The blast which shook residents adjacent to an exploding Auckland sleepout this week will have fallout beyond the immediate neighbourhood. The couple who occupied the building were extremely fortunate to survive. Nearby homes escaped serious damage, even though the Fire Service estimated that the force of the explosion shunted a wall of the structure 30m.
Fire investigators say gas leaking around an oven tore the place apart. The Auckland Council says the building was not consented for a kitchen and is making inquiries. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment will also be taking an interest, because its responsibilities cover tenancy compliance and landlord obligations.
Given the shortage of housing and suitable accommodation in Auckland, there are many places like the New Windsor sleepout where the original council approvals have long been overtaken by circumstances. Equally there are many places occupied by desperate families where consents have never been issued and which would fail the public interest test in ensuring that landlords only let out sleeping quarters that are healthy, safe and consented as such.
In 2015 the council issued more than 700 notices requiring owners or landlords to fix their properties. In most cases the places were being used for unconsented accommodation. In the first six months of last year, it was reported that complaints about unsanitary and dangerous dwellings had reached 750 in central Auckland, with a further 500 in south Auckland.
One investigation involved a piggery converted into four accommodation units. A Tenancy Tribunal report this week included evidence that pumps were used to keep stormwater water out of a two-bedroom rumpus room.
Conversions often are done on the cheap and lack insulation and water tightness. The addition of cooking facilities heightens the risk of fire, which was graphically illustrated by the New Windsor explosion.
There is a clear incentive for landlords to meet their legal obligations. Insurance cover is likely to be voided if fire damages or destroys an unconsented property. Owners challenged to bring their properties up to standard face stiff fines or even demolition orders if they flout the law.
In many cases it is likely nothing will happen until inspectors act on complaints.
Given the scale of substandard accommodation, it may useful to consider alternative approaches to ensure that families who rent do have safe and healthy accommodation.
The American city of Denver is looking at adopting a "conditional occupancy" programme that would allow people to stay in buildings while improvements are made. Denver is grappling with similar problems to Auckland: rising property values have displaced families, pushing them into unpermitted properties.
Under the Denver plan, both owners and tenants can apply to the programme, which would see a property inspected and given conditional approval for occupancy as long as it does not present serious threats to health and safety. The owner or tenants would then work with officials to get the place up to standard.
The Colorado approach appeals in that it gives landlords an opportunity to get their house in order, allows tenants to stay where they are, and saves costly prosecutions. It is worth a look.