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University of Otago public health professor Philippa Howden-Chapman says we need an informed consensus about what good quality housing looks like in New Zealand and how we can be sure it is well built and maintained

University of Otago public health professor Philippa Howden-Chapman says we need an informed consensus about what good quality housing looks like in New Zealand and how we can be sure it is well built and maintained

The following article is the first section from Progressive thinking, ten perspectives on housing, a Public Service Association (PSA) publication. will be publishing the 10 chapters from different authors on various aspects of housing over the next week or so. The foreword, which was run earlier, is available here.

By Philippa Howden-Chapman*

We are coming up to an election where, by many accounts, housing is the area of most concern for voters.

Citizens’ concerns are the shortage of affordable housing, the poor quality of private rental housing, declining building standards with poor building practices leading to leaky buildings, and high levels of deferred maintenance in existing buildings. Even more disturbing, is that these housing issues are interacting to drive many of our major health problems in respiratory, cardiovascular and infectious diseases.

Growing numbers of children are in severe housing deprivation. Speaking more plainly, there are children living in cars, camping grounds, sheds, storage containers or doubled-up in crowded houses, with many more living in miserably, cold homes.

There are children who move round so often, usually from one rental property to another, that they never have a chance to do their best at school and beyond and as a result often form the long tail of poor school performers

There are 41,000 children hospitalised each year for medical conditions that we clearly now know are related to housing hazards like damp, cold, mould and crowding.

Hospitals overflow

Our hospitals overflow in winter. Unlike almost all developed countries, 1,600 more people die in the winter than in the summer months.

The solutions are multifaceted, but clear. We need to change our views about the critical importance of good housing. We need to come to an informed consensus about what good quality housing looks like in New Zealand and how we can be sure it is well built and maintained.

Responsibility starts from the top.

We need a Minister of Housing, and preferably a Minister of Housing and Urban Development, who is responsible for: construction standards; incentives for building affordable housing; building and management of state housing; regulatory standards for both state and private rental housing; and, who clearly understands housing must be planned to encourage active travel and neighbourhood and city design. This is a daunting list, but in a country of less than five million surely doable.

We need a Minister of Housing who recognises that we cannot improve the quality of housing in New Zealand until we join the rest of the developed world in having reliable statistics about the quality of existing housing; so-called ‘tier one’ statistics.

Like the United Kingdom, we must know what proportion of our houses are “decent.” We need to know whether things are improving or getting worse on the housing front, so that we can allocate funding appropriately.

Understanding the fundamental connections

We need a government with a Cabinet that understands the fundamental connections between housing, health, energy, climate change, education and social inclusion.

The Minister of Housing needs support in Cabinet to prioritise housing improvements and set firm, monitored targets for affordable housing in the private sector, as well as state and community housing. The Minister of Housing needs to work closely and collaboratively with local governments, which like the Wellington City Council have set up taskforces to consider the range of problems facing the city and invest in a range of solutions.

The Council is using the capital grant from the former Labour Government to upgrade its modernist apartment blocks with outstanding results. Working with dedicated developers and community housing organisations, the Council is building more affordable housing and refurbishing available commercial buildings as affordable apartments, following the use of similar buildings for student accommodation.

The Council is committed to introducing a rental housing warrant of fitness and working with academics to evaluate the benefits and costs of this scheme, for the health of tenants and the effects on landlords and the council.

We are a highly educated population. We can learn by doing – if we plan social experiments thoughtfully, roll out our plans more widely if they work, and change direction if they do not.

Who pays?

Who should pay for housing improvements? Take the example of retrofitting insulation into existing houses, which make up the bulk of our housing stock and were built before there were any regulations. Uninsulated houses are energy inefficient and expensive to heat.

Cold houses are damp houses and mould, which grows better in damp houses, can cause asthma as well as making asthma symptoms worse.

Living in cold housing is depressing. Until recently, there has been multiparty support for this policy, which has driven outstanding and carefully measured benefits in health, reduced hospitalisations, reduced mortality, improved energy efficiency and carbon reductions.

The benefits are six times as large as the costs for younger and older people and four times for the general population.

The uniquely, rigorous nature of our evidence has been noted by the International Energy Agency, the OECD and the World Health Organisation. Why then is the current government stopping the Warm Up New Zealand Programme? It appears that the Government thinks that the benefits, such as warmth and comfort, are largely private.

Ignoring the cogent argument

The Government seems to be ignoring the cogent argument that, because there are clear and significant public benefits, public money should be invested in this programme.

After the Canterbury earthquakes, the Government has partially funded showpiece anchor projects as part of Christchurch’s regeneration, but has not adequately invested in affordable housing.

Yet, public benefits are also clear for affordable housing - no private developers, unless they are philanthropists, build quality housing at the low-income end of the market. Having secure, warm housing helps children thrive and helps keep the young and old out of hospital.

There is now sadly a welter of research evidence that poor housing causes poor health, stress and misery. Happily, there is also clear evidence that insulated housing, with effective non-polluting heating, improves and maintains the health and well-being of the occupants and enables them to fully participate in community life.

