-incomes don’t have any of those luxuries. If they are on a benefit, stretching the budget to manage winter expenses can be an impossibility. While the Winter Energy Payment has provided some relief, the paltry $30 or so a week only goes so far and it’s quickly consumed if there’s a rent increase. Families with children may end up in huddling in one room together, with the curtains closed and the heater on to save on power. Yes, it’s a surefire way of spreading illness and increasing moisture - but it’s a matter of keeping everyone warm when there’s no choice except for heating just one room at a time.
Late into my pregnancy with our first child my partner and I moved into what we thought would be an adequate family home, but soon the fresh lick of ceiling paint was peeling, exposing the mould damage beneath. The furniture in the room we intended for our baby absorbed moisture and furry mould grew on everything. I washed cabinets and drawers and walls weekly. We kept our son’s cot in our room the whole of his first year to avoid exposing him to the cold and damp.
Fortunately, for a short period of our tenancy we had a really good property manager, who had five children of her own and was no stranger to renting herself. When she realised the extent to which the house was damp she urged the owner to install a ventilation system. This helped remarkably - but not entirely - with the dampness but the mould spores remaining meant the house was still an unhealthy environment for adults, let alone babies and children.
And it was so hard to keep warm. Despite keeping a fire going daily, the cost of power was astonishing. We were stressed, sick frequently, and there was no money to move house.
During that time, I was able to access our full Working for Families (tax credits) entitlements, including an additional “In-work” payment of $72.50 a week - which was sufficient enough to support us with our huge power costs. Even though I wasn't ‘working’ at that point (or not the kind of working that our policies consider most valuable) my partner's hours of paid work made me somehow more deserving of this additional support than a sole mother at home raising her baby. If I were in the same situation nowadays, I'd also be eligible for an additional $60 a week since Labour instated a “Best Start” payment for every newborn in their first year, which the sole mum would also get, but I’d still be the better off - in terms of social supports - through receiving the significant “In-Work” tax credit amount of $72.50.
Judith Collins’ and the New Zealand Property Investors’ Association’s claims that the costs of implementing the new standards will simply be passed onto tenants just don’t stand up. Landlords will hike your rent up every six months if they please, because they’re entitled to - the law says so. I’m sorry to say, landlords - your personal concerns with profit and long-term goals don’t marry up to social responsibility.
My family and I subsequently rented, for two years, a home which had the chimney condemned before our first winter there. As our luck had it, the house was also uninsulated and freezing. The landlords - concerned for the wellbeing of our children and keen not to have us move out anytime soon - responded by installing a heat pump for us. Despite the thousands they outlaid, our rent stayed the same throughout our tenancy. In contrast, when we were raising small children on a single income, at our previous tenancy rent had increased by $80 a week from the beginning to the end of our lease. Collins’ warning is just a futile reminder that many investors have nothing but lining their own pockets as a priority (while some are good honest folk that have a social conscience).
So while I am really very pleased with the latest announcements on healthy homes, which will surely go a long way toward making rental homes healthier for tenants, including children and babies, there are still serious concerns that remain unattended. Inadequacy of family income, including retaining the discriminatory criteria for the In-Work tax credit, tenancy law that is weighted in landlords’ favour, a lack of affordable homes and rising prices - all of these things must be addressed urgently.