Ethan Donnell, director of Sick Homes, the latest in the Frame documentary series produced for the Spinoff by Wrestler and funded by NZ on Air, describes the people he met, and the reality of the places they live
Once a week, Brett Johnson takes apart the small machine that pumps air through a mask and into his lungs, helping him to breathe more easily while he sleeps.
He unclicks the plastic filter from its housing and holds it up to the light for a closer look. Sometimes the black particles are hard to distinguish from the dust. Usually, the mould soaks through in dark splotches, like a tea bag steeped too long.
“I can taste it – that damp, mouldy smell,” he says. “Each breath I take through the mask, it goes through the filter, onto the water tank, and to my lungs.”
“I’m only supposed to change the filters every three months, but every week, it’s dirty.”
Brett lives alone in one of six identical units, grouped together as a small block, and owned by Wellington City Council.
The flats stand on the levelled end of Bracken Road before the street slopes off into the Paparangi ranges to the east of Johnsonville and west of Newlands. Paparangi means “a cluster of hills” – the units stand in that cluster’s craggy shadows.
Brett soaks the filter in hot water, rinses it, leaves it on the windowsill to dry. In the meantime, he attacks the water tank in the sink with a scrub brush. He says the tank needs to be treated every other day to prevent mould barnacling in its corners.
His unit is sparsely furnished. A single bed, a couch, a small table and chairs. A thrifted BP jacket hangs off a chair back. There’s no fridge in the kitchen. Just the stove, a kettle, a stack of his favourite tea bags.
Once the filter is dry, Brett reassembles the machine, reconnects the mask, and rests the device on his bedside table. As he sits on the edge of the bed, his head turns upward. “One thing about this mould on the ceiling, it’s getting worse.”
“When I wake up and have a look around, I see that wasn’t there last night”, he says. “The shade of black is getting darker by the week.”
New Zealand homes are damp, mouldy and cold – and there is mounting evidence to suggest they may be killing us. According to Otago University research, about 1,600 New Zealanders – mostly older people – die prematurely every winter because of poor quality housing. More than 40,000 children are hospitalised for housing-related conditions; around 15 die. And those who survive are 10 times more likely to die before they reach their 20th birthday.
In terms of national exposure, New Zealand’s poor quality housing has been called the “poor cousin” of the rental crisis. But why has our housing stock fallen into such a state of disrepair? And why does it seem like a large section of the general public has only just noticed?
It could have something to do with the fact that more than a third of New Zealanders are renting these days. Many of whom, in generations past, would be buying their first homes. The total number of uninsulated houses is estimated to be somewhere between 600,000 and 900,000. And the latest House Condition Survey said a lack of insulation had contributed to about half of all houses being damp and mouldy.
While this may be news to some, for those in vulnerable positions of society – families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, older people without savings, students renting for the first time – these problems have always existed. These are the houses we must make homes.
The first signs of mould appeared on the ceiling the same week Brett arrived, in 2015.
He had transferred to this unit from another council flat in Johnsonville, after living there for three years.
Years before that he worked in a sawmill, stacking fresh cut wood. He taps on the walls as he walks through his unit. “These walls and windows are hopeless,” he’ll say between taps. “These places were built 50 years ago. Just a couple bits of wood with plaster board – no insulation.”
After the sawmill he worked at a mine in Riccarton, before the work dried up. He tried his luck in Perth but found that mining operations were on the downturn there, too. He’s originally from Napier, but settled in Wellington because his sister lives nearby.
Brett’s sleep apnea means he doesn’t work now.
The CPAP machine – which stands for continuous positive airway pressure – helps to keep his airways open at night. But since moving into the unit he notices his breathing has become more laboured, occasional tightness in his chest, and shortness of breath.
It wasn’t long before mould began to appear elsewhere in the unit, in the kitchen – the cupboards especially.
Brett treated the mould with bleach at first. “It worked for a while but then it came back.” He can’t treat the mould any more: bleach or chlorine-based cleaning products tend to trigger his breathing issues.
It can be hard to understand what a mouldy home feels like without experiencing one firsthand. Brett gives a fair approximation. “It’s like a dank garden shed. Like an old 1920s house left to rot.”