To adequately house all New Zealanders, we all need to accept that just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a country to care that everyone has a secure, warm, dry house to live in.

That means that we will all need to vote for real social investment and be willing to contribute according to our means.  

*Philippa Howden-Chapman is a professor of public health at the University of Otago’s Wellington campus. She is director of He Kainga Oranga/ Housing and Health Research Programme and the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities.
the views expressed in the publication belong to their authors and do not necessarily represent the view of PSA members or the organisation.

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Would it be fair to say that right wing people don't like the voice of academic reason. They think they are smart, but are challenged by those clearly smarter? In the same breath it could be said that academia are guilty of leaning too mindlessly to the left, thus undermining their own credibility.

Sell it to the right: invest in good quality housing or pay more in taxes for healthcare
Sell it to the left: everyone regardless of background should have the right to a healthy home


I have recently moved into a new Passive House that I have designed and built. The housing health quality is night and day compared even compared to an NZ code new build. the main differences are:
- The temperature stays at 20-25 degrees year round without heating
- All rooms are at the same temperature
- Fresh, warm, humidity-controlled air is constantly circulated throughout the house by the whole house heat-recovery ventilation
- No internal surface is below 17 degrees meaning condensation is not possible
- Any moisture from showering/cooking is quickly removed by the ventilation system

The outcome is a consistently warm home with no dampness. While this currently costs more to build, in progressive countries which have adopted these standards, they are building them at the same cost as standard housing. If the government was to bulk build these via prefabrication to standard designs, they could improve health outcomes and remove fuel poverty. This would be a massive payback in health terms.

It makes a big difference. I live in a code compliant house. The temperature does fall more but heating and humidity control is a lot easier than while flatting.

Every place I rented was completely crap with no insulation, often made of concrete or concrete block infill. Damn freezing. The only timber house I lived in was rotting away. It's going to take a very long time for our housing stock to improve substantially.

Current code is better than old code but some of the areas are completely sub-standard e.g. solid aluminium window frames, windows mounted in-line with the cladding, thermal bridging, lack of airtightness and appropriate ventilation. Improving these would greatly increase house quality and health outcomes.

All of those are issues. My double glazing does transfer a lot of heat through the solid aluminium frames. Still it's better than any other place I've lived in by several orders of magnitude.

Once I moved in my health improved and even my skin felt different due to the lower humidity. The code minimum is ok, but is still the code minimum.

A lot of our difficulties come from the practice of timber framed homes, too complex.
For a change there is an aerated fired clay block home being built in our area, no timber, only a forklift required.
The blocks are german apparently,and will be plastered inside and out.
High mass so should have limited overnight temperature variation.
Probably suitable for Auckland province.

Are those the nifty blocks which have a chemical added to them which fizzes into gas bubbles like baking powder in a cake?

i assume so but there isnt much lying around the site that gives a clue, i guess they are like aerated concrete, Hebel, but I could be wrong.
They have a ribbed surface, which a local tradesman tells me will be plastered and they are held in compression by a top plate to satisfy the engineers, very much a high glaze brick finish.

I saw a thing on the teev showing how they were made and have been fascinated ever since. Started with concrete, added reactive chemicals that would produce gas, poured it into molds and left it to rise. They showed it on time-lapse and it was exactly like baking a cake.

Presumably it'd be a much more efficient insulator than traditional bricks and concrete blocks with the cavities inside.

The gas bubbles dont circulate and move heat, too small.
In a decade or so cheap electricity may make simple constructions like that comfortable using wall panel
heaters, supplemented by heat pumps, supplied from your roof of course.

Spoke to the builder, blocks and plaster both have insulating value and local council are happy with engineers sign off. But this is a warm climate.
The blocks also absorb moisture.
It should be possible to build one and lift a second story on in 50 years, whats not to like?

I have built and live in a passive house. Warm as toast and dry as anything. Cheap to run as well. Beats me as to why folk still build crap houses. But it is the New Zealand way.

There are only 19 of us in NZ currently so it has a long way to go before it becomes mainstream.

Cheap energy from the roof may change how we think about houses in another decade perhaps.
It may make homes healthier because the inhabitants dont have to choose between the cost of comfort and their favourite vice.

Perhaps the solution is to take the speculation out of housing. Make housing serve its first purpose, supporting production by accommodating the workers. If we want a productive economy we need housing to be subservient to production.

It would also be good to see sustainability built into the equation. If you put more effort into the quality of housing I would suspect you would take out some of the speculative element. The reasons for building become more supported, and more sound.


It's staggering to think the taxpayer has to pick up the tab by being the literal ambulance at the bottom of the dampness hill, rather than houses having to be in decent condition. We're not allowed to sell a car (for road use) that's in substandard condition, but we're allowed to rent out substandard hovels that ultimately cause a financial burden on the health system - all to avoid the inconvenience of having a cost to investors that's in reality little more than a measure of professionalism.

