Wellington recently introduced a voluntary Rental Warrant of Fitness. Mayor Justin Lester explains the scheme, and why the rest of New Zealand should follow the city’s lead.
Like much of New Zealand, Wellington has a good opportunity to improve the quality of our housing stock. For a city that sees the occasional gentle breeze, we will be a more attractive destination if we’re offering homes that are warm and dry.
All of the best evidence shows that there are significant financial, social and health gains to be made from improving the quality of our housing. I don’t think anyone would dispute that.
As a parent, I wouldn’t drive a car that wasn’t safe for my kids or take them to a restaurant that had failed health inspections, but a curious anomaly in New Zealand is that we put up with houses that don’t keep us and our families warm and dry. The unfortunate result, but one we can improve upon if we try, is that thousands of Kiwis, especially children, end up in hospital each year with respiratory illnesses brought on by unhealthy homes.
New Zealand is a bit of an international outlier in this regard – other countries certainly don’t put up with this. I saw this first hand in my own life. I lived in Germany and Japan for extended periods and the quality of the standard house there is miles ahead of what we have in New Zealand. There, renters expect high quality insulation and heating as a given. For someone who grew up in a state house in Invercargill, the difference was staggering. I still remember wearing a woolly hat to bed at night as a child because it was so cold. I didn’t mind at the time because it was what we did, but it’s not something I want to see continue.
In Wellington, we’re determined to lift the quality of our housing. There’s a number of ways we are doing this – building new high quality social and affordable homes for example – but there is no way around the fact that the private rental market has the biggest issues in this area, and we can help address that part of the market if we want to make a real difference.
That’s why Wellington has partnered with the University of Otago to launch New Zealand’s first voluntary Rental Warrant of Fitness scheme. It’s a simple check list against minimum health standards designed by experts like Philippa Howden-Chapman, who have spent decades researching this area.
This is pretty basic stuff, too – we’re not asking the earth. We want to make sure houses being rented have a toilet that flushes correctly, that there’s adequate heating, proper insulation, and that the house is watertight.
We’re launching an app that anyone can download, that lets them run through the questions on the checklist themselves. Landlords, or tenants with the landlord’s permission, can then request a professionally trained inspector to come around and inspect against the standard.
The inspection takes about 45 minutes and they will receive a report on if their house meets the standard – or what things they might need to fix to bring it up to the standard. The cost of an inspection is just $250 dollars, and the WOF is good for three years. In future we’ll even try to help by providing grants to subsidise the inspections.
Houses that pass will get a quality mark, much like the Heart Foundation tick, that they can use to advertise their property as being healthy. It gives landlords with healthy homes a way to stand out in the market and gives prospective tenants something to check against to make sure the home they might rent is up to scratch.
It’s been really heartening to see the response to this – it’s been welcomed by renters’ groups like Renters United as well as landlords like REINZ.
My strong hope is that all of this is just the start. I know other councils are looking at their own WOFs and I hope the positive response we’ve had in Wellington will be noticed by councils that don’t have it on their agenda yet.
There’ll be no getting around this: better rental standards are the future. With home ownership rates consistently falling, more and more Kiwis are likely to be renting and they’re going to be renting for longer.
We have to take this opportunity to make renting a better, fairer experience for people. That means better standards, healthier homes and more secure tenure.
In Wellington, we’re doing our bit to move that conversation forward and look for solutions. Other cities will follow.
But councils and cities can’t do this alone, we need central government help too. There are plenty of carrots government could make available to help people bring homes up to a healthy standard.
Making life better for renters is one of the big things we’re going to have to tackle as a country. The growing numbers of renters are going to demand it, in the market place or at the ballot box. Central government, local government, and landlords right around the country are going to have to step up and meet that challenge. If we get it right, this is a huge opportunity to make life better for thousands of people.
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