At a first glance, Housing Minister Nick Smith's announcement of a warrant-of-fitness scheme on state homes seemed like a step forward that was as significant as it was welcome. At last, after more than a year, a key recommendation of the Children's Commissioner's expert advisory group on solutions to child poverty was being heeded.
On closer examination, however, there was much less reason for applause. The final words of Dr Smith's announcement made it clear that the Government had not decided to apply the warrant of fitness to the private rental market or other social housing providers. Urgency on this issue is clearly not high on its agenda.
That is unfortunate. As Labour's housing spokesman, Phil Twyford, noted, most poor people live in private rentals. In sum, just 4 per cent of New Zealanders live in state homes. Already, they have benefited from a recent insulation upgrade.
But the vast majority of children identified by the Children's Commissioner's report as living in cold, damp conditions and at risk of constant respiratory illnesses and infections were not aided by this and now will not benefit from the new scheme.
Dr Smith excused this inactivity on the basis that the Government should get its own housing stock in order first, and that the trial of 500 of its homes would show how a warrant of fitness could work. But there is little reason new rules for all rental housing could not be readily introduced.
The trial includes a comprehensive 49-point checklist that means homes must be insulated and dry, safe and secure, and contain essential amenities such as bathroom and kitchen facilities. Each home will have to pass this checklist to get a warrant every three years. Any snags in this arrangement should quickly become apparent and be easily remedied. In only a matter of months, it should be possible to roll out the scheme to the private market. The Government, however, is unwilling to even signal that intention.
Dr Smith's only attempt to explain this reluctance was a reference to being cautious about removing houses from the rental market when there was a shortage, and the need for the benefits of the warrants to exceed the costs.
The overarching problem, however, is that of the children living in substandard housing. Their plight is not easily measured by a dry assessment of cost. It is time to place some obligations on those offering homes for rent. Already, they benefit from tax breaks and untaxed capital gains. The Government, at the instigation of the Green Party, also provides a generous home heating and insulation subsidy, which is available to landlords on the basis of their tenants' income. Regrettably, few have taken up that offer. But, equally, few would be likely to remove their houses from so buoyant a market because they deem it too expensive to upgrade a deficient property.
A warrant of fitness should have to be obtained every three years or when ownership changes. The standard of the country's housing stock would rise in a manner echoing that of vehicles. Indeed, a decade ago, the Building Industry Federation suggested homeowners should have to provide maintenance certificates when they sold their house as a means of protecting future owners.
That idea gained no traction, but the plight of children in substandard rental homes cannot be disregarded. Problems with houses are far more noticeable than those associated with cars, and warrants of fitness would be a relatively straightforward matter. Local councils would, most logically, carry out inspections, and be able to vary standards depending on the harshness of the climate in their area. On no account should any child have to live in a cold and damp house.
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