This has been a cold, wet winter for all of us, but worse for those living in poorly insulated homes. Despite a heating and insulation subsidy introduced three years ago, a million New Zealanders, many of them children, still live in damp and draughty houses.
This newspaper is doing what it can to help them. Last Sunday we examined the Government's home insulation programme and began to highlight the plight of those missing out. Our series will continue over coming weeks, zeroing in on inequities and demanding action.
Those missing out are not necessarily the poorest households. Holders of community services cards, whether owning their home or in rented accommodation, qualify for a much higher subsidy under the "Warm Up New Zealand" scheme and many more of them than expected have taken advantage of it.
A good number of those missing out, as often happens, are households with incomes too high for a community services card but not high enough to comfortably afford two-thirds of the cost of the full insulation retrofit.
As one of the approved insulation providers remarked, "We're still looking at people who can afford a couple of thousand dollars. For lots of people in the current economic situation, that's not affordable."
How hard would it be to extend the full 60 per cent subsidy available to card holders? The scheme's success among the lower paid suggests that 40 per cent of the cost is affordable. The scheme started in 2009 with a target of 60,000 low-income households and 120,000 in the middle income bracket. So far, 105,000 low-income homes have been insulated - 70 per cent above target.
It is important to note the extra efforts of community energy trusts will have helped many of our poorest people pay for their 40 per cent contribution, but a lot of that 105,000 will also have been retired people with freehold homes and savings. They can pay more easily than many young families with a higher household income but rent or mortgage payments to make and children to support. Those families need the 60 per cent subsidy too. The extra cost to the taxpayer will hardly break the Government's budget. National allowed just $360 million for the scheme over four years. Thanks to efficiencies, that allocation is now expected to last a year longer, running out in mid-2014.
The money could instead be used immediately to give a higher subsidy to those missing out. They need it now, not next year or the year after. If that means more money needs to be set aside in later years, so be it.
The Greens, who initiated the scheme, convinced the previous Government to spend $1 billion over 10 years. The Greens claim that even National's pared-down version has saved the public $1 billion in health bills already.
That estimate is supported by an Otago University professor of public health who studied the healthcare costs and energy use of the first 46,000 homes insulated and found the savings were four times the outlay.
Not surprisingly, rental houses in the private sector are the least likely to be insulated. Only 5 per cent of landlords have taken up the subsidy though they qualify for the higher rate if their tenant has a community services card. Just 26,000 of about half a million private rental properties have been insulated to the desired standard.
Clearly the carrot has not worked for landlords and it may be time to consider the stick. Regulations could be drawn up that would require all houses offered for rent to meet the scheme's standard. In the present Auckland market, landlords would easily recover their costs. Rents and sale prices are exorbitant.
We tolerate colder houses more than people do in comparable climates. We build or renovate mainly for sunshine and outdoor living, not so much for warmth. The subsidised programme, carried out by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, has been a success for home-owners who could afford to pay the balance. Now its benefits should be extended, by regulation if necessary, to those whose income or landlord will not cover their draughty gap.