web analytics
The Standard

1600 Dead Again

Written By: - Date published: 1:52 pm, May 17th, 2009 - 32 comments
Categories: greens, health, housing - Tags:

Each year and every year, around 1600 New Zealanders die prematurely because we live in cold damp houses. This “excess winter death rate” is four times higher than the road toll. They die, most especially the young, unwell, disabled and elderly, of respiratory illnesses, strokes and heart attacks because far too much of our housing stock is cheap, crappily built rubbish. By contrast, really cold countries like Russia have almost zero excess winter deaths.

Our welfare state is a miserly one. Our total social housing stock is only 5%, a very low provision by OECD standards, and much of it is old and in dire need of upgrading. Worse still the building regulations around heating, insulation and efficiency are effectively a sick-making joke. No form of heating is actually required, other than a 3-pin plug on a wall somewhere. Even the latest new building codes with marginally improved insulation and double glazing measures, are a feeble catch-up on world standards, and apply to new houses only. They do nothing for the 99% of houses people actually live in.

The whole commercial building industry is totally geared to place almost ZERO value on the real costs, both direct and indirect, of owning and living the houses they build. The industry only cares about making a profit today, while the buildings they create are in use for 90 years or more.

The market creates huge disconnects. Tenants typically pay for all their energy costs, while the capital burden of any improvements falls onto the owner, meaning that the landlord has very little incentive to spend the typical $15-25k needed to bring a home up to a reasonable standard. Worse still even if that money is spent, the valuation of the home is likely to only improve a small fraction of that, say $2-5k, making it very difficult to fund the improvements from the bank. With many, many rentals running cash-flow negative, the money has to come directly out of the landlord’s own pocket if it is to happen. Given that most landlords are just ordinary working people themselves, and even with good intentions, there remains a big hurdle to leap over.

As for HNZ, I’m not sure what excuse they have.

It all stands as a terrible indictment of the so called ‘market system’ and a total failure of political will. The ‘Green New Deal’ document addresses this issue directly, and is a very pointed challenge to this government. Housing in this country is a massive market failure by almost every measure of social equity, human health, environmental sustainability, and plain old commonsense. And this winter; we can count on another 1600 New Zealanders dying quite unnecessarily, because it would appear that their lives don’t really matter that much.

32 comments on “1600 Dead Again”

  1. Draco T Bastard 1

    while the buildings they create are in use for 90 years or more.

    No they won’t be because the standards of the building materials just aren’t good enough and neither are the building standards themselves. My nephew’s a builder and he puts more faith in his 30 year old, cheaply built house, than in any building that he works on today. His two biggest gripes are that the materials are crap and the standards that he’s forced to build to are worse. He predicts that most buildings built today will have leaky building syndrome in about 10 years time.

  2. bilbo 2

    Your conclusions are at variance from the clinical study you link to …. their conclusion is

    “EWM in NZ is substantial and at the upper end of the range observed internationally. Interventions to reduce EWM are important, but the surprising lack of variation in EWM by ethnicity, region and deprivation, provides little guidance for how such mortality can be reduced.”

  3. andrei 3

    Maybe there’s flawed logic at work here.

    Mortality goes up during weather extremes both during heat waves and cold. snaps

    Given NZ doesn’t have many heat waves compared to cold snaps the answer could be that.

    I don’t think there is any political mileage to be gained out of this, and it is certainly not an indictment of the ‘market system’. as it stands

    • felix 3.1

      Proper insulation mitigates the extremes of both heat AND cold.

      It’s exactly the same issue.

  4. charlie 4

    Meanwhile the refurbishing of existing state house stocks looks to be all talk and no doing, from an initial 30 or so state house upgrades that were announced here in Whanganui only 5 have been completed and 7 have contracts in place. The other 20+ seem to have offed themselves into the ether with no contracts on the horizon and PAE are staying mum.

    btw, anyone who is thinking about winning contracts for this work think again because PAE is a shit of an outfit to deal with. .