The air is thick, oppressive. It’s a feeling like being submerged, the moment you enter the door. “Even the old wallpaper’s blistering – he doesn’t like it,” says Brett referring to a large shred of wallpaper, flapping off the wall.
Brett says he has told Wellington City Council about the mould issues at his unit several times. “Every year, they come in for a property inspection and see the black mould. ‘You need to take care of that.’ I say: ‘No, I can’t. You have to.’ They say: ‘That’s not our responsibility, that’s your problem.’”
Brett says the units are uninsulated and the walls so thin “you can hear the neighbour sneeze”.
City Housing Manager Michelle Riwia would not comment on issues at Brett’s unit, saying Wellington City Council does not discuss individual tenancies with the media “to protect the privacy of tenants”.
The Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill – which comes into force next year – says landlords must install underfloor insulation. Asked how this would affect the Bracken Road flats, Riwia said an assessment conducted in December 2017 found underfloor insulation was not “reasonably practicable” to install, meaning the flats had received an exemption under the new legislation.
Riwia was unable to say if the flats were currently insulated in any form. “Significant work” would need to be undertaken for an assessor to even access the ceiling and floors to find out. She said Wellington City Council was in the middle of a 20-year redevelopment programme, and planned to upgrade the Bracken Road flats as part of the second phase. Wellington City Council did not immediately respond to a request for clarification around when these upgrades would happen, how long they would take to complete, or whether residents would need to be relocated while the work took place.
Nine hundred properties had already been upgraded – more than 50% of the council’s housing portfolio – and the programme had been praised as part of a study by Otago University.
Brett disputes Wellington City Council’s claim that his unit can’t be insulated. He has considered getting the place insulated himself “through crowdfunding”. At $8 a square metre, Brett reckons the cost would “run into the thousands, $3,000 at a minimum, maybe more”.
He would still need approval from Wellington City Council, but doesn’t think they are likely to give him permission. He has come to see them as “cold, heartless bastards,” he says.
Why are New Zealand houses so often substandard, damp and mouldy? Until recently New Zealanders didn’t see the connection between poverty, health and housing. Groundbreaking research by Otago University’s Wellington campus, led by Public Health Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, exposed those connections.
According to Howden-Chapman, New Zealand’s houses were designed for a different era when there were more conventional families. “Someone was home during the day to air the house, to have a heater on if it was cold.”
Howden-Chapman said New Zealanders also didn’t take the “traditional view” that you should have central heating in houses. Heating a house was “complicated”, she said. New Zealanders needed to ensure they had an effective heater – such as a heat pump, flue wood burner or flue gas heater – and enough money to actually pay for electricity.
However, if a house wasn’t insulated, the heat would be “just going out the windows” anyway. If a house had leaks, or was without a groundsheet to prevent moisture coming up from underneath, the tenant would essentially be “wasting money”.
“We’ve got to make sure we insulate our houses – most of our houses are in poor condition or are older houses built when there wasn’t even a building code.”
Howden-Chapman acknowledged there was a responsibility for both tenants and landlords to care for a property. Tenants needed to understand, for example, that they should air the house “for at least 20 minutes a day”. But, ultimately, the conditions of the house were often beyond their control.
“I would say a moral landlord recognises they are selling a service, and this is someone’s home. If there’s mould in the house, that is bad for the fabric of the house, as much as it is bad for children’s lungs.”
Howden-Chapman said there was a power imbalance between tenants and landlords, in part caused by a shortage of affordable housing which meant more people were still in the rental market.
“We’ve got to get back to that bipartisan agreement that housing is fundamentally important. Not just for kids, but for older people and students, too.”
In the living room, piled almost to the ceiling, are stacks of boxes. An unruly heap like the kind that might collect in a garden shed, or the spare room of a hoarder. As she pulls her arms into the sleeves of a puffer jacket, Mary Massam answers the obvious question.
“Our stuff’s safer in boxes than being exposed to all of this,” she says, gesturing back towards the living area. “This is pretty much all the stuff we don’t need day to day. So we can move out as soon as possible.”
The three-bedroom property sits atop an embankment along the Newlands ridgeline. The style of the house is unremarkable – it could be a property in any suburb, anywhere in New Zealand. Behind the storage mass is a sliding veranda door, opening onto a deck with a view over Wellington Harbour.
