QUALITY OF HOUSING AFFECTS QUALITY OF LIFE

We spend a significant amount of our lives in our homes. If that home is cold, damp, draughty, leaking, or otherwise uncomfortable then that has a major impact on our health, mood and general quality of life.

The stories we received confirm that many rental homes are of poor quality and that this significantly affects the lives of people who rent. The condition of the home people rented was the most common issue shared, with 62% of stories we received being about quality (or lack thereof). Many powerful stories spoke of living in poor conditions - cold, damp, often unsafe and unfit houses - which seriously affected other areas of tenants’ lives.

I’ve been in the home for about a month now and instantly my son got sick due to how cold the home was. Sure there’s an open fire place which cost about $100 a fortnight in wood, paper, fire starters to keep us warm. I want to point out that an open fire place isn’t enough to keep a three bedroom home warm, not to mention the floors are wooden!

I tried my very best to keep the house as warm as possible, putting sheets over the doors and under door frames to stop drafts seeping in, but it still did not feel good enough. As a mum I was completely heart broken knowing how cold this home was is the reason my son had this cold he could not shake off… I broke down in tears. I had had enough.

It dampens your motivation I believe because you’re just so cold you don’t want to do anything.
— Fiona

COLD AND DAMPNESS

A key factor in keeping a place warm is adequate levels of insulation. Yet only 30% of respondents said they had ceiling or underfloor insulation. This is comparable with the finding of the HRV State of the Home Survey, in which 36 percent of renters reported having insulation in their homes. (However it is well below the finding of the BRANZ 2015 House Condition Survey, in which independent assessors found that 77 percent of rentals had at least 70mm of ceiling insulation.)

Cold and dampness are ideal conditions for toxic mould to grow. Many people highlighted the level of mould in the place they live. A person who wished to remain anonymous, living in Christchurch, said:

We have been living in a cold, damp and mouldy house for over two years now. We have three children that are constantly getting sick - we have to throw away quite a bit of kids toys and clothes etc due to mould. Our conservatories are always leaking when it rains, still failed attempts from landlord on repairing them with Selleys No More Gaps or something like that resulting in the lost use of both conservatories. There is no ventilation in the bathroom and toilet resulting in mould and water dripping from ceiling.

Our house is so cold during winter as there
is no insulation it gets to -4 in the roof and 4 degrees in the room as we can’t afford to run heating due to very high power bills. Without heating, we pay $450 a week on rent and our power roughly the same for the month. And we have problems with rodents.

Recently I contacted Tenants Protection Association they help with tenancy protection and had a council environmentalist assess the house. He said it’s habitable but not for little children. Also our oven is in ammable wood shelf thing with no ventilation and we have sent a 14 day remedy notice and still haven’t heard anything back yet.

Often commentators and landlords blame tenants for not ventilating their home. Yet we heard many stories from people desperately following all the advice they can get, yet still being unable to keep the mould away. As one person renting in Auckland put it:

Our carpets are now growing mould despite our best efforts to keep the house dry. Regardless of what people suggest we do, such as open doors and windows, dry clothes outside, utilise extractor fans, etc etc .. We do all of this, but we still have mould problems.

Existing research backs up what the stories tell us and shows that rental housing tends to be in poorer condition than owner-occupied housing. Poor maintenance can expose renters to hazards and cold, damp conditions that affect their health. The BRANZ 2015 House Condition Survey found that of the rental properties assessed, more than one third felt damp, and mould was present in more than half of them. Around one quarter had less than 70mm of insulation in the roof space. Unsurprisingly, many renters report feeling cold or paying high heating bills. In the 2017 HRV State of the Home Survey, half of renters reported using as little heating as possible to reduce costs.

GETTING SICK

Trying to raise children in cold, damp homes was a common theme throughout the experiences shared. Sadly, many of the stories featuring children referred to health problems exacerbated by substandard housing. Here’s one story from someone who wanted to remain anonymous:

We moved into our house in Massey when I was six months pregnant with our first child. It was spring. We soon noticed we wouldn’t be able to move him into the bedroom intended to be the baby’s room because the mould was so bad. I was washing the walls weekly and any furniture made of porous wood pulp material became damp, swollen and covered in mould. Fortunately we managed to convince the property manager that it was not OK to house a baby, and they organised to install a basic ventilation system (not heating). But the house was still terribly hard to heat. It cost us around $380 a month in power and on top of that we had to pay for firewood, which was hard on one income at the time. There was still a degree of dampness despite a DVS which actually did a lot to improve the situation. But bedrooms were still gathering mould and there was paint peeling from the ceiling and walls. A perpetual leak from the bathroom meant the floorboards were always damp, and an issue with the piping from the shower meant that the pipe would often burst and one wall downstairs was often sodden. And the ‘sick house syndrome’ we believe contributed to our son’s asthma and a case of very bad pneumonia which saw him hospitalised for a week.

People described constantly getting sick, and being forced to take time off work and school, never properly recovering. When staying in the house makes you unwell, more time at home doesn’t help.

