Opinion: Are warrants unwarranted for state houses?

  • 09/07/2015
Nick Smith (Getty)
Nick Smith (Getty)

By Nicola Kean

In February last year, Housing Minister Nick Smith launched a trial Warrant of Fitness scheme for state houses. Inspectors would take a look at 500 Housing New Zealand properties to see, essentially, if they were fit for people to live in. The assessment criteria was fairly basic: stuff like whether there's an intact roof, windows that don't leak, insulation under the floor and in the ceiling, no mould, doors, and no obvious signs of vermin.

There were initially some noises from Smith – and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett – about the WOF being extended to all rental homes. And then… nothing. The Nation started asking questions about what happened to the trial in October last year. We were told then, and every time we asked for an update since, that it wasn't ready to be released.

Today Smith announced a pared-back version of the WoF. All rental properties will be required to have smoke alarms and under-floor and ceiling insulation – with the exception to 100,000 houses which can't be insulated cost-effectively. When asked why he didn't decide to introduce a full WoF scheme, he said at a $100 million a year for inspections alone ($225 per house), those costs would likely be passed on to tenants. It was money that could be better spent on stuff that mattered more, like insulation and smoke alarms.

Smith also said that many of the houses that failed the Housing New Zealand WoF did so for "pedantic" reasons… such as a lack of security stays on windows (73 percent failed), or because there were fewer than two fixed power points in the bedrooms (22 percent failed).

But here's a more interesting figure, one that Smith failed to mention: 48 percent of the houses in the trial were non-compliant and found in need of urgent repairs. That means they needed to be fixed within two days or the house might have to be vacated. Another 32 percent needed "high priority" repairs within 10 days. That's 80 percent of the Housing New Zealand properties in the trial that need pretty serious work.

There's more: 33 percent failed the WoF not only because was there no insulation, but also no way to heat the house. And 22 percent didn't have functioning bathroom and toilet doors; 10 percent had significant mould.

That seems much less pedantic, although it won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who's been following recent developments in social housing. The poor quality of state housing is part of the reason the Government wants to sell some of them off to social housing providers. And a damp state house was last month cited by a coroner as contributing to the death of todder Emma Lita-Bourne in Auckland.

Mandatory insulation and smoke alarms in all rental houses is a good start to fixing those problems. But the cost of fixing the rest isn't that high either – extrapolated to the 60,000 houses the Government owns, the most urgent and high priority repairs would cost less than deciding whether or not we should change the flag.

By the way, The Nation asked Nick Smith if he wanted to come on the show this weekend to talk about the WoF trial and the minimum standards announcement he made today. We've been asking him to come on the show about various housing issues all year – in the studio, from his electorate in Nelson, live, or pre-recorded. Like all those other times, he was too busy.

The Nation