Renting a house is a business, right? If a business makes someone sick due to a lack of reasonable preventative action, shouldn't health and safety come and shut the place down and fine them? Is there anything in law specifically protecting landlords?

Probably that the people who write the rules are darklords themselves and therefore don't want to create policy that will deflate the price of their portfolio, or generate actual work for their 'business'.

When there is a housing shortage shutting people out of low standard housing will force people into homelessness.


This article highlights the absurdity of and failing of the NZ housing market. Much of the housing stock is of very poor quality and yet NZ housing by many measures is some of the world’s most expensive. Just how stupid are we ?

Very stupid.

We seem to do all of the checks at build time (which adds significantly to the cost IMO), and no checks afterwards. This incentives us to hold on to old, substandard houses. It would be like removing the car WOF system and replacing it with a highly expensive check on every new car with nothing afterwards.
It would make more sense to have every house checked every ten years, and if it fails, it either has to be remedied or deemed uninhabitable.

And also mandatory at the time of sale so the new owner can assess the work required to bring it up to scratch

If Phil Goff stopped choking land supply to Auckland we would build more houses and the slum lord investors would go broke as people move out of crap housing. This would cost nothing and work.

But Phil Goff is a progressive which means we need to create a new ministry, organise a big survey, consult endlessly, spend more money, tax everything, create an NGO to run a public funded campaign, advertise, consult some more and then declare success, whilst quietly winding up the program, redirecting funds to whatever new problem-of-the-future-day is deemed more worthy of attention. Ah, progress.

This is a poor excuse for National's inaction.

National has enough power to completely reorganise the local government landscape over their nine years in government, creating a super-behemoth-monstrosity-city, yet not enough power to influence any change in land supply rules? They've made plenty of noise about it...

It just looks like another effort to blame anyone but themselves after nine years of inaction.

It has and never will be in National's ideology to address housing - leave it to the market to dictate. Removing the role of Minister for Housing was an example of this.

That is sadly what our country has voted for - for 9 years. Even the sensible politicians in National (there are a few) acknowledge the problem using the words "challenge" and recently "pressure" but are resigned to their mantra "the market dictates".

I've resigned myself to the fact that what National and most of their voters want is to protect their net wealth and not see their hard earned taxes spent on those in a less well off position.
Ironically, this govt have confused their stance by spending millions of tax-payers money on the less well off - it would make any die hard Greens supporter proud. I suppose they have bowed to public and media pressure on the subject of homelessness.

If National are re-elected don't expect much different.


Are they expressly forbidden by their leadership from acknowledging the existence of a housing crisis? (The same crisis they originally campaigned on.)

Yes, absolutely forbidden. That doesn't mean to say they're not agreeing we're in a housing crisis, they're just not permitted to use the word for fear of doing nothing to curb it.

New Zealanders are to blame, because we accept as a culture that crap houses are ok. Until we wake up, develop an investment mentality, and work out that well built houses are actually cheaper when you look long term, no amount of government is going to change it.

Most of the building materials are only rated for 50 years so maybe demolition or upgrade to current standard after that perhaps?
That would mean most of our housing stock would need an upgrade to current code.

The sad thing about this well-intentioned piece of research is that implementing it is nigh-on impossible for housing stock built before (say, SWAG here) 1975. Even a brief survey of a house pre this era will reveal:

  • Not level (probably to > 50mm)
  • Not square - so the combination makes e.g. windows warp, complicating double glazing or replacement
  • Rot (dry, wet and other) in structural components
  • Touch an old lath-and-plaster wall or ceiling and kiss goodbye to it - total replacement needed, and that's just to get at the void behind, let alone what horrors lie in the dark there
  • Foundations suspect (ring cracked or absent - one of my houses had bricks tossed in mortar on uncompacted sand - piles sunken, AWOL or having an air gap above them) and that all presupposes there's crawl space underneath...
  • Roof leaks and dampness (especially on internal guttering, which has a dreadful record over decades
  • Rubber-coated or older (braided in conduit) wiring throughout, if so, budget $30K replacement if ya wants insurance cover...
  • Plumbing contains much lead or galv, some oxidised and crumbly, some perfect. Budget $30K for plumbing replacement especially if the lead is in water supply piping or if the galv has pin-holed

The point is that even touching an older house (and this could easily be 1/3rd of the total stock) is an exercise only for the deep of pocket and the brave of heart, because of the hidden horrors they mostly all contain. So instead of an easy-peasy WOF, it will be a Big Yellow Machine demo, a rebuild, and only if ECON101 stacks up. Sure it will then be a nice, small, warm shack. But at 2+ times the old rent...

Couldnt stop laughing.
Its lets be honest day.
And even, if the inhabitant is short if money, or was bought up to be frugal, they turn the heating off.

I don't have any heating to turn off...

i wonder how many of those hospitalised would be related to people using unvented gas heaters and closed windows day and night.

The researchers would have a fair idea.

Its a good way to get pneumonia, as is ice on the inside of the bedroom window...