Originally published on Stuff.co.nz at 20:28pm on 30 May, 2022
By Ethan Te Ora

Thousands of potentially damp or mouldy homes went unchecked because Government reporting processes couldn’t guarantee anonymity and tenants feared landlord retaliation.

The Healthy Homes Initiative (HHI) identified 25,000 poor quality rentals over a period of nine years, often referring families to a GP when those homes exacerbated health conditions.

Yet only 41 of those homes were ever investigated by Tenancy Services – a strike rate of about 0.16%. There’s a simple reason for the lack of follow-up: tenants are too fearful to give the go-ahead.

“The landlord is allowed to ask – and the Ministry will tell them – who made the complaint,” says housing researcher Nevil Pierse, who sits on the governance board of Well Homes, a Wellington-based provider for the initiative.

“People are afraid – rightly, in my opinion – that the landlord will then take retaliatory action.”

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), which oversees Tenancy Services, says its Tenancy Compliance and Investigations team (TCIT) works closely with the providers from the Healthy Homes Initiative. Those providers, however, cannot make referrals without the consent of tenants, TCIT spokesperson Dan Herlihy​ said.

When consent isn’t given, the provider can make an anonymised referral “about the landlord and alleged breaches”, which might later feed into the TCIT team’s work – but won’t necessarily result in an investigation.

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick said referrals to GPs would “almost definitely” point to homes which failed Healthy Homes standards. Image: Ricky Wilson/Stuff

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick​ said the enforcement process was “overly complicated and unwieldy”, and renters were the ones failed by it.

“It is utterly appalling that we have houses in this country that we know are making people sick, and we have not made transformational changes to prevent that.”

She called on the Government to implement a rental Warrant of Fitness (WOF) – a tool that would back up the Healthy Homes standards – and a register of landlords and property managers to track breaches.

Those standards first became law in July 2019, and include minimum standards around heating, insulation, ventilation, drainage and moisture levels in rental properties.

Otago University associate professor Nevil Pierse supported a rental Warrant of Fitness, and suggested the current system was like “waiting for the crash to happen” then checking whether the car was road-worthy. Image: Kevin Stent/Stuff

All private rentals must now comply within 90 days of any new tenancy, while houses rented by Kāinga Ora have until July next year to comply.

Pierse said the standards were good – the current system for enforcing them wasn’t. The absence of a rental WOF was like “waiting for the crash to happen, then checking whether the car was safe to have on the road”.

Pierse estimated 85% of homes identified through the HHI wouldn’t comply with Healthy Homes standards – about 21,000 homes.

Providers would send the landlord a letter – with the tenant’s permission – including a list of actions to make the house warmer. “There’s a very high overlap between [those suggestions] and Healthy Homes standards,” Pierse said.

At that stage, about 40% of landlords would act – up from about 30% since before Healthy Homes standards came into force. That was generally where the conversation ended, with the majority of tenants opting against escalating the situation further to Tenancy Services.

Herlihy said landlords who didn’t comply with Healthy Homes standards faced penalties of up to $7,200 – or $50,000 for large-scale boarding house landlords.

The Government doesn’t collect data on how many rentals meet the standards, however, and properties are not required to be assessed by third parties to verify that they comply.

Renters United spokesperson Geordie Rogers ​said this showed the Government “wasn’t committed to enforcing the rights of renters”.

He questioned whether MBIE was the best home for Tenancy Services. “The idea that [Tenancy Services] sits inside a Ministry whose goal is to unlock the potential of business – in other words, extract funds from tenants – suggests tenants living in safe and healthy homes isn’t a priority.”

The Healthy Homes Initiative is Government-funded, and started in 2013, operating through community providers contracted to local DHBs. There are nine main providers around the country, with 28 subcontracted providers.

They identify families, working with them to carry out a comprehensive housing assessment, and complete a tailor-made action plan aimed at “a warmer, drier, healthier home”.

Pierse called the initative “a world-class, community-led initiative”. His calculations show the programme prevents 2800 hospitalisations a year.

The programme was aimed at “low income children and whānau”, with a focus on Māori and Pasifika families, he said. “It’s local people talking to local people, and trying to implement solutions that work for them.”

The majority of poor quality homes identified through the HHI were private rentals – about 11,000 homes. The second-largest group was public housing (31% of homes identified).

The remaining living situations were either owner-occupied houses (13%), or arrangements that were classified as “no fixed abode/homeless” (12%).

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