Parliament will shortly get the chance to vote on my Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill. The vote will sort the parties for whom this is a genuine belief from those who just pay it lip service.
I think the public argument on this has been won. Academics at Otago University have done compelling research on the connections between cold, damp homes and the epidemic of respiratory and infectious diseases hospitalising so many of our children.
We have 285,000 children growing up below the poverty line. Most of them living in private rental housing. Less than half of that is insulated. When kids constantly get sick it sets back their development and their schooling, locking them into the cycle of disadvantage.
A warm, dry home is an essential part of giving every Kiwi kid the best possible start in life. But if that doesn’t do it for you, then consider the economic payback. Investing in warm, dry homes delivers a return of $5 for every $1 invested, because of the savings in health spending.
My bill will have the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Agency (EECA) set standards requiring home insulation, and an efficient heating source. Landlords will then have to certify a rental meets those standards before they can sign a new tenancy agreement. After a five year phase-in period, all properties will have to comply. If a landlord is found to be in breach they face a fine of up to $3000, compensation to the tenant, and an order to upgrade.
This approach takes the two big factors, heating and insulation, and sets mandatory minimum standards. There has been a generous taxpayer-funded subsidy scheme for the past few years but relatively few landlords have taken it up. But with one-third of New Zealanders now renters, and that includes most people on low incomes, the subsidy scheme has not helped the people who need it most.
Housing Minister Nick Smith recently announced a pilot scheme of a Warrant of Fitness for 500 state houses. It was a Nick Smith special; a photo op designed to look like he is doing something. In fact as Minister he can just require state houses be upgraded to a certain standard, and anyway state houses have now almost all been insulated. The real problem is in the private rental sector.
And just as National stands up for property speculators and won’t support a Capital Gains Tax, it’s refusal to back my Bill and guarantee warm dry homes puts it squarely on the side of slum landlords.
The Greens, NZ First, the Maori Party, Mana, and Brendan Horan, have all pledged support for the Bill. National has said they won’t support it. ACT, well, you can imagine. The vote may well come down to Peter Dunne.
To be honest, this issue is such a no-brainer, and so essential to the Kiwi value of giving every kid the best start in life, it should be above politics.
It is time to just do it.
Phil Twyford is Labour’s housing spokesperson and the MP for Te Atatu.