It’s time to ban cold, damp houses


PARTING SHOT: When I returned to Queenstown from Sydney in 2007 my mum made up a care package.

There were various basic ingredients and a few cans of food which regularly featured in the pantry while I was growing up.

What I remember most is the bottle of olive oil.

I’d arrived in winter and my mate let me stay in the spare room of his reasonably new Fernhill house. I got a shock when I realised “new” didn’t automatically mean “warm”.

We’d play video games across from the heater and hardly feel the warmth. Blankets were compulsory.

Most of the heat disappeared to the top level.

The bedrooms were on the lower levels and seemed as cold as a Wampa cave (for those who know their Star Wars movies).

One night was particularly cold. As I shivered under the covers I remember thinking it would be interesting to have a thermometer.

In the morning I realise I didn’t need one. The olive oil had frozen solid in the bottle.

At the time it was a badge of honour. “I stayed at my mate’s place and survived,” I said with a fake cough.

But my temporary situation highlights a shocking problem.

Many New Zealand homes, especially in alpine areas, are not built properly. Not only that but no one seems willing to force dodgy landlords to do anything about it.

Sneering politicians say in places like Dunedin’s student quarter, cheaper houses (read: damp and cold) fill an important need.

They argue mandating insulation and efficient heating will only push prices up - and therefore nothing should be done.

That’s gutless twaddle.

We know that cold and damp houses lead to increased respiratory illnesses. That’s any home under the World Health Organisation minimum of 16 degrees.

You need only look at the coroner’s finding in the death of Otara toddler Emma Lita-Bourne - who lived in a cold, damp state house - to see what that does to kids.

A report for the Asthma Foundation says one in every eight overnight hospitalisations is because of respiratory illness.

Worryingly, those hospitalisation rates are on the rise.

The report estimates respiratory problems cost the country almost $500 million in 2011 in doctors’ bills, medicine and hospital treatment. A further $5.2 billion in costs is lumped on for death and disability.

Yet cowboy landlords and their lapdog rental agencies are renting out substandard homes with impunity.

It’s got to stop. The government and councils need to stop wringing their hands and get tough.

In a Christchurch house I used to part-own, we paid about $5000 (with government subsidy) for better insulation.

We’ve just shelled out $8000 for retrofitted double-glazing in our Queenstown pad.

We’re lucky - we can afford it.

But what about the people in Queenstown staffing our supermarkets, helping us off ski lifts and driving delivery vehicles for pizza chains?

My English wife is appalled at the state of NZ’s houses. She’s often said if she wins the lottery she’d set up a trust to slowly improve the insulation and heating for those who couldn’t afford it.

She’s got her priorities right. It’s time the authorities checked theirs.

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