Anger is building about the poor condition of rental properties in New Zealand. Particular concern has been sparked by the deaths of state housing tenants and the reaction from Government.

The politics of housing is causing serious problems for the Government and the focus of the concern keeps expanding. First it was about home ownership affordability, then state housing reforms became controversial, followed by a focus on problems in the rental market.

Now the poor condition of those rentals is becoming a major source of anger and political debate in the wake of the deaths of two state housing tenants. Today Chris Trotter asks How have housing conditions come to this?.

Trotter argues that New Zealand has simply reverted back to something akin to early last century, when politicians didn't care about housing problems and the poor were left to the ravages of the marketplace: "Market delusions and political timidity allowed slum landlords to thrive in the 1930s. Eighty years later, identical failings on the part of their state-owned successor have added an ironical twist to the community's demand for radical housing reform".

Trotter points to the lessons of housing history contained in the published work of scholar Ben Schrader, and his book "We Call It Home: A History of State Housing in New Zealand". Schrader also did an excellent job of the official encyclopaedia entries on housing for the Government's Te Ara website - see: Housing and Housing and government.

In parallel to Trotter's column, it's well worth reading Paul Moon's Herald column today, Few home comforts to be found in early houses. He also looks at the dreadful state of housing in 1900, and how a "major advance took place in 1935".

State slum landlords

Trotter's column refers to a brief comment I made on TV One's Q+A programme in the weekend, when I said that "we have a slum landlord of a government" - see the eight-minute discussion: Auckland housing problem - Panel. The "slum landlord" jibe was in response to the deaths of state housing tenants Emma-Lita Bourne and Soesa Tovo, together with the reaction of the Minister of Building and Housing - see TV3's Nick Smith: Winter deaths 'not new'.

Nick Smith has incurred the wrath of Duncan Garner - see his must-read column: Nick Smith, the cold-hearted politician. Garner says: "His reaction to another death in a state house was colder than the house itself. Smith has demonstrated what a callous man he is, by claiming: "People dying in winter of pneumonia and other illnesses is not new." Poor form indeed from a mean, indifferent Cabinet minister".

Garner writes "Smith's public position on all this was woeful and arrogantly dismissive", but suggests Paula Bennett's position on housing is better than other senior colleagues: "John Key and Bill English are suggesting that a WOF scheme for houses will push up rents. Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett told me this week that too many children are living in damp, cold houses and it's unacceptable. She supports a WOF scheme - is there a Cabinet split forming here?"

Garner's columns are tremendous campaigning journalism - see Why are these four state houses empty? and The cold, hard truth about a little girl's death in a state house. He was responsible for publicising the tragedy of the toddler who died last year: "Please, remember this name: Emma-Lita Bourne. We should never forget her". He continues: "I'm sorry, but this is a national outrage. We're supposed to be a first world country. We're supposed to have a state welfare and health system to rival anywhere in the world".

Also campaigning strongly against Nick Smith and the Government on this issue is John Minto who says Nick Smith has blood on his hands and should resign. His argument is this: "In recent years, while the state housing stock has crumbled, successive National and Labour governments have demanded dividends from Housing New Zealand - dividends paid from the pockets of the most vulnerable low-income tenants and families in New Zealand... So while the government rakes in hundreds of millions from state house tenants it refuses to upgrade their homes to a decent standard - and it is unmoved if people die as a result".

Similarly, Frank Macskasy has been looking at Housing New Zealand annual reports and discovered some interesting statements about the decline in housing maintenance, which appear to be at variance with what the Government has been saying - see: Housing Minister Paula Bennett continues National's spin on rundown State Houses.

Death and poverty in housing

Prof Philippa Howden-Chapman, Director of the Housing and Health Research Programme at the University of Otago, has also played a strong role in publicising the issue. Howden-Chapman is quoted this week arguing that "1600 more New Zealanders die in winter than summer, and cold and damp homes such as those littered through Southland are major contributors" - see Ben Mack's Cold, damp homes a problem in Southland, experts say. She says: "There should be no difference between winter and summer. It's a pattern you shouldn't see if people are protected by adequate housing.... It's becoming a bigger problem. Wages are stagnant while electricity rates are going up".

Howden-Chapman is also cited on the topic of Emma-Lita Bourne's death, explaining why "this case has sparked a much bigger reaction than any statistical table could" - see Adam Dudding's story, Emma-Lita Bourne death: will anything change?. She says this particular death affected the debate because "this pretty little girl who was ill one day and dead the next - that's every parent's nightmare, so people find that easier to empathise with... It's a specific, tragic piece of evidence that helps us to see what are the costs of having really poor-quality housing for low-income households".

Of course, the problem is not simply about the physical conditions of rental properties, but also the cost of electricity to heat them. This is Phil Goff's point in his column, Rental homes need a warrant of fitness to keep kids healthy. Goff also complains "The increase to the benefit announced recently in the Budget amounts to $19 a week after deducting income-related rent increases. It won't make enough difference when power bills each winter run into hundreds of dollars a month. The benefit increase does not come into effect in any case until April next year".

Complaints from senior Labour MPs about the low rate of benefits won't be well received by those who experienced a Labour Government that refused to provide any increases. In fact, one leftwing blogger points the finger at Labour for the current "fuel poverty" crisis - see Steven Cowan's The problem is bigger than just Nick Smith.

