A chronic shortage of appropriate housing in Rotorua is dangerously affecting residents' health - to a point where people are being hospitalised for illnesses such as sepsis, pneumonia, respiratory infections and rheumatic fever. All because of unhealthy homes. Mould on walls, windows, curtains and ceilings, mildew, leaky roofs, too many people in one home, broken windows and poor insulation are all contributing factors to these illnesses. Some organisations are trying to change the situation for about 830 families so far by providing the much-needed support and advice for people who need it. Samantha Olley reports.
A baby crawls just inside the front door's jagged glass panes.
They've been broken so many times the owner's given up fixing them.
A dozen people live in the three-bedroom house.
Water leaks from the roof and streams down past electrical fittings and missing sockets.
The latchless windows, handleless doors, and holes in the walls allow draughts to slice through the rooms and hallways covered in mould.
Mouldy walls, mouldy curtains, and mouldy ceilings.
The owner has serious health issues and can't work, the property was mortgaged and there's nothing left for repairs.
A mother living in the house shares her bed with her three kids.
Another pregnant mother moves out with her child hoping for a warmer, drier setting for her newborn due in a month.
For many Kiwis this scenario is hard to fathom but it is based on case studies the Rotorua Healthy Homes team has dealt with.
Service manager Mary McLean leads a team of five based at the Western Heights Health Centre, including mother and daughter Carol and Robyn Fisher.
They work alongside agencies such as Tipu Ora, Te Puni Kōkiri, Te Oho Mauri and Te Arawa Whānau Ora, Sustainability Options, Safekids, and the Rotorua Energy Charitable Trust to improve living conditions and reduce housing-related illnesses that are killing New Zealanders.
These illnesses include lower respiratory tract infections, pneumonia, sepsis caused by strep throat, meningococcal and rheumatic fever.
The service and its partners held their latest six-monthly meeting this month, where McLean reiterated the underlying issue was a chronic shortage of appropriate housing.
She later told the Rotorua Daily Post, "This lack of supply means tenants are often very reluctant to engage with landlords about improvements and the quality of housing has a detrimental effect on health."
Healthy Homes has dealt with more than 830 referrals from agencies since it started in Rotorua in 2014.
The Ministry of Health funds one co-ordinator in Rotorua and three part-time assessors.
Philanthropic funding and donations from the Rotorua community and partnerships fund the rest of the team's work.
They receive about $60,000 per year for interventions - including supplying mould treatment kits, heating, dehumidifiers, draught stoppers, draught-proofing tape, blankets, sheet sets, pillows, mattress protectors, beds, bunks, cots, mattresses, flooring, safety products, curtains, and even food parcels.
This help can depend on landlord co-operation if property alterations are needed.
Bubble wrap is one of the most resourceful tools - it traps a layer of air to help insulate against cold air moving in and out of windows.
"The bubble wrap isn't quite as flash as double glazing, but stuck on with a little water, it is cheap and effective," McLean said.
Fire and Emergency New Zealand install fire alarms and do fire safety checks.
The Ministry of Social Development ensures families are receiving all they are entitled to.
Healthy Homes also helps families to apply for social housing, often attending interviews with the clients.
Referrals come from a wide variety of agencies including the paediatric ward at Rotorua Hospital, government departments, Plunket, early childhood education centres.
"Some families refer themselves having seen neighbours or extended families receive the service."
Each family helped must have a Community Services Card, or be eligible for one, must live in the Rotorua or Turangi area and at least one member of the household has to be a New Zealand resident or permanent citizen.
They must then fall into one of four criteria, which list poverty and health risks.
The Rotorua Daily Post spoke to a Rotorua woman who had been helped by the service, but was embarrassed about it and did not want to be named.
She attended two workshops last year, and her house was assessed.
"I learned stuff that I had no idea about ... It made a hell of a lot of difference. I got a heat pump and got rid of our old cabinet heater. It's a wonder we didn't kill ourselves with the fumes."
She then told others in her family and neighbourhood about Healthy Homes.
They then applied for funding available for insulation and new fireplaces.
"I am feeling way better going into this winter. Before I used the service, my power bill could be up to $600 a month, on top of $1000 I had paid for firewood that year. It was just ridiculous."
The Government established the Healthy Homes initiative in 2013 in response to New Zealand's rates of rheumatic fever - some of the worst in the OECD.
By 2016 the national rate had reduced from four cases per 100,000 people to three per 100,000.
Toi Te Ora Public Health data shows that between 2009 and 2013 the Lakes DHB's overall rate of rheumatic fever was 7.7 cases per 100,000 - well above national rates.
The Lakes DHB rate dropped to 4.7 per 100,000 between 2011 and 2016, but this figure was still above the national average.
A Lakes DHB spokeswoman said Healthy Homes was one of a group of initiatives that had directly reduced rheumatic fever risks in the area.
Organisations that help Healthy Homes
Rotorua Curtainbank sends most of its curtains to Healthy Homes to help tenants.
The volunteer-run organisation is seeing more demand than ever.
"Since we've moved to the racecourse it seems donations and requests just keep growing," volunteer Val Turner said.
"Normally we close down for six to eight weeks over summer which we thought of as downtime but over the past summer, we did nearly 600 volunteer hours between September and March and curtained 46 homes. Over the three months in winter, we had curtained 69 homes and put in 400 volunteer hours."
She is one of about 12 volunteers who spend half a day a week helping check donated curtains for stains, grime, or mould, then measuring then, folding them, labelling them and sorting them.
"Some volunteers come in and do sewing - repairing good curtains, lining, or making new ones from donated fabric."
Love Soup also works with Healthy Homes.
"Healthy Homes approaches us, and we see how we can help. We get donated items through our partnerships with motels, things like fridges and dehumidifiers and furniture and then provide them to those who need them," co-manager Elmer Peiffer said.
The whānau are also alerted to times, dates and locations when they can receive support from Love Soup's food rescue programme.
Peiffer said Healthy Homes referrals sometimes came once a week, and other times once every few months.
"These people end up so much better off - kept warm, dry and out of hospital."
Nationally, one of Healthy Homes' newest supporters is the Warehouse, which is supplying heaters, curtains, bedding, rugs and associated products.
The company's sourcing chief executive, Tania Beynon, says a new online portal has been set up so that Healthy Homes team members can select the products needed for each client.
"The Warehouse then ships the products directly to the user."
Healthy Homes also receives major support from the Rotorua Energy Charitable Trust, the Western Heights Community Association, One Foundation, The Rotary Charity House, Choices Flooring, Alsco, The Tindell Foundation and Four Winds.
Healthy Homes tips
• Open your curtains during the day and close them at night
• Stop cold air getting into your home with draught stoppers around windows, fireplaces, and doors
• Check you have the best heating option for your home and ensure your hot water cylinder is set at the right temperature
• Wipe off any water that collects on walls and the inside of windows
• Let steam out in the kitchen and bathroom
• Use white vinegar to remove mould from ceilings and walls (never mix bleach and vinegar)
• Dry your washing outside or in the garage or carport
• Open your windows for at least a few minutes each day
• Find out if your home is insulated, you may qualify to have insulation installed for free (go to energywise.govt.nz )