Call for landlords to insulate homes

By Susan Edmunds

Eric and Abby Eli with Willow and Noah. The Elis won home insulation and a heat pump through the Warm Homes competition.  Photo / Doug Sherring
Eric and Abby Eli with Willow and Noah. The Elis won home insulation and a heat pump through the Warm Homes competition. Photo / Doug Sherring

The Prime Minister has backed the Herald on Sunday's Warm Homes campaign with a warning that if incentives aren't enough to persuade landlords to insulate their cold, damp rental properties, then the Government may force their hand.

John Key grew up in a cold Christchurch state house with no insulation.

His house-proud mother kept the house faultlessly clean. But there was nothing to stop heat evaporating through the walls, ceilings and floors.

Now, Key says he will personally ensure that Housing New Zealand insulates all the properties that it can by the end of next year - and he'll be wielding a carrot or a stick to make sure all private landlords do the same.

The Herald on Sunday has this month been campaigning to get more homes insulated, either by extending government funding schemes or through legislation in problem areas, such as rental accommodation.

Now, Housing Minister Phil Heatley has scheduled a meeting this coming week with Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei to discuss extending the scheme's funding. And the Prime Minister reveals in today's paper that the Government will consider incentives or regulations to ensure private landlords insulate rental properties.

"Once our house is in order, we can have a conversation about considering regulations and/or incentives so private rental accommodation that does not have insulation is upgraded," he says.

Of the 230,000 houses insulated with a Warm Up New Zealand subsidy, just 25,000 have been rentals. That's only 5 per cent of the country's rental stock - leaving an estimated 1,000,000 rental properties uninsulated.

The Warm Up scheme has been operating since 2009 and provides a 33 per cent subsidy, or up to $1300, for the cost of retrofitting insulation into houses built before 2000. For Community Services Cardholders, or their landlords, a 60 per cent subsidy is available.

So why aren't landlords insulating? Property investors' reactions have been mixed. While almost all agree that insulation is a good thing, some say they need more than a 33 per cent subsidy to make it worth their while. Others retort that the benefits to tenants' health and the value of properties makes insulating a no-brainer.

* * *

Auckland landlord Peter Lewis was surprised how hard it was to do the right thing.

From advertising he had seen, he thought getting his Manurewa rental property insulated would be a straightforward process - just make a couple of calls, and have someone turn up to do the job. "But it's certainly been a battle."

He went to the EECA website, entered his information and was told no installers could be recommended. "I sent an email to EECA and two weeks later and got a reply 'golly gosh you are right. It doesn't work'."

He eventually found three companies who would do it in Manurewa. One did not return his phone calls. One would only do underfloor insulation while the other would only offer a 33 per cent subsidy, even though his tenant has a Community Services Card.

When he asked why the 60 per cent subsidy for residents with the card was not used, the installer said they preferred to target homes with the 33 per cent subsidy.

"We think that landlords will use the tenant to get a 60 per cent subsidy, and after the work has been done throw the tenant out and go and live in the house themselves," the contractor explained. "So we won't let that happen."

The outcome? He has insulated one of his Manurewa rental properties, but not the one next door. It's too expensive - so one of his tenants still lives in a cold home.

Lewis says the Warm Up NZ scheme was a step in the right direction: "But to make life intentionally difficult is not the way to go."

Auckland Property Investors Association president David Whitburn says all landlords should be able to access that 60 per cent subsidy, if the Government wants all rental properties insulated. He said some were sceptical about price-gouging by suppliers putting up their prices in response to the subsidy.

And in Auckland, he says, houses do not need to be insulated to attract tenants. Demand is running so hot that people looking for a rental, especially in the city fringe suburbs have little choice.

* * *

That may be the case for Auckland landlords, but Jude Morgan says it's not true of other parts of the country. She owns 15 rental properties in Wellington and says there, insulation is a big attraction.

Morgan can't understand why anyone wouldn't take advantage of the subsidy while it's available.

"Rental properties are like any other investment - what you put in is what you get out."

Housing Minister Phil Heatley, who is overseeing the retrofit of state houses, knows first-hand what it's like to live in a cold, damp house from his student days in Palmerston North.

"As Palmerston North is no tropical haven I pretty much watched TV with a rug and slept with the electric blanket on."

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei is to meet with Heatley this week. Her party has a bill in the ballot that would require minimum energy efficiency standards for rentals.

She wants the Government to extend the Warm Up NZ's $360 million funding to the end of 2014 and beyond.

MANY SEEK TO BANISH DAMP

Entries came from across the country, from quake-hit homes in Christchurch to beachside properties in the Far North. Some wrote poetry, some wrote from the heart.

But what the hundreds of entries for the warm-up competition had in common was that they were from people living in homes that were cold, damp, and mouldy.

Herald on Sunday editor Bryce Johns said the competition was potentially life-changing for the winners. "It's clear too many Kiwis are living in cold conditions that are affecting the health of children, in particular. We urge the Government to continue to make insulation a priority on its agenda, and encourage landlords to do the right thing."

Right House chief executive Hamish Sissons says the winners' houses will be healthier and more comfortable. "The worthiness of the entries has been humbling," he adds.

The Herald on Sunday would also like to thank EECA, Mitsubishi Electric, Autex Industries and GreenStuf, Knauf Insulation and EarthWool.