The "unhealthy homes" debate is occurring internationally at the moment. Even in warmer Australia, there is unhappiness about the quality of housing and its contribution to illness, with a recent report showing that "more people die from the cold in Australia than in Sweden" - see Nick Roberts' Australian houses are just glorified tents in winter.

How much regulation for healthy homes?

The policy debate now revolves around how much the rental market should be regulated to ensure that houses are safe enough. Should some sort of Warrant of Fitness for houses be established? The Dominion Post has argued that "introducing basic standards for warm, dry houses is a direct way of fixing the worst cases. We do this for safe cars, for clean restaurants, for proper building work and for umpteen other things. There is a public health problem with our rental houses" - see the editorial, Bring in standards for rental houses. The newspaper argues "English has been outlining his theory of preventive social investment lately; he ought to apply it to inhumane rental houses"

Other newspaper editorials have been taking a similarly strong line - see the Herald on Sunday editorial: Sickening state of our rental properties. It complains about the plight of tenants, saying that "their situation will deteriorate further unless the Government responds with the required urgency. It is, unfortunately, showing scant evidence of doing so".

The Government will bring in some degree of increased regulation, but according to the best analysis of this, it's likely to be "a watery WoF" - see Vernon Small's Rental housing regulations warrant another look. Nonetheless the Government's response might be enough to assuage the growing anger: "It's a pragmatic approach which has served Key and his ministers well in the past - a sort of "just enough, just in time" management of emerging problems".

Of course the opposition politicians have been pushing for this for months now, and the Government voted down a private members bill to establish a housing WOF - see No Right Turn's Who voted against warm rental houses?. And even quite recently the Minister of Finance has expressed his opposition to such a scheme - see Jo Moir's English won't adopt Labour's 'extreme' housing warrant of fitness. And so a U-turn on this by National is perhaps a sign that "The government's polling must have been telling them about how angry the public are about that" - see No Right Turn's Half-measures on housing quality.

To see further arguments about the state intervening in regulation of the rental market, see academic lawyer Kris Gledhill's blog post, The Responsibilities of Government. Gledhill says that recent deaths "should make New Zealand angry with the powerful people in our society who control the purse strings. They are responsible for condemning thousands of children to life-threatening conditions".

Once again, this issue is not restricted to New Zealand - see the British Guardian report from yesterday: Landlords should be forced to provide cooker and fridge, says group of MPs.

Response from the right

But could state intervention make the situation worse? That's the common argument being put by the Government and rental industry. This is best expressed in Liam Hehir's column today, Housing WOF unlikely to have desired effect. He argues that tragic deaths are regrettably being used for political purposes, and that ultimately a "market oriented solution" will best deal with the situation, even if it takes some time.

There's some evidence about "unintended consequences" of state intervention - see David Farrar's blog post, If 90% fail, it's a silly test. He says: "This should ring major warning bells that the proposed WOF checklist would push up costs and eventually rents for pretty much every tenant and landlord in New Zealand. There might be some merit in some sort of WOF test which highlights the very worst properties as being sub-standard. But a test which sees 94% of properties fail is just some sort of unworldly wishlist". See also, Farrar's post, Labour trying to get 90% of rental properties removed!.

Mike Hosking has also expressed his reservation about Labour's proposal for a housing WOF, saying "It's not as simple as forcing landlords to insulate homes", and "let's not start with headline-grabbing, unrealistic bollocks - the likes we see, yet again, from the Labour Party" - see: Mike's Minute: Insulating homes.

And for further discussion of where we should draw the line on state intervention, see Pete George's How responsible is the Government for 'safe' houses?.

The plight of state housing tenants is also not always received sympathetically by the public - see TVNZ's 'Join the queue mate and stop moaning': Man told to wait 10 days to get heater fixed garners little sympathy.

Latest news on unhealthy homes

The public hunger for news about unhealthy homes is reflected in a huge increase in media stories. For example today, the Otago Daily Times reports: Family left out in cold after ditching power provider.

From Porirua there's a very well told story - and 2-minute video - about a family's experience and living conditions in a state house - see Jessie Edwards's Porirua dad fears for family's health in freezing, damp state house.

In Auckland, The Auckland City Mission reports that beggars on Queen St are no longer just the homeless, but now include those struggling to pay the rent - see Michael Sergel's Begging to cover rising rents.

Now the focus is turning to all of those houses that are being left empty - supposedly brought simply for capital gain - see TVNZ's 'Ghost houses' hit Auckland renting market. For more on this, see the more in-depth Metro magazine feature by Joanna Wane: Running on Empty.

This sort of story has the No Right Turn blogger saying: "Unoccupied houses impose costs on wider society. It is only fair that those costs be paid by those responsible for them: property owners who refuse to rent out their surplus homes. Homes are for people to live in, not some financial instrument for reaping secure, tax-free capital gains" - see: National's New Zealand.

Finally, and on an unrelated note - if you find this column too worthy or boring - try the parody version instead: Politics Daily - by Dr Bryce Edwards. This satire is on a new blog - New Zealand's Got Talent - the Media Edition by someone called "Shayne McLean". It's best thing since Steve Braunias began his Secret Diaries, and it skewers plenty of other political writers - see, for example, The (S)Hit Job - by Matthew Hooton.