“In my opinion New Zealanders live in some of the worst housing in the Western World!” asserts Dave Stapleton from NZ House Surveys, an incidental observer of unhealthy homes in Hawke’s Bay. 

Dave’s work brings him to the front line of ‘real life’ living. Inspecting residential properties and carrying out house inspections for people who are purchasing their own homes, Dave sees it all, and is increasingly concerned about the health effects cold, damp and overcrowded homes are having on our local people.

“Hardly a week goes by we don’t inspect a home that is damp, cold, and mouldy. It’s no wonder some of these occupants always seem to have the flu, and their kids are frequent visitors to the doctors, or the emergency department. Sometimes it’s so bad, we have felt ill ourselves afterwards.” 

Considerable evidence links the housing crisis with growing physical and mental unwellness within our communities. Unicef NZ reports that some 90,000 Kiwi kids are living in inadequate housing. It is estimated that 40,000 of these kids are admitted to hospital each year, due to income poverty and inadequate housing. New Zealand has the highest rates of asthma and respiratory illness in the OECD countries. 

Over the years, lack of regulation and inadequate housing standards have resulted in many people having to cope with preventable illness such as rheumatic fever, skin infections and respiratory conditions. People living in damp and mouldy dwellings are more likely to suffer from psychological distress, nausea, constipation, blocked nasal passages, breathlessness, backache, aching joints, and feeling faint. Such conditions multiply the inequalities many of these people already experience, compounding the impact of poverty, and ultimately leading to undesirable long-term health impacts. 

Hawke’s Bay social workers Gayleen Waho and Alice Peacock are employed by the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board (HBDHB) to deliver the Healthy Whare, Healthy Whānau Programme. This is a free programme that helps low income families with children – through education and assistance – create warmer, drier, and healthier homes.

Alice, passionate designer of the programme, says: “We still get shocked at what we see! It is not getting any better. When we are referred to a home to see the living conditions of an unwell child, we can often find over twenty people living in a three bedroomed house.”

The HBDHB have been running the Healthy Whare, Healthy Whānau Programme for three and half years. The team are still getting around 700 referrals a year. Alice says: “We all feel pretty tired by the end of the winter! What we see on TV and read in our newspapers is tip of the iceberg stuff. Families are moving into houses with no heating, faulty plumbing, cracked windows, and no insulation. Frequently homes have no curtains or carpet!”

Gayleen and Alice are part of a seven-strong team dedicated to improving the lives of families struggling to stay well in unhealthy living conditions. Gayleen is fervent: “These cold damp conditions are killing our kids! I am so fed up with seeing people that are happy to let families live this way, where are the morals and ethics in humanity?” 

Families are referred to the programme if they are on a low income, living in a cold home, and meet specific criteria. Such criteria include a hospital diagnosis of respiratory illness, rheumatic fever, meningitis, acute nephritic syndrome, meningococcal disease or septicaemia. Or if you are a pregnant woman, a new born baby is in the family, or if there is a risk factor of abuse and neglect. 

Alice adds: “We are not a ‘hand out’ service, but we do a lot of advocacy work in assisting families obtain the help they need to improve their living conditions. We have such a cultural mix in Hawke’s Bay, sometimes it can be as minimal as writing a letter, as English is not the first language, or accompanying someone to the doctor. Education is often a key area for many families. Islanders really don’t know how to live in New Zealand. We are a cold damp country, they need help in understanding how to live in our climate. Sometimes the damp has become so bad in the homes the carpet squishes under our feet.” 

With home ownership at a sixty-year low, an inadequate supply of state housing and the private rental market under extreme pressure, low-income families are desperate to stay in their homes. Consequently, families will tolerate an unhealthy home for fear of eviction. 

Alice continues: “We have to respect the wishes of our clients, so we spend a lot of our time educating families on how to improve their living conditions with simple, inexpensive tips. Modest measures such as stopping cold air with draught stoppers, opening the windows, allowing space between sleeping children, cleaning the mould off the walls, and so on, can improve the health of the children considerably. I can be quite firm with my clients! We will do everything we can to keep families in their homes. Displacement can cause so much stress.”

Gayleen loves her work. Despite what she sees on a day-to-day basis she experiences many special moments. Both Alice and Gayleen consider small behavioural changes in families a success. Gayleen adds: “Sometimes when I drive by a house that we have been referred to in the past and I see that the windows are open, and the condensation has been wiped off the glass, I let out a small cheer!”

Alice and Gayleen recognise they could not achieve the great work they do without the support of non-profit charitable organisations within Hawke’s Bay. “The help we get from The Salvation Army, the Curtain Bank and Christian Love Link, is invaluable. If the readers want to help Hawke’s Bay’s most vulnerable people, I encourage them to give to these worthy organisations. We also desperately need new warm clothes for babies and children. Items such as merinos, PJs, and thermals are greatly appreciated.” 

Healthy homes are the foundation of our nation’s health and wellbeing. But New Zealand is a long way from acceptable housing standards. As our health statistics confirm, currently we are failing our most vulnerable people.

What can you do? Support charities like those mentioned above. Advocate for stronger mandatory standards. Be responsible landlords … and shame those who are not. 

Note: The HB Regional Council’s Heatsmart programme provides financial assistance for home insulation and safe heating. For information, visit the HBRC website, search Heatsmart. 

Royston Hospital is pleased to sponsor robust examination of health issues in Hawke’s Bay. This reporting is prepared by BayBuzz. Any editorial views expressed are those of the BayBuzz team.

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