So there’s this house in Flaxmere. It’s an older home in a street of older homes. A single mother –  call her Ms. Jones – and her three young kids live in the house. Next door is home to a large, friendly, extended family of Pacific Islanders. And across the street an elderly woman lives alone in a classic villa.

Ms. Jones worries about her children. The house is cold and damp in the winter. The unvented gas heater keeps the lounge warm, but water condenses on the windows and the kids’ rooms get mouldy. They seem to have a lot of colds and earaches; one has developed asthma and was hospitalised twice last winter. Often they can’t go to school and Mrs. Jones has to get off work to care for them, which affects her income. Mrs. Jones would like to find a warmer house, but most in the neighbourhood are the same, she can just manage the rent and she likes the neighbours.

Ms. Jones also is concerned about Mrs. Smith, the elderly woman across the road. Her home is cold and draughty too, and on very cold winter days she stays in bed to keep warm.  Sometimes Mrs. Smith lights a fire in her old woodburner, but since she fell and broke her wrist, she finds it difficult to do.

The Pacific Islanders are still trying to pay a $900 electric bill that came at the end of a particularly cold month. Their children are picking up English but there’s no quiet place in the crowded house to do their school work. They have frequent respiratory problems and one of the women was hospitalised for pneumonia. They really should be living in two houses, but seasonal work and odd jobs don’t bring in enough income.

This scenario is based on fact – and the $900 bill is real.

Two-thirds of private homes in Hawke’s Bay were built before 1978, the year the building code was changed to require insulation measures in new homes. Unless they’ve been retrofitted, uninsulated homes can be damp, cold, unhealthy and expensive to heat.  They are often, not always, rental homes where people with low incomes live. The Hawke’s Bay Healthy Housing Coalition* reports a “strong correlation between areas of high deprivation and areas which have the greatest proportion of pre-1978 houses,” such as Wairoa, Flaxmere, Hastings Central, Maraenui and Waipawa.

According to the Coalition, the Bay’s rates of bronchiolitis and whooping cough are higher than national rates, and particularly high among Pacific and Maori babies. The Coalition reports about 14,000 people in the Bay live in crowded conditions, which is a risk factor for the spread of infectious diseases and respiratory illnesses, and for psychological stress and poor educational outcomes.

Rates of rheumatic fever and meningoccal disease in Hawke’s Bay are higher than the national rate, with 19 cases of rheumatic fever in the past two years, 11 of them from Flaxmere, where 71% of the homes were built before 1978. The Coalition’s research found that, from 2001-2006, around 70% of admissions to the Hawke’s Bay Hospital’s children’s ward for respiratory conditions were from areas identified as most deprived.

So you insulated your house after you bought it and you have enough bedrooms; what does this have to do with you?

Think about it: Hawke’s Bay has a crowded hospital, an educational achievement level lower than the national average and a shortage of skilled workers. In 2006, 31% of the Bay’s residents age 15 and older had no formal educational qualifications, compared to 25% nationwide. To quote the April 2008 Report on the Social & Cultural Wellbeing of Hawke’s Bay (published by the Hastings District Council): “Research demonstrates there is a strong correlation between the health of a region and the socio-economic status of that region.”

In 2006, according to the Coalition, more than a quarter of the Bay’s people (26%) lived in the highest deprivation areas, compared with 20% nationally. Given the relatively high price of housing in much of the Bay, few people with low incomes can expect to improve their situation.

“Unaffordable housing costs force people into overcrowded conditions, into substandard housing or to go without heating,” the Coalition writes in its Hawke’s Bay Healthy Housing Profile completed in July. “Internationally and in New Zealand research has shown crowding to be associated with negative health and educational outcomes.”

“Poor housing in childhood is related to poor health in the long term, even if housing conditions improve later in life,” reports the British Medical Association.

The Coalition quotes the Auckland Public Regional Health Service, 2005:  “While much New Zealand research has focussed on state housing, overseas research indicates the real problem lies in the private rental sector. Landlords are required by law to maintain their houses to an acceptable standard, but enforcement relies on tenant complaints. In a scarce rental market, tenants can be reluctant to risk their accommodation or risk a rent increase by making a complaint.”

Jessica Mackintosh, planning manager with the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board, worked on the research for the Coalition’s report. “Housing is such a compelling area because it has such a huge impact on people’s health,” she said. “There’s no one agency in sole charge of housing; it’s everybody’s business.”