The 19-year-old student had been desperate to find a flat with her partner and two friends. At the beginning of 2017, they moved down together from Palmerston North for study. Tired of the student halls, and after months of rejected applications, Mary was starting to lose hope.
But then they found a property listing that promised private decks, a hammock hanging invitingly in its photos. It seemed almost too good to be true.
It wasn’t obvious on moving day. There were no signs during the unusually long Wellington summer that followed. The mould emerged once the weather declined in May. “There is mould seeping down the ceilings, and coming up from under the floorboards,” she says, shaking her head.
There are little galaxies of mould everywhere – in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the bedrooms. Mary says she and her partner, Mathias, have taken to rearranging their bedroom every month or so, to let the floor and walls breathe. Most months, they discover mould “all over the wall”.
Mary walks around the house, her feet inside large slippers with gangly claws. “These couches actually belonged to my parents. I’ve had them ever since I was a kid.” She removes a covering from the lounge suite, exposing mould damage. “I’ll have to throw them out – lounge suites like this aren’t cheap.”
The other week an assessor had visited the house to check for insulation. “We had someone saying if this was America, you’d have guys in full protective body suits in this house.” The assessor said the house wasn’t insulated and the ceiling so rotten it would need to be replaced. In his view, the house wasn’t “liveable”.
Quinovic Johnsonville manages the property and told the flatmates to wipe down the windows, ventilate the house and “run the heaters all the time” to fix the issues.
Mary says they had been leaving the windows open “almost 24/7”. The flatmates would “huddle together like penguins for warmth” because running the heater was too expensive. The house would be cold within ten minutes of turning off the heater because there was no insulation. “It’s warmer outside.”
They had been dealing with persistent colds since winter started. “At night, you just lay in bed and hear everyone coughing,” she says.
“We’ve done everything we can to combat it – it just doesn’t go away.”
The flatmates spoke to their property manager about ending their fixed-term lease, she says, but were told they would need to pay a $590 fee and then continue paying rent until someone else moved in. “There’s no way we can afford to pay two rents.”
At the advice of a student advocate from Victoria University, they decided to take their case to the Tenancy Tribunal. The hearing was postponed the morning it was supposed to be held, says Mary, because their property manager “didn’t have enough time to prepare”.
A few days before the rescheduled hearing, they came to a compromise with their property manager. They would pay a reduced amount to break their fixed-term agreement ($190), and move out by August 10. The move-out date was later extended to August 17 and then August 24.
Quinovic Johnsonville property manager Rhiannon O’Hara declined to be interviewed on camera, but responded to questions via email.
He said that work had been carried out at the property over the last few weeks and “dampness and mould issues had been improved immensely”. According to O’Hara, the insulation at the property had since been upgraded in line with the incoming Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill. Some minor roof repairs were also carried out, and a home ventilation system had been installed.
Asked about an assessor’s claim that the ceiling was rotten, O’Hara said that she was “aware an assessor had visited the property without my knowledge” but had not seen their findings. She said a “small section” in the master bedroom was rotten, but this would be fixed soon.
Quinovic has listed the property on Trade Me with increased rent, and when asked about this O’Hara said they had “deemed the property to be under the market rent”. She “personally” believed the rent should be set higher, but wanted to assist the current tenants by “opening the doors for as many prospective tenants as possible”.
O’Hara said dampness issues at the property escalated because of the tenants’ “actions or lack thereof” to ventilate the property. Quinovic Johnsonville had written reports from different professionals backing this claim, she said.
Mary says he had felt “somewhat confident” the Tenancy Tribunal would find in their favour, but didn’t want to harm their chances of finding another property.
“Landlords can look up the findings and see you’ve been to the Tenancy Tribunal. They’ll see that, and not want you.”
The flatmates had now viewed 30-40 properties, and were considering emergency housing or moving back to Palmerston North. “It kind of feels like impending doom,” she says. “We could end up homeless.”
Mary acknowledges that Quinovic Johnsonville had recently done work to insulate the property, but believes the mould had already done “long-term structural damage” to the house.
“I feel like property managers and landlords take advantage of students who don’t know what they’re doing … I’m still not going to get compensation for everything we’ve lost. I don’t care at this point. I’m over it,” she says.