  5. Nick 5

    I just came back from the supermarket in Newtown in Wellington, where the houses are 100 year old workers cottages shoe horned onto postage stamp sections. These structures were not built to last as long as they have and are generally wood from the wholesale cutting down of our native forests. They are not fit in my mind for human habitation even when refurbed BUT in todays housing market these inner city properties still attract a huge premium. IMHO they should all be bulldozed….but we are still stuck with a false concept of the market value and worth of these dog boxes.

    The physical problem we have is that the earthquake environment we live in restricts how we build and with what materials. I would advocate that we rethink the economics and utility of housing, have a really good think about sustainability and the social implications of housing. Its an area where neither the market nor government have exclusivity of answers. We have however done this before, it was the State housing project. We now know enough to make the resulting buildings healthier, it just requires a government with the vision to initiate.

  6. tsmithfield 6

    The article states that 1600 more die in winter than in summer. From that simple statistic the authors of the study seem to be basing their conclusion that poor housing quality is increasing mortality.

    To put all that difference down to housing quality is illogical. People are exposed to colder temperatures when they go out of their houses in winter regardless of the quality of their houses. I suspect there probably are more driving accidents due to more hazardous road conditions over this period too. There is a greater spread of viruses due for the tendency for people to congregate together indoors during winter, thus more people getting sick and dying. In this case, better quality housing may actually INCREASE the likelihood of death due to the fact that people would prefer to congregate together in warmer surroundings than colder ones, thus increasing the spread of disease in warmer homes.

    When the multitude of confounding variables (such as those above) have been partialled out, I suspect only a handful if any of the 1600 deaths could be attributed to housing quality. Thus the study seems to be launching wildly into the realms of speculation.

    On the face of it a stupid and speculative study.

    • bilbo 6.1

      “The article states that 1600 more die in winter than in summer. From that simple statistic the authors of the study seem to be basing their conclusion that poor housing quality is increasing mortality.”

      They have done no such thing … they state that…

      “EWM in NZ is substantial and at the upper end of the range observed internationally. Interventions to reduce EWM are important, but the surprising lack of variation in EWM by ethnicity, region and deprivation, provides little guidance for how such mortality can be reduced.’

      It’s Redlogix who has drawn rather dubious conclusions.

    • Anthony Karinski 6.2

      If you look at the study you will find it addresses relevant issues such as the methods employed, discussion of relevant research from other studies, and areas of uncertainty requiring further research. They do for instance discuss the flu and model causes of death (cardiovascular, respiratory etc.). They don’t however attribute the 1600 deaths to poor housing. This is one of the areas they suggest further research on.

    • RedLogix 6.3

      Prof. Philippa Howden-Chapman at DL last week made it clear that the authors of the study (close colleagues) and herself, believed that the large majority of the EWM is attributable to poor quality housing.

      Moreover she went on to outline some of the very direct political reasons WHY so much of our housing stock is so bad. But that is the stuff of another post.

      • bilbo 6.3.1

        I pretty sure a proportion of the EWM is attributable to poor housing and a proportion is due to high power prices etc …. just that one cannot conclusively make those claims on the back of the study you quote.

  7. tsmithfield, clearly not all 1600 additional deaths are attributable to poor housing, but certainly a decent chunk of them would be.

    I remember in 7th form my calculus teacher was from Russia – Siberia even (Novosibirsk I think). Yet she said that she’s never been as cold as she got in Auckland. This was simply because we live in denial that it gets cold in winter and build rubbish houses.

    I am stuck in a nasty situation at the moment myself. I live in a nice half-villa (rented). Yet it’s bloody freezing at night, with our heaters having somewhat little impact at all. What incentive is there for my landlord to insulate this house though? Very little I would think as it doesn’t save their power bill.

    Someone suggested a while back that the level of insulation should be included in a house’s LIM report. In a similar way to how cars for sale now need to show their fuel efficiency and how much an average person driving that car would spend on fuel a year, something similar should be done for houses and their power bills.

    Regarding state housing, I think for so many reasons it is essential for Housing New Zealand to build like crazy over the next few years. For a start, it would create a huge number of jobs (28,000 jobs for each 6000 houses built according to the Greens). Secondly, the increased supply of housing would bring housing prices down to a more affordable level for first home buyers (as not all HNZC houses built would need to be kept for subsidised housing). Thirdly, land development is clearly a profitable business so it wouldn’t necessarily impose a particularly high cost on government to undertake such a programme of massive HNZC land development.

