The cold comforts. Montage: Tina Tiller

The bronchiectasis bargain

Property Investors Federation spokesman Andrew King has suggested landlords hold off installing a heat pump for tenants, saying a change in government could see the law reversed, and that some tenants don’t actually want new heat pumps. He has Hayden Donnell’s attention.

New Zealand has long led the world in two shameful categories: Hobbit movies, and cold, unlivable, houses per capita. The government tried to undermine our claim to that latter record with the passage of the Healthy Homes Guarantees Act 2017, which requires landlords to insulate and ventilate their rental properties, and ensure tenants can heat their living rooms to 18℃. National has announced it’s against the bill, with leader Judith Collins arguing that while being able to heat your living room is “a good thing”, it “doesn’t pay the bills for [the] tenant”.

Andrew King, of the Property Investors Federation, yesterday welcomed Collins’ equivocation on the question of survivable living environments. In an interview with the Herald, he urged landlords to delay installing a heat pump until after the election, presumably on the off-chance they might make tenants healthier through the winter without being legally obliged to.

King tried to frame his call in a positive light. He said landlords weren’t opting out of installing the basics of living; they were providing choice. If National wins, renters will be able to choose the largesse of a heat pump in exchange for higher rent, or shiver through winter in exchange for lower rent, he said. “In some cases the tenant might not want new heat pumps.”

Leaving aside the question of whether landlords enjoying runaway Reserve Bank and government-enabled capital gains could install a $2,000 heat pump without passing the cost on to tenants, and the fact that analysis shows the new law will only have a modest effect on rent levels, King raises an interesting idea: what if tenants are actually choosing to live in places that make them cold and sick because they’re mad for a bargain? 

According to 2017 statistics tracked down by the investigative journalist Kirsty Johnston, an average of 20 children die and 30,000 are hospitalised each year due to preventable illnesses brought on by our shoddy, damp housing stock. They’re dying and getting sick from illnesses like asthma, pneumonia, bronchiolitis, and even the “Third World” disease, bronchiectasis.

New Zealand’s Māori and Pasifika people also have among the highest rates of rheumatic fever in the world, mainly because one in three are living in cold, damp houses. Some people would call that a “national disgrace”. But has anyone considered whether they may be choosing to be hospitalised with respiratory illnesses because they like getting a cheeky discount?

A TENANT ASKING THEIR LANDLORD TO INSTALL A HEAT PUMP IN EXCHANGE FOR HIGHER RENT

In King’s thinking, this is the free market at work. A ventilated bathroom and a heatable lounge are niceties open to friendly barter between parties of equal power. How much deeper could this free market rabbit hole go? What other options could tenants encounter if we changed the laws and gave them even more choice? Roofs for example. Why do we require houses to have roofs? Has the government considered that some people might enjoy leaving their living rooms open to the winter air? That they may welcome the soft pitter-patter of rain on their forehead as they settle in for an episode of The Block NZ?

Mangere Budgeting Services chief executive Darryl Evans remembers visiting one of his clients: a man in his late 60s on kidney dialysis, who was living in an Auckland garage. Evans asked him where his bathroom was. “He said, ‘I don’t have a bathroom.’ This particular landlord had provided the guy with a bucket, commode-type thing, which he would tip down the actual drain.”

Evans offered to try to secure the man a pensioner house. He refused, fearing that if Evans failed, his landlord would kick him out of his rental property in retaliation.

After hearing that story, many people ask Evans why a sick man had to suffer such degrading living conditions. The most obvious answer is that New Zealand has a shameful legislative track record on housing. Our local governments have been terrorised by Nimbys into putting harmful constraints on housing supply, and central government has failed to put any meaningful limits on our property investment culture. Under their collective watch, house prices have spiralled upwards. Owning a home is now out of reach for huge numbers of New Zealanders, and rents have ballooned to the point that most of the families Evans works with are paying more than 60% of their weekly income to their landlord.

The normal constraints of the free market can’t deal with the level of desperation that negligence has created. The reality is, many of our most vulnerable people don’t actually get to choose where they live. They don’t get to pick between a nice, warm house and a cold garage. They’d all like a heat pump. They’d all like ventilation and insulation. They just don’t get any of that if it’s not legally required. The only choice they’re offered is between accepting dire living conditions, and possible sickness, and being forced onto the street or into their cars, which is really no choice at all.

That’s one explanation for what happened to the man Evans visited, and thousands more like him. Another is that they’re just eschewing better living conditions in favour of the “bronchiectasis bargain”. Even so, it’s worth legally ensuring better living standards for renters, just in case.

Read Andrew King’s response here.




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