Housing is a Health Issue

Poor quality housing is housing that doesn’t do it’s job well. So what’s the job of a house? I think it’s to keep us warm, dry and healthy.

Condensation on windows is just one symptom of home not performing well

These are the basics. Above that it’s a place for us to live; grow, entertain, learn, rest and share happy times with friends and family.

Perhaps sometimes we get these objectives a bit mixed up and focus more on what we think will make us and our friends most impressed in the short term (large garages, flash bench-tops, media rooms etc.), and forget about the health of ourselves and our families.

Or perhaps we just don’t know what the possible impact of houses can be.

Benefits of Being Warm

I’ve discussed before, in reference to EECA’s successful Warm Up New Zealand: Heat Smart (WUNZ) scheme, the benefits of retrofitting insulation to New Zealand’s existing housing stock, the majority of which is drastically under-performing. This benefit is mostly (around 90%) associated with health benefits and the reason the houses are under-performing in their existing state is due to their inability to keep occupants warm, dry and therefore healthy.

For more information about the evaluation and cost benefit of the Warm Up New Zealand programme, see this research by Healthy Housing He Kainga Oranga.

Why do we Have a Problem?

A very good question that I’ve been asked recently, is why is it so hard for us a country or even individual councils to join the dots here? We know that the quality of a large proportion of our existing 1.6 million existing houses is very poor. We know that a healthy temperatures of 18 degrees for living areas and 16 degrees for sleeping areas (as recommended by the World Health Organisation) is often not able to be effectively maintained and that humidity levels are often significantly high leading to excessive levels of visible, toxic mould in our homes.

We also know that we have the second highest rate of asthma in the world!

So why do we have this problem?

Health and Safety

I think part of the problem is that as a whole, we’re still yet to really see housing as a health issue. Most of our building regulations are associated with safety, and while the terms health and safety are often found together in the context of ‘health and safety‘ we’re generally referring to immediate stuff. We don’t want anyone to get injured or killed during the construction or immediately following the completion of a house.

But our houses are still linked to around 1,600 deaths per year because of cold. Our older, colder and damper houses and making us really sick and contributing to increased winter mortality rates.

So poor housing is definitely a health issue.

The second part to the question is, ‘why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?’. Well, the good news is that some people are.

I’ve already mentioned EECA and Energywise. The WUNZ programme has been a great success and long may it (or something similar) continue. At the time of writing, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 homes have been touched by the scheme. That leaves at least another 800,000 of the 1 million sub-standard homes to go.

The Good News

In addition to this, many councils have now introduced a rates scheme whereby home owners can pay for the investment over a nine year period through their rates. And if you move before the nine years is up, the loan stays with the house. This is a great add on to the WUNZ programme that acknowledges that even with up to $1,300 in subsidy funding, the upfront investment of an insulation upgrade is not easily obtainable by many households.

Councils that currently have a rates scheme attached to WUNZ are:

What’s next?

Could more be done? I suspect so. And I think a big part of addressing the issue will involve re-framing poor housing as a health issue as much as it is a building industry issue.