    Housing New Zealand own something like 26,000 houses in Auckland. Often these are on unnecessarily large sections and would be very suitable for some level of intensification. Many of the houses are reaching the end of their economic lifespan. Recent HNZC developments (such as Talbot Park in Glen Innes) have been huge successes and have been built to a really high standard. There is enormous potential for additional stock to be built.

    • RedLogix 7.1

      I remember in 7th form my calculus teacher was from Russia – Siberia even (Novosibirsk I think). Yet she said that she’s never been as cold as she got in Auckland.

      Absolutely. I have heard exactly the same story from a woman who hailed from a small village in the Altai Mountains area (sort of near Novosirbirsk) where the snow was often meters deep all winter.

    • George D 7.2

      I’ve lived in houses where a glass of water would freeze overnight.

      It shouldn’t be in the LIM report. Fuck that “informed consumer choice” neoliberal crap. That’s a half-hearted intervention that in any other country would being suggested by parties to the right of National (eg. ACT). No disrespect to you Jarbury, you’re hardly alone with this suggestion.

      Regulate. Insulate, within the next five years, or you lose the privilege of selling your house.

      Policy in NZ is complete rubbish because Labour are chicken-shit, and the Greens water things down to peasant soup in order to get them by that bunch of neoliberals. Labour are scared of doing what’s right (and will be popular) because they don’t want to have to fight the reactionaries, the capitalists, and the idiots. They win by default.

  8. I’m interested in the conclusion of the study:

    “EWM in NZ is substantial and at the upper end of the range observed internationally. Interventions to reduce EWM are important, but the surprising lack of variation in EWM by ethnicity, region and deprivation, provides little guidance for how such mortality can be reduced.”

    So on the basis of the study why are you blaming housing? If it really is just about housing and weather won’t Auckland have a lower death rate then Southland? But there are no regional differences.

    • I should have added that if there are no differences relating to “deprivation” and therefore the wealthy, who should have better housing, suffer just as much as those who are poorer then, again, why do you blame housing?

    • RedLogix 8.2

      It is not unreasonable to suggest that the standard of housing and heating does generally improves the further south one goes, so that overall not a lot of regional variability remains.

      It’s worth noting that WHO recommends a minimum overnight temp of 16degC to maintain good health; temperatures lower than that would be common enough across the whole country.

      • Paul Walker 8.2.1

        On what basis do you say housing improves as you go south? The weather also gets worse as you go south, so I would have thought some regional variation would occur if it is about housing.

  9. Paul, it’s the same story (to a lesser extent) as what RedLogix and I are talking about with regards to Siberia.

    In the South Island people realise that winter is cold, and therefore houses are generally built with better insulation. Meanwhile, in Auckland our winters may not seem that cold but because they’re horribly damp and often windy the cold gets to chill the bones all the same.

    • At least in Christchurch I have not noticed any large amounts of insulation in older homes. In fact this is often commented on by the overseas people I work with.

    • George D 9.2

      It often gets down near or below zero in an Auckland winter. With no insulation, you’re likely to get sick, and certain to suffer.

      Why did people vote Labour out? Because they felt like their lives weren’t improving. They still don’t seem to realise that. Living in cold damp houses does not make for a happy electorate.

      • RedLogix 9.2.1

        Yeah so they voted in a NACT govt whose first act was to toss out the Greens $1billion home insulation scheme.

        You’re not serious are you GD?

        • George D

          Well, none of the scheme had come on-line at that stage (because Labour fought actively against the policy for years). Was a single house insulated under this in late 2008? No.

          People don’t realise things until they happen, generally – they don’t follow politics like you and I. And to the extent they did realise, that nice man Mr Key said he’d keep business as usual, and the media parroted his lines at face value. How were they to know?

          So yes, I am serious.

  10. RedLogix 10

    On what basis do you say housing improves as you go south?

    In general (and I accept it is a generalisation) the further south one goes, the more consideration is given to low winter temps. More heating, smaller windows, and a minimum install of insulation is an entirely reasonable thing to suggest… even if the nett result is still not really adequate.