A person living in Wellington, said:

The flat is extremely damp and I believe there is mould under the floors. The bathroom has been flooded at some stage and the floor rotted out round the bath and has been badly repaired. My tiny room is next to the bathroom. I am in my fourth month of flu and respiratory infections. I’m exhausted. Our landlord was meant to insulate last spring but didn’t. I cleaned the gutters out... I air the house... Use a dehumidifier... I think my flatmate survives because she is away a lot... Meanwhile I have never been this sick in my life. There is no insulation and the landlord has purposely withheld the latest agreement which is meant to outline what insulation is in a house.

Of note were the stories from renters affected by disability or chronic illness. They shared how cold, damp housing impacted their lives:

“As a single elderly female on a sickness benefit (PTSD and anxiety) I am always at the mercy of rentals that are low end - converted garages or outhouses that do not meet building standards... I ... am becoming sicker and sicker due to poor food, leaky drafty flat, anxiety about losing my home.”

“I have psychiatric health issues and I am very underweight so winter is a very hard time for me as I get very cold… A cold, damp home compounds the mental and physical stresses on an already stressed system.”

“My mum who had terminal cancer, my son and I were accepted for a very beautiful villa…. We informed the landlord and she had told us that the heat pump was brand new and that the house was fully insulated. My mum ended up with pneumonia twice…She ended up passing away in that house.”

While these stories are individually very sad, when these health impacts are considered over the entire population of renters the results are extremely serious. Numerous studies have shown that cold, damp conditions negatively affect renters’ health and mental health. Renters have been shown to take more sick days than owner-occupiers. Each year, over 40,000 children are hospitalized with respiratory and communicable diseases that have housing as a contributing factor. Further, an additional 1,600 New Zealanders die during winter months, a spike in mortality that is less pronounced in countries with warmer housing. The stories above are lived examples of these statistics, highlighting that quality standards demand urgent attention.  

MENTAL HEALTH IMPACTS OF SUBSTANDARD HOUSING

Dealing with cold, damp or unsafe homes every day can be highly stressful, and take a toll on people’s mental health.

The flat was drafty, cold, mouldy. The floors sagged and tilted, the stairs down were unlit… Two dehumidifiers were on constant rotation throughout the house - one night in each room, and full to the brim by morning. … I would be very confident in saying this flat helped extend my five colds that year, and certainly didn’t provide a safe space for me to rest after working 8am - 8pm towards completing the final year of my BSc. That year I also developed anxiety, and went through depressive periods - warmth and sunshine would not have gone amiss.
— Anonymous story from someone living in Wellington.
“My housing has effected my mental health so much so that we had to leave and return to my parents house to relieve my stress and help with my depression and anxiety.”
— Somone renting in Auckland

HAZARDS

Many shared stories of living in places that were downright dangerous.

It was the middle of winter, and the house was freezing. We had no power at all. The management company did nothing to offset the fact that the house was unlivable during that time until I pushed them on it. And even then they made it sound like they were doing us a favor. We could have literally died if we’d taken a bath due to the faulty wiring, but a reduction in rent during the time in which the power was off was a big deal for them.

Rose from Wellington shares her story of the daily treacherous journey to get the front door:

I live in a rental house with my partner and our young children. I am pregnant with our third baby. After many years of living in Wellington I am used to unusual access to flats - up and down stairs/paths etc. However, our current house is worse than most. It is up 25 very steep and slippery wooden steps. The landing at the top has horizontal bars which create a very rickety barrier to the concrete metres below. The bars are very tempting and easy for my small children to climb.  Architect and builder friends have told me that the steps and landing are very poor quality and by their design would never meet current or even old building codes. Our landlord is cantankerous and unpredictable - I dread when things break as he always makes a big deal of it. I know it’s not even worth raising this as an issue with him. So instead, here’s what we do: We spend our own time and money trying to make the steps safer (using exit mould, grit tape and grit paint - this has all made little difference.) And worst of all I worry about my kids and my safety every time we go up and down.

A Christchurch renter shares the hazards her flat endured due to neglected maintenance:

At one point we had sewage literally spilling out by the back door. Not kidding - when we flushed the toilet it came out - poo, toilet paper and all - by the back steps because the pipe was blocked and also broken… If I remember rightly we were paying $750 per week for the place.

Steph’s story mentions living with a dangerous stove as a heat source:

My last rental was uninsulated. It had a potbelly stove at least, but it was a fire hazard. There was a huge hole rusted through on the back and the flume blew around on windy days and the top half was just sitting on the base unattached. The landlady’s idea of fixing the fireplace was by using a toxic exhaust glue that filled the house with toxic fumes every time I lit the fire.

EXISTING REGULATIONS AND HOUSING QUALITY

These stories highlight that existing regulations are not adequate to ensure houses are healthy and safe. Although by law, landlords must keep properties in a reasonable state of repair, the above examples show this is not always followed. Many renters live in hazardous homes.

Further, existing regulations do not ensure properties are warm and dry. Recent amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act have required some improvements to housing standards: landlords must now disclose whether the property is insulated, and install fire alarms. Insulation to 1978 standards will be compulsory in all rental homes from July 2019. However, these changes are unlikely to prevent the extent of problems renters describe in the stories above. Also, the onus remains on tenants to complain if their landlord does not comply, which is problematic.