*The Hawke’s Bay Healthy Housing Coalition consists of local representatives of Housing New Zealand Corporation, Ministry of Social Development, Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga, Kahungunu Executive ki Te Wairoa Charitable Trust, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, Hawke’s Bay District Health Board, Hawke’s Bay Primary Health Organisation, Wairoa Primary Health Organisation, and representatives from the Hastings, Wairoa, Napier, and Central Hawke’s Bay Councils, and Te Puni Kokiri.

Solutions

The New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development* (NZBCSD) has just released a survey of 3,526 New Zealanders on the state of their homes. The Council reports the following:

  • 45% of existing NZ homes are mouldy
  • 64% have no underfloor insulation
  • 71% have uninsulated walls
  • An average of 50 Kiwis per day are admitted to hospital with illnesses caused by unhealthy homes
  • Damp and energy-inefficient homes result in 18,000 lost work days per year due to illness
  • Households with annual incomes of $20,000 or less most report being cold and uncomfortable (half of Hawkes Bay’s work force earns less than $22,000)
  • Health problems related to housing are reported particularly by lower income households and people age 18 to 44, single parents with children at home, and by students, unemployed/beneficiaries and home makers not otherwise employed
  • 61% of households with one parent and three or more children say their home has caused a health problem.

The NZBCSD is proposing a comprehensive policy package to the government, the building industry and home users to help improve the performance of the nation’s 1.6 million homes, about a million of which are not adequately insulated. Policies proposed include:

  • A mandatory home performance rating system
  • Linking government accommodation supplements to homes and flats that are performance-rated to an “adequate” level and paying a rent supplement to landlords of homes with the new “warrant of fitness”
  • “Green tape” building-code reforms to eliminate consenting delays for innovative designs for better performing homes
  • Government-funded research to find out what home performance improvement solutions NZ homeowners want
  • A government and building-sector strategy to deliver whole solutions to householders, not just individual products
  • Targeted information campaigns about housing solutions
  • Training for the renovation industry to offer solutions that improve overall home performance
  • New finance packages so homeowners can afford to improve home performance – and pay back the loans from energy savings or have the cost reclaimed from their estates.

“Fragmented approaches to improving the housing stock need to end,” writes the Council. “A range of innovations, from properly insulating to double glazing, to using appropriate appliances, venting, water conservation and metering, could deliver huge economic and health benefits to households over the next 10 years.” Of all the measures available to improve housing, reduce home operating costs and cut carbon emissions, insulation generally has the largest negative abatement cost: it pays for itself.

*“The Business Council believes sustainable businesses are profitable, contribute to social progress and ecological balance – and protect New Zealand’s quality of life. The Business Council’s 71 members jointly employ more than 88,000 people in managing resources, manufacturing, retailing and the service sector.” Their housing report is based on a national survey conducted through their website, ShapeNZ, which the Council says “is representative of the population as a whole, compared with the 2006 census.” If you would like to join their national on-line survey panel, check into www.shapenz.org.nz.

Get Help Here

The Business Council is not the only organization interested in retrofitting NZ’s older homes.

Locally, the Hawke’s Bay Power Consumer’s Trust has joined with Energy Options and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) to launch a home insulation subsidy programme to reach 440 homes across Hawke’s Bay. Homeowners and landlords could be eligible for a subsidy ranging from 33.3% to 100%. Contact Energy Options at 06 843 0130 for more info.

The EECA has funding programs for middle and low-income homeowners and also for landlords. In addition, inadequately insulated houses built before 1 January 2000 are eligible for funding under the ENERGYWISE programme. Contact EECA in Wellington at www.EECA.govt.nz, by phone at 04 470 2200 or Freephone at 0800 358 676.

Housing New Zealand tenants are not eligible for EECA and Energywise programs.  HNZ has its own program to retrofit state houses and plans to have insulated up to 750 Hawke’s Bay homes by next July.

Contact Energy is working to retrofit more than 2,500 homes around the country, including in Hawke’s Bay, where it plans to retrofit 130 homes. In addition, Contact is investing $200,000 annually in one of the country’s largest medical research projects: the University of Otago’s Health and Housing Research Group study into the links between respiratory illnesses, heating choices and the home environment. The company also is contributing to 10 community-led home insulation projects across New Zealand, with more in negotiation.

Energy Smart, owned by the Hutt Mana Charitable Trust, works with the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board to provide free or heavily subsidised home insulation to about 200 homes a year in Hawke’s Bay. EECA funds 60% of the program with additional contributions from the DHB, and the Wairoa Council. Landlords are expected to contribute.
Contact Energy Smart by Freephone at 0800 777 111 or e-mail info@energysmart.co.nz

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