A new trial is determining whether rental properties should have Warrants of Fitness to ensure they meet three basic criteria: insulated and dry; safe and secure; and having essential amenities.
Dampness and mould in homes have been associated with asthma, bronchiolitis, pneumonia and rheumatic fever. Housing New Zealand is conducting a trial of 500 homes which measures them against a proposed checklist of 49 criteria that cover everything from power points to food preparation areas. The trial costs $1000 each home and finishes in July.
Andrew King, executive officer of the NZ Property Investors Federation, is against a WoF in principle.
"We don't actually need it. There is real potential to actually lose a lot of the rental stock and that won't be good for anybody," King says.
But Environmental Health Indicators NZ (EHINZ), part of Massey University, has come out strongly in favour of requiring WoFs on rentals. The team reported that more than 70 per cent of NZ children living below the poverty line are in rental properties, half of these in privately owned rentals.
"A WoF for rental houses has the potential to provide social and private housing sectors with a minimum quality standard. Access to reasonable quality, affordable housing improves social stability and community participation," the EHINZ team reports.
King agrees children should not live in cold, damp houses but believes a WoF is not the answer. "We are concerned that anything that is done to help these kids shouldn't raise rental prices because that makes it even harder for them to afford a decent home," adding that standards already are set up through the Residential Tenancy Act, the Health and Safety Act and the Home Improvement Act. He says a home can be in good condition but will still get cold and wet if tenants don't turn on heating "or they reprioritise that other things are more important".
Australia has no formal standards for evaluating private rentals. In the US, social housing funded through government vouchers must meet strict minimum standards and be inspected annually. EHINZ reports the UK has the most comprehensive system worldwide. Tenants can report issues directly to their local council. An evaluation in the UK found for each £1 spent on the scheme, nearly £2 is saved in reduced costs of health care, tenancy failure, crime and residential care.
King argues that a WoF would reduce the number of rental properties available. He isn't opposed to the points on the checklist but believes landlords should be incentivised by making installation and energy-efficient heating tax-deductible expenses. He says the Government should give tenants electricity vouchers in winter to encourage them to turn the heat on.
A WoF system would involve regular checks on homes instead of relying on tenants' complaints to owners or the Tenancy Tribunal. EHINZ argues a WOF is vital to improve housing stock. "A WoF for rental housing would address issues such as insulation, sanitation, adequate water supply, adequate warmth and dryness, protection from excess heat, adequate lighting and sunlight, protection from noise, security and privacy, energy efficiency and sustainability of water use and waste disposal," it says.
King says rather than bureaucrats measuring things, the current complaints system is best. "We want tenants to complain more than they do. A lot of tenants won't tell you about problems because they're afraid the rent will go up. The rental property owner probably wants to know about things that are going wrong so they can fix them in a timely manner and not have them turn into expensive problems."
The Tenancy Tribunal requires houses to be in a "proper state" but without a WoF checklist, it is open to interpretation what a proper state is. Since the Tribunal is a judicial entity, it has discretion to make those determinations and award tenants up to $3000 from a landlord who refuses to make repairs.