“It’s better than having the Tribunal on our record.”
Wellington Renters United organiser Robert Whitaker said the concern is a real one.
The details of tenants who took their landlords to the Tenancy Tribunal were placed in a public registrar. Those tenants would often be seen as “someone who causes trouble” by prospective landlords or property managers.
Whitaker said there needed to be alternative options, such as mediation, to resolve conflicts “without having to push the nuclear button.”
“At the moment, it’s like taking your landlord to court,” he said. “And the fundamental problem with that is the relationship with your landlord is not going to survive that experience.”
The power imbalance could be seen in the makeup of hearings seen by the Tenancy Tribunal. In the last year, 90% of hearings were brought by landlords against tenants, typically for outstanding rent.
Housing Minister Phil Twyford said the disparity was caused by a shortage of rental properties and laws that overwhelmingly favoured landlords.
“Our laws are archaic and give so few rights to renters. There’s so little security of tenure. And when there’s a shortage of rental properties, like there is now, that puts all the bargaining power in the hands of landlords.”
He didn’t believe there were fundamental issues with the Tenancy Tribunal itself.
When asked what tenants living in a damp house this winter should do, Twyford suggested “they should talk to their landlords”. Otherwise, they could ask the Ministry of Building, Innovation and Employment for advice about their rights, as there were already existing laws around insulation that might protect them.
Twyford said he was concerned at reports of databases held by property management companies about tenants. In his view, the current system gave a “one-sided advantage” to landlords – tenants might not even know what information about them was being held. The issue of such databases would come up for discussion when the Residential Tenancies Act was reviewed.
One simple solution Wellington Renters United recommended was anonymising Tenancy Tribunal findings. Asked about this option, Twyford said it was worth looking at “in the case of both tenants and landlords”.
It’s almost bedtime, and Stevie Jean-Gear is winding down with her one-year-old daughter, Ivy Jane. The two of them stand beside a child’s dinner table set.
“E noho at the tēpu.”
Ivy shakes her head.
“You don’t wanna e noho at the tēpu?”
“No!” says Ivy, lifting the hind wheels of a toy bike then bringing them down with a thud.
The single mum and her daughter live in a three-bedroom apartment, part of a larger complex in Tawa. The two-storey apartment complex stretches back from the street. There are grassy plots behind each apartment, many of them a jumble of children’s toys.
Every weekday after work, Stevie picks up her daughter from daycare. The first thing she does once they arrive home is shut up the house to trap in the warmth, switch on the heaters, and turn on the electric blanket. Next she’ll draw a bath, in an attempt to bathe her baby before the chill of nightfall. The two of them will rug up warm. Then there’s meal prep and dinner – generally eaten inside the the closed-off lounge with heater running – before retreating to the bedroom upstairs.
But tonight the living room is the bedroom. Stevie has dragged a mattress down the stairwell, making separate trips for blankets and pillows.
At least every few weekends the two of them will bunk downstairs. It’s easier to heat just one room, Stevie says. “Ivy thinks it’s fun because she gets to sleep in front of the TV. But for mummy it’s not fun – because in the morning I have to clean everything up.”
Ivy Jane was normally “a pretty healthy baby” but had been constantly sick this winter. A few weeks ago, she was so unwell that she was put on a ventilator. “I’ve never encountered that sort of cough and chesty sickness. I couldn’t help but blame it on the house.”
Stevie had needed to take “about a week” off work to take care of her baby before getting sick herself. “For me, it’s a perpetuating cycle where I live in a damp, mouldy home therefore my baby’s going to get sick, and I’m going to have take time off work. It takes its toll on me, being a single mum and having to work as well.”
Doctor Tim Jefferies – who practices at Onslow Medical Centre in Johnsonville – said damp and mouldy houses had a “significant” impact on the health of children.
“Young children have less-developed immune systems and are coming across viruses for the first time. Their immunity levels are lower. It makes it hard for the child to fight off infections.”
Dr Jefferies said children were more likely to suffer from respiratory problems and infections like bronchiolitis, a significant viral infection which led to many hospitalisations among children. Damp houses could lead to chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma, and cause long-term sickness as children grew up, even into adulthood.
Stevie says she Googled the long-term health effects of black mould and they were “horrendous”.
