The Government has invested $360 million in subsidies to insulate the nation's houses, but those who need warm, dry homes are still missing out. The Herald on Sunday today launches a campaign for minimum standards for all homes - not just newly built ones - which must be met before they are sold or rented out. Susan Edmunds reports.
Every morning, Kim Allison wakes up depressed. The 21-year-old has a second baby due in December, but she's struggling to make her home habitable. She and her husband Isaac, 23, can see their breaths puff white in the cold air.
Icy wind rattles the walls, and the log burner struggles to heat their three-bedroom home. The worst thing is the damp.
Her voice thick with a cold, Allison says she and her two-year-old daughter Alice have been sick all winter. The bassinet set up for her new baby is covered with mould.
"I know we should be grateful that we have a place at all," she says.
"Some people are living in caravans. But I really don't want to have a newborn here."
Kim and Isaac pay $340 a week rent for their uninsulated home in St Albans, Christchurch. Their last power bill was $730, so there's not much money left over to pay for dehumidifiers or extra heating.
Her landlords, unsure of their plans for the property, don't want to spend thousands on getting it insulated. But living in the house is hard.
"I've had a head cold throughout this whole pregnancy. But I don't take sick days because I'd rather stay at work where there are heat pumps."
It's little consolation to Allison that she is not alone: a million New Zealand houses are uninsulated. The Herald on Sunday is campaigning for minimum insulation standards for all homes - not just new builds - when they are sold or rented.
By all accounts, the Warm Up New Zealand programme, started in 2009 to subsidise the cost of insulating the country's homes, has been a success.
About 230,000 houses will have been insulated over the scheme's first four years, compared to the original target of 188,500. But the benefits are not reaching the group that needs them most: tenants.
Just five per cent of landlords have bought into the scheme, so those in rental accommodation - statistically those on the lowest incomes and most susceptible to poverty-related illnesses - are missing out.
By international standards, New Zealand houses tend to be seriously under-insulated.
Green Party housing spokeswoman Holly Walker says some of the problem might be due to the New Zealand "settler mentality".
Houses were put up quickly and expected to last a long time. Before 1978, new houses didn't have to have any insulation.
Walker studied in Oxford and lived in a house built in 1556 that was "warmer and better insulated than the house I live in now".
Students who might relish their substandard conditions as part of a rite of passage brag about how damp and mouldy their homes are. But it's a different matter for a family with children.
Dr Brad Novak, Auckland medical officer of health, says the World Health Organisation recommends indoor air temperature be between 18C and 21C; in a New Zealand winter, the average indoor temperature is just 16C.
"This greatly increases the risk of respiratory conditions," Novak says.
The Warm Up New Zealand scheme is a diluted version of what the Greens would have liked. The party struck a deal with the previous Labour Government to fund retrofitting of insulation for 10 years at a cost of $1 billion. But when National came to power, that was downgraded to four years and $360 million.
The Government picks up the tab for 33 per cent of the costs of retrofitting insulation - or 60 per cent if a house's inhabitants have a community services card. Landlords with low-income tenants are eligible for this.
The money for the scheme was due to run out in July next year but efficiencies in the delivery of the service have meant enough money is left over to continue the scheme until the middle of 2014.
Greens co-leader Metiria Turei wants to extend that, but is finding the Government hard to pin down.
"Industry has investment in the programme now and if there is no certainty of funding it raises questions for them about their business," she says.
Housing Minister Phil Heatley says the Government will make a decision as part of the next Budget process.
Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority chief executive Mike Underhill says the biggest challenge has been ensuring that the insulation installation is of high standard.
Planning, standards and audits are the key to avoiding problems, Underhill says.
"You can't just go into roofs and start throwing the stuff around."
As well as the initial installation, houses are given a follow-up check to make sure it has been done correctly. About 90 per cent pass.
Underhill says one of the scheme's big surprises is that significantly more low-income homes (whose occupants have Community Services Cards) have been retrofitted than expected.
The scheme started with a target of 60,000 low-income homes and 120,000 middle-income. But a huge demand from low-income earners meant 105,000 houses have been done with the 60 per cent subsidy - a 70 per cent increase on the original target.
Gisborne, where 23.9 per cent of properties were retrofitted, has had the biggest uptake, followed by Hawke's Bay (18.9) and Wellington (15.8) and Underhill says $80 million has been contributed by other groups, such as local energy trusts and even commercial businesses, on top of the Government subsidy.
"That means a lot of Community Services cardholders have found they've not had to pay much of the insulation bill at all."
About 70 per cent of the country's ratepayers have the option of paying the cost off through their rates. If they then sell, the debt stays with the property. Banks are also offering loans to cover the cost.
Tony Snushal, of Smart Energy Solutions, one of the country's largest providers of insulation under the scheme, says some of the earliest adopters were retired people on fixed incomes. Most wanted to reduce the running costs of their homes and improve their health.
