Good housing is a foundation of a healthy society, and it is something that New Zealand has long lacked. Despite leading the world with our state housing in the 1930s, we have fallen behind. Housing in most other first world countries is much warmer and drier than here.
That has important consequences; a study by the NZ Business Council for Sustainable Development shows our one million under-insulated homes (two-thirds of the housing stock) leads to 50 admissions a day for respiratory illnesses, costing $54 million a year, 180,000 work days lost to sickness a year, and an annual national power bill half a billion dollars more than it needs to be. Poor housing leads to diseases of poverty, like glue-ear; to save on construction costs, we have paid an insidious, often invisible price in quality of life.
So, what’s to be done about it?
Labour made a good, if typically timid, start by insulating State houses and improved insulation standards for new buildings that are now coming into force. The Greens-Labour deal for a billion dollar insulation package would address under-insulation in older, non-State houses but it seems National is intent on scrapping that package for no apparent reason.
The NZBCSD points to the successful use of a mandatory house rating system in Seattle as another option. Home buyers don’t value insulation at present because they are often unaware of the insulation a particular house has or lacks, and they aren’t aware of the costs of under-insulation, both in health and money. A housing rating system informs buyers – increasing prices for better-insulated homes relative to under-insulated ones – and that encourages people to invest in insulation.
I think that’s a good idea but it’s never going to make a difference for the people who face the worse effects of bad housing – poor families renting from private landlords. Out to squeeze what money they can from the country’s worst and cheapest housing, the last thing on these landlords’ minds is investing in insulation from which they stand to see no direct monetary return.
So, a housing rating system is not solution in itself. To build a healthier housing stock, we need more government investment – more State housing, more subsidisation of insulation in private homes – and higher standards for existing as well as new buildings.
National/ACT has talked a big game about more efficient, productive government spending. Well, housing is a perfect area to walk the talk. Every dollar spent on insulation in under-insulated homes (according to a government study in the 1990s) saves two dollars in health costs alone. Add to that, lower power costs, higher productivity, more employment (perfect for a recession) and better education outcomes for healthier kids, and we’re talking great value for the taxpayer’s dollar.
So, will we see a bold series of housing initiatives from the new government? Now, that really would be a brighter future.