Study finds many property owners won't fix houses despite knowing of serious health and safety risks for tenants

Many property owners wouldn't improve their homes and rentals even if they knew they weren't up to scratch, according to a new study.

University of Otago researchers had warrant-of-fitness (WOF) checks carried out on 83 homes in Taranaki, 92 percent of which failed.

The most common reasons were failing to have functional spouting and stormwater functions, missing ground vapour barriers, decks and other surfaces being slippery and covered in moss, missing window security stays and wet underfloors.

They later interviewed 40 of the owners - four of them landlords - and found a quarter of them had not made any plans to fix anything at all, largely because of cost.

"This study indicates that people provided with a WOF assessment on their residential properties are often unwilling to ameliorate identified health and safety problems," the study's authors wrote in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, suggesting subsidies might be needed to sort the problem out.

"Providing funding support to make improvements, as well as additional information to explain how improvements are likely to boost the health and safety of occupants and of visitors, could encourage owners to make improvements that have demonstrated health and safety benefits."

Another approach could be to toughen the law.

"The extant evidence on how rental regulation encourages owners to make improvements to their property suggests that a rental WOF needs to be mandatory to induce important improvements in housing and consequent health and safety outcomes."

Some owners weren't even aware their properties had problems. About a third of owners whose homes had issues said they thought there wasn't anything wrong.

"Our study supports research showing that one of the barriers to making housing improvements is a lack of knowledge about the home's defects, or believing the property is in better condition than it objectively is."

One of the most common issues was a failure to have secure storage in the kitchen out of children's reach. Fewer than half of homes passed this requirement, and only two of the 19 owners whose homes failed said they'd remedy it.

As for a ground vapour barrier - which would cost about $200 to fix - only two of the 22 owners whose properties failed said they'd get one installed. Some admitted to not knowing what a ground vapour barrier even was, or thought it would make dampness worse.

Renters United says the results of the study raise "serious questions".

The tenants' advocacy group says there is only one way Healthy Home Standards can be "meaningfully implemented and enforced" - and that's through a WOF scheme.

"Such a scheme already exists for commercial rental properties," it told Newshub.

"Like that scheme, private landlords should hire a trained assessor to determine whether their property complies with the Healthy Homes Standards.

"The cost of such inspections would be reasonable, around $250, and last multiple years. That is a small price to pay for healthy homes."

The study's authors noted that as the vast majority of those interviewed were owner-occupiers, it was difficult to draw conclusions on whether landlords would be less willing to upgrade their rentals than their own homes.

They also note that just because a property owner said they were planning to make improvements after the WOF, that doesn't mean they actually did.

Tenancy Services told Newshub that the $15.14 million it was allocated last year would go towards both education and enforcement of the Government's Healthy Homes Standards.

"Education will help landlords know what they need to do, and there will be enforcement measures to encourage them to comply so all tenants benefit from warm, dry homes," it said.

It also vowed to "help landlords know what they need to do to comply with the standards".

"[An information and education campaign] will provide information about landlords' responsibilities and tools to help them comply, and encourage them to act before the compliance deadlines."

Claire Leadbetter, Manager Tenancy and Rental Housing at the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, said the new Healthy Home Standards are similar to a WOF in that they set minimum quality standards for rental properties.

"The standards make all landlords responsible for providing quality rental housing with set minimum standards for heating, insulation, ventilation, draught stopping, and moisture ingress and drainage," she told Newshub. "These five areas provide the greatest health and wellbeing benefits to tenants."

She said the Ministry is pleased at the results of the study, which said 90 percent of participating owner occupiers made improvements to their properties while 58 percent said they put money aside for property maintenance.

"Recent publicity around the Healthy Home Standards is encouraging many New Zealanders - not just landlords - to think about their own homes and consider what improvements would make them warmer, drier and safer."

In response to the suggestion that rental WOFs be made mandatory, Leadbetter said the Minitry believes the Healthy Home Standards will be sufficient.

"The Government generally does not regulate private property, such as improvements to owner-occupied housing, due to the presumption in law that owner-occupiers are deemed to be competent to manage their own affairs in relation to their property."

She said there are some exceptions in cases where the actions of owner-occupiers can have a potential impact on others.

"Nearly 600,000 households rent in New Zealand, and earlier research tells us that our rental stock is of poorer quality than owner occupied homes. As well as impacting on peoples' quality of life, cold, damp housing causes an increase in doctor visits, hospitalisations, and days off from school and work. Poor housing quality impacts on a person's education, employment and productivity."

Leadbetter said the Healthy Home Standards will "go a long way" in making rental homes healthier for tenants.

"The standards are also pragmatic, enduring and don't impose unreasonable burden on landlords and industry, while being mindful that Kiwi renters need to have warmer and drier homes at the earliest opportunity."