Habitability data explainer
Housing habitability is one of the key elements of the right to a decent home
“As expressed in our right to a decent home guidelines, housing must provide adequate space and protection from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind, structural hazards, disease, and other threats to health. It should provide protection from, and mitigate, climate change. To put it simply – a decent home is a habitable home” says Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt.
From the many aspects of housing habitability, we have chosen three indicators - rates of damp and mould, household crowding, and cold - to show habitability trends in New Zealand.
Two out of three of these Measuring Progress indicators do not show any improvement in conditions in recent years. For one indicator, self-rated dampness and mould, we see a small improvement for rental housing. Overall progressive realisation has not been met for habitability.
“The right to a decent home applies to everyone across Aotearoa. But these indicators show that not everyone across the country is equally able to access decently habitable housing.
“Local and central government, and the private sector, have a human rights responsibility to reduce and eliminate this desperately unfair uneven enjoyment of the right to a decent home in our country.
“Healthy Homes legislation should help to improve housing overall and reduce the gap between owner-occupied and rental housing. But this will only be possible if there are effective accountability measures put in place to ensure that landlords comply, and it is not left up to vulnerable tenants to hold their landlords to account,” says Mr Hunt.
Why housing habitability matters
Housing habitability affects the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders, contributing to a burden of disease for people living in poor quality housing (Stats NZ, 2020). Poor housing conditions are one of the ways in which economic, social, and environmental inequality translates into health inequality (WHO, 2018). Improving housing habitability is key to achieving progressive realisation of the right to a decent home and reducing the physical and mental impacts of inequality.
Research has shown that although Aotearoa New Zealand has a temperate climate it has a high number of deaths in winter compared to other countries (Davie et al, 2007).
Even more important, this burden is not shared equally. People in lower income groups and rented homes have increased risk of winter death compared to those in owned homes or with higher incomes. Excess winter deaths in Aotearoa New Zealand have been linked to poorer health status, low indoor temperatures, and household crowding. (Hales S, Blakely T, Foster RH, et al, 2010) These are fundamental human rights issues.
In Aotearoa, tenure is a key determinant of inequality in housing – with most housing indicators showing rental housing is of significantly poorer quality than owner-occupied housing. There is considerable difference in home ownership rates between ethnic groups, with Māori and Pacific peoples particularly less likely to live in owner-occupied housing (as outlined in the Housing Affordability indicators). Improving rental housing will benefit groups who have lower rates of home ownership and help reduce the inequality gap in housing.
Legislation around rental housing standards likely to improve the housing habitability gap
Housing habitability is one area where we have seen legislative progress in recent years, particularly around rental housing. The Residential Tenancies Amendment Act 2020 required that rental housing should include minimum standards of heating, insulation, ventilation, protection against dampness, and draught stopping. This started with private landlords and boarding houses who had to comply by July 2021. Kāinga Ora homes will need to comply by July 2023 and all rental homes by July 2024 (Tenancy services, 2022). Because of data lags it will take time to see how this legislation improves habitability and progresses the right to a decent home, as most of the current housing data was collected prior to the standards being implemented.
From 2020, every landlord must include a statement in the tenancy agreement around insulation and compliance with healthy home standards. Currently, the system relies on tenants making a complaint to the Tribunal if they believe their landlord is not complying with the legislation. This is a weakness in the system, as tenants may be reluctant to do so, particularly if the rental market is tight. Introducing effective measures, including a compulsory rental housing warrant of fitness, would help to ensure that healthy homes legislation was upheld, and provide a robust measure of the healthiness of every rental home in Aotearoa New Zealand. This will contribute to protecting renters’ right to a decent home.
Rental housing more likely to be damp and mouldy
Dampness and mould are common in New Zealand homes (Stats NZ 2020). But evidence from a range of sources shows that, like cold, dampness and mould are worse in rental housing. The information included here is from the Household Economic Survey, which has asked people to rate the levels of dampness and/or mould in their houses since 2012.
Although rates of damp and mould have improved for rented homes since the year ended June 2019, the gap between owner-occupied and rented housing remains.
People without enough money for their everyday needs are less likely to have access to efficient heating and are also less likely to heat their homes, which can contribute to dampness in the home.
The proportion of damp homes was highest in Northland and Gisborne, followed by Auckland. For example, in Northland, over 1 in 4 houses had some dampness. In contrast, Marlborough and Tasman had the lowest rates, but even here over 1 in 10 dwellings experienced some dampness.
The right to a decent home applies across the country to everyone. But clearly this is not happening in practice in Aotearoa. Local and central government, and the private sector, have a human rights responsibility to reduce and eliminate this unfair uneven enjoyment of the right to a decent home in our country.