“I almost felt like, for as long as I’m in this house, I’ve failed as a mum. Like I’m keeping my baby in a health hazard.”
Her only option right now was to run the heater, even if that meant not being able to afford the power bill.
“I just hope the power company are understanding. I can’t think of my heater as equalling money because I’ll just want to turn it off. I’ve got to have a warm home.”
If your house is damp and cold, a heater is often your only relief. A recent Otago University study suggested that one fifth of New Zealanders are living in fuel poverty, defined as being when 10% or more of a person’s income is spent on electricity.
Brett is on pay-as-you-go power through GLOBUG and says “every cent counts”. His average monthly power bill is $19. “Any more than that, and I cringe.” He only turns his hot water on one day a week, preferring to shower instead at a friend’s place down the road.
What does Brett do when it’s cold? “I have a cup of tea with Ken. His heater’s always on.”
Ken Rooney is 92 years old and lives in the unit next door. Ken says he runs his heater all the time, except while he sleeps.
“I don’t feel the cold. The first thing I do every morning is spring out of bed, and turn the heater on.”
Some heater it is: an ancient Conray, standing on wooden legs. Brett recently turned 46. Ken suspects the heater is older. The two of them huddle around the two-bar radiator, drinking cups of tea with biscuits, under the watchful eye of Jacinda Ardern (“my dream woman!”) in photo form on Ken’s mantle.
The Labour government has provided extra assistance for households struggling to pay their power bills this winter. It’s an acknowledgement, says Housing Minister Phil Twyford, that fuel poverty is a big problem around the country.
“It’s one of the reasons so many older New Zealanders – particularly in colder parts of the country – spend the whole day in bed during winter,” he says. “Because they don’t want to turn the heater on.”
Over the course of the winter months, the winter energy payment entitles a single person living alone on a benefit or superannuation to $450. For families with multiple kids, that assistance tips the scale at $750.
Otago University Public Health Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman said that once upon a time families would get free fuel in the form of timber and electricity was once much cheaper, too. The largely unregulated nature of the electricity market had led to massive spikes in cost.
Howden-Chapman said that wages, particularly in low-income areas, hadn’t increased to match higher electricity charges.
“It’s pretty important that you be able to keep your home warm, especially mothers with a baby, or an older person who’s retired. But people aren’t being left with much money to pay those higher costs”
“It’s the people who are most vulnerable who are most exposed.”
Stevie and her daughter moved into their apartment eight months ago, after relocating from Rotorua. Stevie had been on the emergency housing waiting list with Housing New Zealand at the time, but hasn’t ended up in state housing. Her landlord is the Porirua Whānau Centre – a social service provider based in Cannons Creek.
“I’m confused myself as to who’s responsible, who to talk to get any sort of action,” she says. “It’s extremely frustrating.”
There is mould growing in the bedrooms upstairs. “I’d hate to think what was under the wallpaper itself.”
Stevie has taken matters into her own hands, as she demonstrates pulling back the curtain in the upstairs bedroom. “This is my DIY, keep-myself-warm,” she says. The latch of the window has been replaced with newspaper, bunched in the corners, held together with sellotape. “Turns out newspaper is good for insulation as well.”
She says the Porirua Whānau Centre told her that fixing the issues was a “matter of money and time – which they didn’t have”.
“The attitude I got from them was they didn’t care. There were times where I would message or call. I wouldn’t get a response.”
Porirua Whānau Centre Chief Executive Liz Kelly said property reports showed no evidence of mould, and suggested “we would look at how she is ventilating the property if this is an issue”.
The broken window in the bedroom upstairs had occured after Stevie moved in, and it was “her responsibility to fix it”.
Kelly said the three-bedroom home had recently been refurbished, including a new bathroom fit out, new carpet, and new thermal curtains, along with some furniture.
Kelly said the apartments were “insulated and exceed the required new standards”. According to Kelly, new heaters would be installed across the 17 properties the centre owned on August 24.
Stevie said she had gotten in touch with Sustainability Trust herself, and they had provided her with a heater and thermal curtains.
“These people were all great helps, but they didn’t have power to do anything substantial like getting rid of the mould. They would give me affirmation that I wasn’t alone, but it all just felt like a band aid.”
