New analysis confirms what residents have long suspected: Wellington is substantially mouldier and damper than other New Zealand cities.
“My flat had holes in the walls, letting slugs in to roam freely over my shoes and into the shower,” says Zoë Vaunois, a student at Victoria University of Wellington. “Similar holes also let spiders in which bit me and got infected. But hey, apparently we should be grateful to have a flat at all right?”
The common focus in discussions about Wellington City’s housing is quantity. But new analysis of census data has illustrated that the capital’s housing crisis is equally a matter of quality. Work by Infometrics senior economist Brad Olsen demonstrates that Wellington’s housing is significantly mouldier and damper than the average metropolitan centre in New Zealand, risking the health of residents.
Yet as Wellington City Council finalises its Draft Spatial Plan – a housing and infrastructure blueprint for the next 30 years which recommends prioritising greener, more compact and more affordable housing – it has been criticised by some residents for insufficiently protecting Wellington’s existing “architectural heritage”.
According to Olsen, when compared to the average across metropolitan centres like Auckland, Dunedin and Christchurch, Wellington City has a higher proportion of mouldy housing. Nearly 12,700 Wellington houses are sometimes or always mouldy – 18.4% of the capital’s housing. That’s higher than the metropolitan average of 18.1% and the New Zealand average of 16.9%. Wellington’s mouldy housing is also disproportionately damp: 24.2% of its housing is damp some or all of the time, higher than the metropolitan average of 22.6% and the national average of 21.5%.
Isabella Lenihan-Ikin, President of the New Zealand Union of Students Association, has experienced the challenges of Wellington housing firsthand. “In my second year of study, I lived in a flat in Kelburn. The flat had been so neglected by the landlord that mould covered the walls and the house leaked. My asthma became so bad that I developed a severe respiratory infection and had to take six weeks off university and study. I ended up in isolation with suspected whooping cough just because the house I lived in was substandard.”
Wellington also leads in the proportion of houses with no heating. Nearly 3,400 houses in the city – 4.8% – had no heating, higher than the national average of 4%. Olson is emphatic about the need for reform. “Wellington City’s housing is in need of a serious revamp to get our dwellings up to scratch. We need a step change to address the critical issues of quality [to provide] places for people to live and thrive,” he says.
Wellington’s mouldy, damp and cold housing is concentrated in student-heavy areas. Over 40% of houses in Aro Valley – a favourite among students for its proximity to Victoria University – are damp some or all of the time. Other areas with large populations of students also struggled with warmth. Between 15.5% and 24.5% of houses in Wellington Central, Dixon Street, Vivian, Courtenay and Mount Cook had no heating.
“Literally every flat I’ve lived in has had damp and mouldy windows … My clothes have to be aired out constantly so they don’t get mouldy too,” says Lauren Taylor, a young professional who lives in Wellington. “I had to throw out heaps [of clothes] last year because everything in our apartment got so mouldy.”
“The combination of poor protections for renters, the city-wide housing shortage and students’ economic vulnerability is responsible for the poor housing that students are forced to live in,” says Lenihan-Ikin. “Students have no choice but to live in unhealthy and outrageously expensive housing. It puts the health of students at risk.”
Wellington has the third lowest home-ownership rate in New Zealand, meaning the majority of Wellingtonians rent. They pay some of the country’s highest rents – an average of $604 per week (over $40 ahead of Auckland).
To fight this housing quality crisis, Wellington City Council has put forward the Draft Spatial Plan, which seeks to encourage more compact and greener housing – likely at the expense of some currently heritage-protected buildings. Keep Wellington’s Character, a lobby group which opposes the Plan, argues it would unfairly strip ‘character suburbs’ of protection. It noted that, “Just like you wouldn’t expect a towering glass multi-storey to pop up along the Champs-Élysées in Paris or canal-side next to an 18th century Dutch Renaissance style house in Amsterdam, [Wellington City’s existing] protections help define what development is appropriate where.”
But Olsen argued that, “The Draft Spacial Plan has a more surgical approach to identifying and protecting heritage and character, instead of a blanket protection for things simply being old… Simply noting that something is 90-plus years old shouldn’t be enough to protect something and dismiss all other considerations.” The data makes clear, according to Olsen, that without reform Wellington’s heritage housing will remain “damp and mouldy [and] shivering cold.”