Auckland mum Rudy Parocha is still paying off a $5000 tenancy debt more than a year after moving out of a rental home she claimed was cold and put her unborn baby's health at risk.
Her case raised questions about whether doctors' certificates were taken seriously at the Tenancy Tribunal, she said.
She had earlier landed in hospital with pneumonia and a chest infection while living in the Remuera rental in May 2018 when pregnant with her baby son.
Yet, despite getting a doctor's certificate warning her not to live in a cold house and having a social worker visit the rental, Parocha wound up with a $5200 bill for breaking her fixed-term tenancy.
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She took her case to the Tenancy Tribunal twice but lost both times. The rental looked well-insulated and modern, and Parocha appeared to have simply been unable to afford to pay for the heating, the tribunal found.
Landlord Dean Williams likewise told the Herald the rental was warm and that he had tried to help Parocha and her partner, but they upped and left with no notice.
Yet Parocha claimed the flat was hard to heat and she wasn't willing to take chances with her newborn baby.
She gave birth just one month after leaving the rental in what was one of the most stressful times of her life, she said.
"We were so depressed at that time - it was really tough," she said.
Parocha said she understood how fixed-term tenancies worked but thought greater consideration should be given to pregnant mums and babies.
University of Otago associate professor Nevil Pierse agreed, saying young babies had the most sensitive lungs to cold and damp of anyone.
"Children under 1-year-old are a group we shouldn't be taking any risks with," he said.
On average, Kiwis make about 28,000 visits to the hospital each year as a result of living in cold and damp houses, he said.
Children who went to hospital for these so-called housing-related illnesses also returned for further treatment almost four times more often than those hospitalised for other conditions.
And while the illnesses – including asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis – were preventable, many children were dying.
"In the next 15 years, those kids are 10 times more likely to die than kids hospitalised from other causes," Pierse said.
He said exposing babies to risks set them up for a lifetime of health costs.
"If that baby continues living there and becomes sick or dies what are the consequences for the landlord?" he asked.
Dr Bryan Betty, medical director for the Royal NZ College of GPs, said doctors regularly wrote letters on behalf of patients about housing but always did so professionally.
"If there was a housing assessment done by a DHB nurse or community worker and a doctor's letter in terms of the medical condition, I would assume the Tenancy Tribunal put weight towards that," he said.
In Parocha's case, the Tenancy Tribunal only gave "limited weight" to the medical evidence.
The Tribunal said this was because there was no evidence her doctor visited the rental to inspect its condition.
It also mistakenly assumed Parocha had filled out a housing assessment form that was in fact filled out by a social worker who came to her house to inspect it.
Instead, the tribunal said the landlord's evidence and photos showed the rental was "clearly in good condition and well insulated".
Landlord Williams also told the Herald the home wasn't damp but that Parocha and her partner didn't open the windows.
"Every time I went down to house it was shut up tight, they didn't let fresh air into the house," he said.
He also tried to work with Parocha by agreeing to allow her to break the fixed-term tenancy, he said.
"They had the opportunity to have someone take over from them, they just had to wait until we found a new tenant," he said.
Williams recently happily allowed another couple to break their fixed-term tenancy because they were buying a new house and gave six weeks' notice, he said.
Parocha and her partner first approached Williams to break the lease in July 2018, but a new tenant could not be found until October that year.
Parocha and her partner meanwhile moved out in August without notice when they were offered a flat through a friend from the Philippines.
She said she had become increasingly worried about her health as her chest infection hadn't cleared since she went into hospital earlier in the year and that - given she was due to give birth a month later in September - she couldn't wait any longer.
She and her partner were recent migrants from the Philippines and had chosen the Remuera flat for the purpose of having their new baby, but hadn't known it would be cold, she said.
She said her new flat was much easier to heat and a subsequent letter from her doctor showed her chest infection quickly cleared after she left Remuera and moved into it.
Parocha said the stress from the saga still carries on.
Her husband had been out of work at the time of the birth while she was on maternity leave, and so they had been forced to battle to pay off their debt in instalments while also paying their current rent and all the costs associated with a new baby, she said.