    In particular many NZ homes are only heated in one room; the bedrooms, hallways and bathrooms remain unheated.

    Another factor is likely to be an almost complete absence of decent ventilation, particularly a problem when temperatures are in the 0 – 10 degC range, due to moisture build up encouraging mould.

    From memory I also recall that the 16degC minimum temp has a distinct threshold effect, ie any temp below that is detrimental.

    • As I said above, in Christchurch a least, I haven’t noticed a great amount of insulation in older homes. In addition I would assume those who are wealthier would have better insulation and homes in general but the study fines no difference from socioeconomic status. Even if homes do get better as you move south, for there to be no regional variation the effects of improved homes would have to exactly offset the negative effects of worse weather. How likely is this?

  11. RedLogix 11


    Turn it around. If inadequate housing is NOT the cause of our high EWM, what would be? If very cold countries like Russia (and others in Northern Europe such as Sweden) can manage a zero EWM, what is it that we are doing wrong?

    As I said above, the authors of the study believe an inadequate standard of heating and ventilation (and this can be true of a house in a posh suburb as much as a poorer one) is the dominant cause… and they are not alone in suggesting this.

    If not, what do you suggest IS the reason?

    • bilbo 11.1

      Fascinating …..

      “One study of Yakutsk—one of the most bitterly chilly cities in eastern Siberia, and thus the world, where the average temperatures between October and March sink to a positively unbalmy minus 16 degrees Fahrenheit—concluded that lower temperatures did not cause any significant increase in mortality. The frosty denizens of Yakutsk exercised the seemingly obvious safety measures of wearing layers (more than four, on average), staying where it’s warm, and keeping the heat cranked up. A small increase in mortality stemming from respiratory disease due to breathing cold air was offset by a decrease in death from accidents—presumably because during chilly spells cold enough to freeze bone marrow, few people go anywhere or do much at all, significantly reducing the opportunities for accidents.

      Falling icicles, which each winter skewer roughly 100 Russians who happen to be under the wrong building eave at the wrong time, haven’t—yet—been the subject of extensive demographic research. .he

      In Russia, summertime mortality soars for the demographic groups prone to combine imbibing copious amounts of alcohol with a dip in the local swimming hole; seasonal diving teams make a sport of dredging for the bodies of the drowned after every weekend. Mortality among the sober, but unsupervised, children of drunk-drowners also escalates. This notwithstanding, overall, excess deaths of young people in the summertime are far outnumbered by those of the elderly in the wintertime.”

      “One of the few silver linings of the seasonality of mortality is the impact of global warming on wintertime deaths. One study suggests that an increase in temperature of roughly 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of this century would boost total heat-related deaths in the United Kingdom more than threefold, to just under 3,000, but the number of cold-related deaths would drop by 25 percent, or 20,000, to 60,000.”


  12. The authors of the study suggest:

    “More targeted research is needed to explore a number of other possible factors that could be contributing to EWM, including the role of climate, influenza, behaviour, crowding in winter, levels of home heating & thermal performance of houses.”

    Looks like a good place to begin.

  13. mike 13

    “have found that 1600 more people die over the winter months than summer”

    Long bow RL to claim it’s because of ‘cold damp houses’ makes you sound alarmist and lack credibility I’m afraid

    • felix 13.1

      Don’t be afraid, just explain why you think he’s wrong and offer some less alarming explanation.

  14. outofbed 14

    having lived in England, a number of years I can safely say I’ve never been so cold at home inside till I lived in Christchurch,
    most homes in England have central heating
    in CHCH I think it’s the difference between night and day time temperatures which can be 15° in winter in the UK it’s only three or four .

    In the UK there has been subsidies for insulating homes for 40 years I think the Greens are on the right track with their Greens new deal

  15. JT 15

    Interesting discussion.
    Regardless of the exact number of deaths due to poor house insulation, perhaps Philip Alpers should know about this issue.
    Sorry, I’m being off topic. I just really hope Mr Alpers takes note of this issue.

Links to post

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Public service advertisements by The Standard

Current CO2 level in the atmosphere