When the Government first announced some insulation standards on rental housing last year, Labour's housing spokesman Phil Twyford called them "grudging half-measures" taken in response to public opinion. It was hard to disagree. The requirement for all rental properties to be insulated by mid-2019 and to have smoke alarms fitted by the middle of this year was just a step in the right direction.
The Government is said to be poised to take another step in the Budget this month. The Opposition might force it to declare its intentions as early as today. A member's bill in the name of Labour's leader is to have its first reading in Parliament and may have enough votes to pass. The crucial vote is likely to be Peter Dunne's. He supported a near identical Labour bill in March last year when the result did not swing on his vote. National's loss of the Northland byelection means it now needs Mr Dunne's vote to defeat Andrew Little's bill.
The only way Mr Dunne can vote against it and save face would be for the Government to indicate something similar is on the way. It should do so. Mr Little points out that the Government's present proposals for insulation do not go far enough. There is no point insulating a cold house. Rental properties should also provide heating and ventilation to a required standard.
Heat exchangers have become almost a standard feature of private homes today. Mounted high on a wall, they are safer than many of the electric and gas heaters tenants might otherwise use, and more effective. Landlords could consider them to be in their own as well as their tenants' interest. A warm, dry house is essential to everyone's health. Children who live in damp, droughty houses with mildew in winter suffer recurrent respiratory illnesses, poor general health and their education suffers too. A warrant of fitness for rental housing standards features high in the recommendations of repeated reports from the Children's Commissioner on child poverty.
If that is not reason enough for the Government to go further than it did last year, the resurgence of house prices since March provides another reason. The higher prices go, the more likely it becomes that half or more of the population will be lifelong tenants. The lucky half will be landlords and it would do no harm to pass laws that make it clear they have taken on a considerable responsibility. As the owners of the house they are responsible for its maintenance and its permanent fixtures. They should also be responsible for ensuring it can be made warm and comfortable without undue expense for the occupants.
The Government's priority has been to ensure rental housing is cost-effective for landlords as well as tenants. There is always a risk that added obligations such as those in Mr Little's Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill will increase rental charges or reduce the number of rental houses available. That problem, too, might be reduced by a proper balance of residential tenancy rights and responsibilities. It needs to be wider than heating and insulation but those are essential.
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