Tala lies shivering on the edge of her two-year-old daughter’s bed, trying to lend her some of her body heat.
The heat pump is blasting, her daughter has five blankets, and Tala is wearing multiple layers - but it’s still not enough to keep her and her daughter warm at night in their cold, wet flat.
And so she lies awake listening to her daughter cough throughout the night.
Tala speaks to me on the phone from their flat. She and her daughter are home sick again - unable to fend off illness after illness through the winter.
“It’s freezing here and we’re both sick, but I turned off the heat pump this morning. It barely seems to work and we just can’t afford it.”
“It’s been really tough,” she says. “Me and my partner want to keep her safe and warm so badly, but money is a constant worry, and we’ve tried everything to try and make this house warm and dry.”
Last winter, 110,000 households couldn’t afford to keep their homes adequately warm, a report from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment found.
That’s 6% of the country who had to put up with the cold to save money, live in damp and mouldy homes, and often couldn’t afford their power bills.
This energy hardship is not experienced equally.
Only 2.5% of homeowners reported that they couldn’t afford to heat their homes compared to 12.5% of renters.
Meanwhile 10.2% of Māori households and 14.4% of Pacific households surveyed couldn’t afford to heat their homes compared to 5.8% for the total population.
‘We’ve tried everything to make this house warm and dry’
Tala says they have already tried everything in their power to make their home as healthy as possible, and can’t afford to move.
“The first thing we noticed was how much condensation the flat collected. I bought a dehumidifier for the bedroom, but halfway through the night it would be full and we would still wake up with everything dripping,” she says.
The list of things keeping her from properly heating the house is long, Tala says.
The bathroom ventilation is broken, the roof is leaking, and the heat pump is pointed at the front door which has gaps so wide you can see outside through them.
Not only that, but when a heat pump technician came to clean it he told them the unit was too old and poorly positioned to effectively heat their home anyway, Tala says.
At every inspection Tala says she would point these issues out to her property manager and ask her to address them. Tala says the property manager told her “my house has condensation too”.
Last year the flat had an assessment to make sure it was in line with the Healthy Homes Standards.
Tala says it failed because the ventilation systems were not working and there was not sufficient heating.
Changes were made to get it up to standard - but Tala says this hasn’t improved the quality of the house or their lives.
For instance, the biggest change was that an electric heater was installed.
But the person who installed it, Tala says, warned them against using it. She says the person told her it wasn’t a safe heater to use around a toddler.
Even so, they tried running it for a month but found its position in the hallway didn’t make their living spaces warmer and increased their energy bill by $50.
So they leave it off and run the heat pump as much as they can afford.
But none of it has been enough to keep the home warm, dry and healthy.
“I hate seeing my daughter shivering at night so much. She shouldn't be cold in her own home.”
“She will come up to me and say ‘I’m cold, Mama’ and then crawl up into a ball in bed and say it again,” Tala says.
“It’s so sad, it breaks my heart.”
Our current standard is the ‘bare minimum’
While the Healthy Homes Standard - first introduced in 2019 - won’t be fully implemented until 2025, it’s already clear it is not going to meet the needs of tenants like Tala, national organiser for tenant advocacy group Renters United Éimhín O'Shea says.
“The Healthy Homes Standards aren’t enough. They are the bare minimum rather than something to aspire to,” he says.
“Once landlords have met that minimum criteria, they think they are away laughing.”
And that criteria is already too low, Éimhín says.
For instance, he says he has been told by a Healthy Homes inspector that a window is still compliant as long as it has a gap smaller than the width of a $2 coin.
It will take a significant overhaul of housing stock and regulation to reduce the number of people struggling to keep their homes warm, Éimhín says.
In the meantime, there are tools tenants can use to learn what they are entitled to and to advocate for the best conditions possible in their rentals.
Renters United have a breakdown of different support services for renters across the country on their website. There is also a website run by Aratohu Tenancy Advocacy which gives advice on tenant entitlements across a broad range of issues.
More importantly, Éimhín says, it very clearly tells you the legislation and section that entitlement comes from.
“Property Managers and landlords don’t always take it seriously when people ask for what they are entitled to. But they are far more likely when people can point directly to the legislation that entitlement comes from.”
Moving towards healthier homes
MBIE acting national manager of compliance and investigation Dan Herlihy says although the Healthy Homes Standards are still being rolled out, there has already been some improvement in the number of houses staying warm since its introduction.
The number of renters reporting a major problem heating their homes reduced from 13.4% in 2020 to 11.3% in 2022, Herlihy says
Even though that’s only by a few percentage points, those changes are “statistically significant”, he says.
In response to questions about examples like Tala’s where standards are met but don’t improve conditions, Herlihy says “all the standards contribute to a house being capable of being warm and dry”.
Landlords can be penalised up to $7200 from the Tenancy Tribunal for failing to comply with the Health Homes Standards.
He encouraged tenants who aren’t confident standards are being met to reach out to their landlord for evidence of compliance, and then to tenancy services if they cannot.
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