Amicus Curiae: Slumming It – The Cost of Curing Our State Housing

Ari Apa, Content Contributor

Maori party co-leader, Marama fox, has labelled the New Zealand Government our country’s biggest ‘slumlord’. The spotlight has been on Housing New Zealand following the death of toddler Emma-Lita Bourne. It was reported that she developed pneumonia partly caused by the cold and damp living conditions of the state house she lived in. Since her tragic death, more and more cases of sub-standard state housing have come to light; giving rise to grave concerns for the lives and health of those living in these houses – especially children.

One recent especially distressing incident was reported by a family offered a new state house when it was made known to Housing New Zealand that the mouldy conditions of their first state house contributed to their seven year old son developing holes in his lungs and an enlarged heart. The family was horrified to discover that the second house was also mouldy. Most disturbingly of all, this second house would have undergone a full maintenance and repair check before being offered to the family – indicating either that the presence of mould was considered acceptable or that the inspection was negligently performed.

The link between damp, cold, and mouldy homes and poor health has been highlighted in several international reports. These conditions have been linked to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses such as asthma, infections and rheumatic fever. Children living in such environments are much more likely to suffer from these preventable illnesses. With five children dying each year in New Zealand as a result of asthma, and over 4800 children admitted to hospital each year for bronchiolitis, the cases recently reported on by the media may only be a fraction of the impact of inadequate housing.

Following the coroner’s report that a cold, damp house may have been a factor in Emma-Lita’s death, Housing New Zealand began an urgent check of its state homes. In just one month, it identified nearly 2,000 properties that require additional maintenance work or an upgrade. However, Alan Johnson, a social policy analyst from the Salvation Army, believes the number is more likely to be between 10,000 and 20,000.  The Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill 2013 introduced by Labour MP Phil Twyford would have introduced requirements that all rental housing (state, social and private) meet minimum health and safety standards in regard to insulation and heating. However, the bill failed at the first reading.

According to the Labour party, it would cost $35 million to get every state house up to an acceptable standard. The government currently spends $300 million a year maintaining state housing. However, the Crown also receives dividends from Housing New Zealand – $90 million in the last 12 months.  Therefore, on average, state houses require $600 worth of repairs to meet the standard argued for by the Labour Party, while government receives $1500 in dividends from each one. This appears to constitute disregard for the obligations owed by the Crown to provide safe housing to its tenants. Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which New Zealand is a party, states that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living. It would appear that the Government is failing to fulfil its obligations at international law.

The Labour Party has called for these Housing New Zealand dividends to be cut, and the money put into repairs and maintenance of state houses instead. This is an apparently logical way to address the dangerous conditions in state housing. There also appears to be a need for a comprehensive policy within Housing New Zealand to ensure that at-risk families are prioritized for house repairs and maintenance. Too many state housing tenants have reported a failure on Housing New Zealand’s part to follow through on maintenance following legitimate complaints and inspections.

It is inconsistent with our country’s image as a supporter of human rights to allow our citizens to live in squalor due to the inaction of the state. The Government should urge Housing New Zealand to review the way it is dealing with this situation.

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