One such retiree is Joe Tairua. His home cost several thousand dollars to insulate, despite the subsidy.
"We've saved money for our retirement so we are able to do things like that, but for people on a low income, it's hard."
Albrecht Stoecklein, of Right House, one of the scheme's insulation providers, agrees a few fall through the cracks: they earn too much to qualify for a Community Services Card, but not enough to be able to pay for 66 per cent of the cost of insulation.
"We're still looking at people who can afford a couple of thousand dollars. For lots of people in the current economic situation, that's not affordable."
Whatever the costs, the health benefits easily outweigh them, proponents say. Holly Walker says the most recent research concludes the scheme has saved $1 billion in health bills already.
"It's probably the single biggest thing we can do to improve child health in New Zealand given our high rates of infectious diseases that are related to poor quality, overcrowded housing," she says.
Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, of the Department of Public Health at Otago University, who has worked on several cost-benefit studies on the insulation programme, found that for the first 46,000 homes insulated under the Warm Up New Zealand scheme, the benefits outweighed the costs four-to-one: for every dollar spent, there were $4 of savings in healthcare costs. In a study of 4407 people, she found that insulation decreased household energy consumption by 19 per cent.
"It's a very, very good investment," she says.
"Insulating existing houses led to a significantly warmer, drier indoor environment and resulted in fewer days off school and work, and visits to GPs, as well as fewer hospital admissions for respiratory conditions."
Another report says there is $860 in savings for the Government each year for every house insulated - so the initial investment quickly pays itself off.
Walker says reports indicate the scheme may have saved the lives of as many as 18 older people. The researchers came to that conclusion by monitoring people over 65 who had previously been hospitalised for respiratory illnesses.
Insulation has been on the Government's agenda for a while. Housing New Zealand has had a retrofitting programme in place since 2001 and 35,000 of the 70,000 properties around New Zealand have been upgraded so far.
In the 2011/2012 year, Housing New Zealand is expecting to complete about another 5000 retrofits and 500 heater installations. Next year it is planning 7900 retrofits and 870 heater installations.
Sean Bignell, asset development general manager, says all state rental properties will be insulated "where practicable" (some properties can't be insulated because the floor is too low, or they have concrete floors and walls).
But if state tenants are in line for upgrades, private tenants have no such protection.
Only 26,000 of the country's roughly 500,000 private rental properties have been insulated, and landlords have been slow to take up the subsidy.
"We're doing our best to encourage it," Underhill says, "but it is an issue."
Snushal puts it more bluntly.
"If you want to set up a boarding kennel or a cattery you have to satisfy a local body that it is suitable for cats or dogs, that they'll be healthy and happy. But if you want to rent a house out to a low-income family with little kids, you can rent them a cardboard box."
He doubts the situation will change for tenants until legislation is introduced to force landlords to insulate their properties.
The Green Party has a bill in the ballot that would introduce minimum energy-efficiency standards for rental accommodation. Walker says landlords have probably been slow to take up the offer because they don't directly benefit from the insulation: it's not the landlord who feels warmer in their home. She's hoping the way to encourage them is a bit of carrot and a bit of stick - minimum standards along with incentives.
Debbie, who doesn't want her last name used, for fear of upsetting her landlord, says minimum standards for rentals are overdue. She pays $420 a week for her rental in Mt Wellington and says it's always cold. Sleeping with beanies on hasn't stopped almost everyone in her household getting sick this winter, and taking weeks to recover.
"We've asked the landlords to insulate but they won't spend the money."
Auckland Property Investors Association President David Whitburn has insulated six of his own properties but says some landlords have been burned by suppliers putting up their fees for those getting subsidies.
He says many landlords cannot afford to insulate. "Some have their own financial issues with properties in small towns or rural areas being vacant, so they don't have the cashflow to afford it. Others I know believe that their rental properties are warmer than their own homes."
Others won't insulate until they have a tenant with a Community Services Card, and can get the higher subsidy, he says.
Hamilton woman Anne Eddy knows that first-hand. A year ago, she asked her landlord to insulate her rental property, worried about the health of her two children, who are now 13 and 11. Her landlord agreed, knowing her Community Services Card would mean the 60 per cent subsidy.
The next day the real estate agent came and put up the sign to say it was for sale. The advertising used the new insulation as a drawcard and within two months, Eddy and her children were moving into a new rental. She says people need to be aware that some landlords are abusing the scheme.
Kim Allison and her husband have been able to break their 12-month lease and plan to buy a home through the Welcome Home scheme. She wants to be able to bring her new baby home in December to a warm, dry bedroom.
But she says as a young family, they can't afford to buy anything with insulation. The house they have their eyes on is 140 years old and uninsulated. But there is no question which renovation will be top of their list when they get their hands on the keys.
"The first thing we'll be doing is getting insulation," she says.