POLLY WALKER AND JOE LONIE

ARCH HILL: They say great art is created in adversity, but former Supergroove band member Joe Lonie reckons he and his family live in the coldest house in Auckland.

He and his partner Polly Walker have been in the 100-year-old Arch Hill, Auckland, villa for 12 years. Their 10-year-old son Nathan has grown up there. Walker says they are sick for at least three months of every year. She suffers bronchitis on an annual basis and is often sick for up to a month.

The house is tucked into the side of the hill, and for much of the year the sun doesn't reach it. "It's right in the shadow of the Ambler clothing factory," Lonie says.

"The house actually used to belong to the factory. In winter, the sun doesn't get high enough to peek over the top of it.

"It always seems like there's eight months of winter and then four months of some kind of summer."

Since leaving Supergroove, Lonie has worked making music videos, advertisements and trying to get into the film industry as a director.

"I'm a musician and filmmaker and it's pretty hard to make money doing either of those things these days. It's been a struggle the past few years, for sure."

Walker is a photographer and graphic designer and both are self-employed. Lonie says work is irregular for both of them, making it difficult to afford to insulate and heat their home.

Having heat pumps and insulation will make a major difference, he says. "This is amazing news."

KOHI NATHAN

NGARUAWAHIA: Kohi Nathan's answer is the same she has been giving for 60 years: "I'm well, thank you," she says.

Then, on the phone at home in Ngaruawahia, she hesitates. "Well, as well as I can be."

She is dying of lung cancer and entered the competition for insulation and a heat pump for her home because she wants her daughter and three grandchildren - to whom she is leaving the property - to be warm when she is no longer around.

There is little insulation in the 30-year-old home.

The dining room and kitchen get a lot of sun but the bedrooms are on the shady side of the house and are constantly cold.

Told of her win, Nathan bursts into tears and passes the phone to her caregiver, Faith, who has been looking after her bedbound patient for years.

"She hasn't had anything to eat since last year," she says.

"At first they thought there was something wrong with her stomach. It's only in the past couple of months she has found out it was in her lungs."

The health of her family after she's gone is Nathan's top priority. She is determined that they should have a more comfortable environment than she has lived in over the years.

Although, before hanging up the phone, she does say gleefully, "I won't die now because I'll be warm!"

ABBY AND ERIC ELI

HILLCREST: Abby Eli has a sick, screaming toddler on her knee when the Herald on Sunday calls to tell her she's been selected to win the insulation and heat pump package.

Eli, 27, and her husband Eric, 33, have lived in their first home in Hillcrest for about three months. It's among the coldest, dampest houses they've ever lived in, and both of the couple's children are under the care of paediatric ear, nose and throat specialists at North Shore Hospital.

Willow, 4, has chronic asthma and has been in Starship a number of times. She is booked in for ongoing assessments. Noah, 2, is about to get his second lot of grommets in his ears and have his adenoids removed.

The home is an old weatherboard house with no insulation. Eli says heat disappears around the windows. "They have wooden framing, you can feel the breeze coming through."

But in the current Auckland property market, there's competition for almost all entry-level homes, warm or otherwise.

She is certain that the cold contributes to the children's illnesses. "Because there's no warmth, it makes it worse because they are constantly inhaling freezing air."

There are econoheaters in the kids' rooms but Eli says she and her husband have to really think about turning them on because they don't make much of a difference "and the power bill keeps going up and up". Last month, the bill was $300.

She is blown away at the news that the family has won home insulation and a heat pump. "That's so fantastic," she exclaims.

ED WI

HOWICK: Ed Wi has lived in the same house most of his life. It's the 1960s bungalow in Howick where he grew up. After his parents died, he and his sister inherited the house.

He took ownership, moved back from a stint in Wellington with his wife, Melanie, and first child in tow, and moved into his childhood home.

The couple now have four children: Hinemoa, 15, Hare, 12, Wiremu, 10, and Maia, 6.

"My kids have to endure the same cold nights as I did growing up," Wi says.

There is mould growing inside and outside the house and the kids suffer from asthma.

"It's the doctor's every other week during winter," says Wi. "The littlest are affected quite badly."

The house has no insulation and the fire does nothing to heat it.

"We could have that going all afternoon and evening and it wouldn't make a difference," Wi says. "The house has those old wooden windows and the heat just escapes."

But years of surviving on one income while Melanie stayed at home with the kids have meant money is too tight to pay for insulation. Now, they will finally have a chance to live in a warm, dry home.

MICHAELA AND SAM THRUSH

PAPAKURA: Twenty-three-year-old Michaela Thrush is used to spending long periods on her own. Her husband, Sam, works on oil rigs in Taranaki, on two weeks on, two weeks off rotations.

Their first baby, to be named Elijah, is due tomorrow and everything is ready for him, except the house.

The couple's first house is a three-bedroom brick home on a shady back section in Papakura. What little insulation there was has eroded over the years and it's extremely cold. "We're pretty much always getting sick," Michaela says.

She's worried that if they don't do something about it, little Elijah will be the same.

Choked with tears, she says the insulation and heat pump will allow them to provide a healthy, warm environment to bring their baby home to.

Now all she's waiting for is the imminent arrival.

- Herald on Sunday

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