Stevie said sometimes advocating for herself felt like a “second job”. The experience had left her feeling trapped.
“I’m an educated, qualified professional woman, and even I’m struggling. Imagine how big families who might be beneficiaries are feeling. They’ll be feeling more trapped than I am.”
She had decided to return to the private rental market “because health is much more important than cheap rent”, but being a single mum in the housing market “sucked”.
“I feel like I have to settle for shit, because shit’s all that’s been offered to me.”
At a recent house viewing, she had questioned the real estate agent conducting the viewing about heating and insulation.
“He took one look at me and said: ‘Are you a lawyer?’ I said: ‘No, I’m a tenant who’s gone through the process, and this house isn’t up to standard.’ ”
“This was somebody talking down to me. It wasn’t someone showing me a house. And I knew I didn’t stand a chance.”
Where will they be come next winter? On this point, Stevie is adamant.
“I actually cannot fathom another thought of being here during the winter. I’m going to find another house. Because I have to find another house. I will make it happen. No matter how hard it is, and how much money it costs me.”
But what guarantee does Stevie have that her next house won’t also be damp? Even if Mary and her flatmates do their due diligence, what protection do they have if their second rental sprouts mould?
Housing Minister Phil Twyford has promised the solution is just a year away, in the form of the Healthy Homes Guarantee Act.
“The new legislation will set minimum standards for heating, insulation, moisture control and draftstopping. It will ensure all rental properties in New Zealand are warm and dry.”
The legislation passed last year and final consultations were being held to determine what those minimum standards would be. A representative from Mr Twyford’s office said the standards would “hopefully be announced in the next week or so”.
Asked what those standards should be, Wellington Renters United organiser Robert Whitaker said houses should have a minimum “performance standard” related to body temperature.
“The standards should say that under normal circumstances a house should be able to keep to a certain temperature, without there being a massive energy cost.”
Renters United favoured a minimum temperature of 21 degrees celsius, the World Health Organisation’s recommended temperature for main living areas.
The Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill would also come into effect next year, and require landlords to install ceiling and underfloor insulation – but only in properties where that was easy to do. If it was difficult to get under the house, for example, a landlord wouldn’t have to install insulation.
Either way, Mr Whitaker hoped the Healthy Homes Guarantee Act would bolster the incoming legislation, as in its current form the law wasn’t going to “address the fact of the overall house”.
“It just says: ‘Is there insulation, or is there not insulation?’ And not: ‘Is the insulation actually effective in making the house liveable?’ ”
Whatever the standards ended up being, Twyford didn’t believe they would result in “significant rent increases” being passed onto tenants. He estimated most landlords would only need to pay “between $3000-6000” to bring their properties up to code – and that investment would last the property 15-20 years.
Asked how the government would enforce the new standards, Twyford said “on one level a bit of a trust thing” – but that risk-based audits would be conducted by a “beefed up” MBIE investigation team. A breach of the rules would result in a fine of up to $4000 for the landlord, he said.
Twyford couldn’t say how often audits would be carried out but estimated there would be “several thousand” every year.
Whitaker said all properties should be checked every few years and be certified “not unlike the hygiene of restaurants”.
“If there’s anything that needs to be done, in terms of maintenance or improvements, then the landlord has a period of time to do it.”
In the view of Renters United, the local city council should be responsible for the health of houses because “they know their housing stock best”. But the standards being enforced at a national level would be “fine as long as someone’s going out and checking.”
The new standards – whatever they end up being – seem likely to play a role in Brett’s future, but he doesn’t worry himself with legislation or politicians. He says they wouldn’t last “one night” in his unit. Brett suspects these flats will eventually be torn down, one way or another. “What other option is left? Just to knock it down and start again.”
Meanwhile, Mary and her flatmates have found a five-bedroom flat in Churton Park and are moving this weekend (August 24). They still face the prospect of paying double rent. Stevie continues to explore the private rental market, searching for a way out of her living situation.
For now, Brett’s in a holding pattern. And in spite of everything – the conditions of his unit, the mould festering in his CPAP machine – he doesn’t want to leave. He likes the speed of life here, the quiet, the privacy, and his neighbours.
“I don’t want to move, sick and tired of moving. I want to stay here,” he says.
“It’s the people that make it worthwhile.”