Pacific peoples continue to face household crowding at higher rates
Household crowding, which is more common among lower income households, also contributes to levels of dampness in the home (Stats 2020). There is considerable evidence linking household crowding with poor outcomes, and the World Health Organization (2018) notes that “Crowding is considered to be stressful to health and well-being across different cultures and aspects of life in low-, middle- and high-income countries”. Crowding is caused when the homes that people live in are too small to accommodate the number of people in a household (Stats NZ 2020).
Rates of household crowding vary by ethnicity with Pacific peoples consistently having the highest rates, and people with European ethnicity experiencing the lowest rates. The percentage of people living in crowded households fell through the 1980s and 1990s but has remained largely static since the turn of the century, and the difference between Pacific peoples and the total population is not closing.
Progress on the right to a decent home should focus on addressing such inequities to reduce the gaps for groups that are over-represented in crowded housing. Cultural preferences for multi-generational living need to be accommodated in the size and availability of suitable homes that can meet these needs. If the lack of suitable housing means families are having to live in crowded homes, this affects their habitability and is also a failure of cultural adequacy.
Vulnerable populations are more likely to experience cold homes
Like dampness and crowding, the burden of cold homes is not shared equally.
Data from the 2018 General Social Survey (GSS) showed that 36 percent of renters, compared to 22 percent of households generally, said their home was always or often cold in winter. This has not improved since the data was first collected in 2014. This indicates a significant level of inequality in people’s enjoyment of their human right to a decent home; vulnerable or marginalised groups are less likely to have access to a decent, habitable home.
Being cold in your home is not just about climate; the quality of the home is important too. People in Auckland were more likely than the national average (24 percent compared to 21 percent) to say they felt cold always or often, while people in Canterbury were less likely (14 percent).
Living in a home that is too cold has serious effects on health and wellbeing, particularly for the very old, the very young and people with disabilities. In 2018, the World Health Organisation found strong evidence linking cold homes with a range of health problems. In New Zealand people in cold, damp, and mouldy homes reported higher rates of colds, flu, and asthma, than people in warm dry homes (Stats NZ 2021). People in cold, damp, and mouldy homes also on average reported lower life satisfaction and had lower mental wellbeing scores (WHO5).
For countries with temperate or colder climates, 18°C has been proposed as a safe and well-balanced indoor temperature to protect the health of general populations during cold seasons.
Cold houses not only affect enjoyment of the right to a decent home, but they also affect the right to health protection and wellbeing.
Renters, Pacific peoples, Māori, the unemployed, one parent families, and disabled people, were groups among the most likely to say their dwelling was always or often cold in winter. Almost half of people renting from Kāinga Ora said their home was always or often colder than they would like in winter.
Recent cost of living rises may make people less likely to heat their homes
In the year ended December 2021, inflation rose by 5.9 percent from the previous year, which was the highest annual rate since the early 1990s. As the cost of living gets higher, people will cut down on spending. People on lower incomes may cut down on heating their homes.
Lower income households spend less on household energy than those with more income, but it’s a higher proportion of their total spending. In the April-June 2020 quarter, for the average household, around 5 percent of their weekly spending went on household energy ($56.40).
That jumps to around 8 percent for households with lower disposable incomes although they spent less on energy overall ($43.40). This already high proportion gives low-income households little flexibility to absorb rising energy costs by simply paying more, risking families having to make difficult choices between adequate heating and other necessities.
Poor standard of New Zealand housing has implications around climate change
Work by BRANZ and others also shows that New Zealand housing compares poorly internationally in protecting from and mitigating climate change.
Poorly insulated housing contributes to New Zealand greenhouse gas emissions (P Howden-Chapman et al 2017). In relation to climate change New Zealand needs to improve “the whole of the building life cycle – from design, construction, and use to demolition and reuse of materials. BRANZ research suggests future house design needs to limit our carbon footprint by reducing house size, by selecting lower-carbon materials, and by allowing for low carbon water and space heating (Stats NZ, 2020).”
The data indicators show that New Zealand is not progressively realising the right to a habitable home
These indicators show that despite a slight improvement in the damp and mould indicator, New Zealand is not progressively realizing the right to a habitable home.
This key element of the right to a decent home is not being achieved. Even worse, poor-quality housing affects people unequally.
Renters, Pacific peoples, Māori, the unemployed, one parent families, and disabled people are among the most likely to face poor housing conditions. Housing indicators show rental housing is of significantly poorer quality than owner-occupied housing. Improving housing habitability is key to achieving progressive realisation of the right to a decent home and reducing the physical and mental impacts of inequality.
The new healthy homes legislation is a step in the right direction. It will take time to see how this legislation improves habitability and progresses the right to a decent home. However, introducing effective accountability measures will be vital in progressing the right to a decent home, and to improve housing habitability for all New Zealanders.
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Hales S, Blakely T, Foster RH, et al. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (2010). doi:10.1136/jech.2010.111864
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