Nick Smith stands by slumlords, basically

Today Andrew Little’s Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill will get its first reading in Parliament. It requires all tenancy agreements to guarantee that the property being let meets minimum standards for heating and insulation, to be set by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The Government doesn’t like this bill. The Minister for Housing, Nick Smith, is especially concerned that imposing such standards will result in a large number of rental properties being removed from the market. And by “especially” I mean he mentions it a lot.

In 2014 he announced a Housing Warrant of Fitness trial, but warned

We need to be cautious of removing houses from the rental market when there is a shortage.

In 2015 he exempted 100,000 rental properties from meeting the 1978 standard for insulation, because

removing them from the housing stock would cause a major housing shortage.

And just this week, he railed against Little’s bill, for a familiar reason.

“It requires properties to be insulated at a pace that is totally unrealistic and would simply involve properties being removed from the rental market at the very time we’re having shortages of homes.”

If you’re getting the impression that Nick Smith is more concerned about the profit margins of landlords who own substandard housing than he does about ensuring every New Zealander has a warm, dry home to live in, you’re not alone.

And this tells you something pretty sinister about his and the National Party’s priorities and perspective on housing.

Because every time I hear Tories claim that implementing basic standards for houses people have to live in is terrible because it would “remove” hundreds of rental properties from the market, I do a little word substitution. It’s highly illuminating.

“We can’t pass this food hygiene law, it would remove heaps of [poisonous] food from the supermarkets!”

“We can’t pass this car standards law, it would remove hundreds of cars [which have NO BRAKES] from the roads!”

“This law regulating indoor heaters is terrible, it will stop people being able to buy heaters which will literally explode!”

Because what National leave unspoken, every single time, is the fact that these properties are not properties fit for human habitation. This isn’t Paula Bennett’s mythical beneficiary, turning up their nose at a free house because the birds are too loud. We’re talking about water oozing down the walls, curtains turning black with mold and children dying from preventable illnesses.

To say that it’s acceptable for people to live in these conditions because “the market”, and the government, have failed to provide adequate housing is appalling. You don’t tell people, “sure this car has no brakes but it’s the only one left and you have to drive it.”

But that’s what National are telling us: if you are poor, you should be grateful for any housing, even if it’s cold, damp and literally killing your children. When they say heating and insulation standards are impractical, they’re saying nothing can be allowed to get in the way of landlords profiting off people who have no other options.

No one wants to live in a cold, damp, moldy rental. They’re forced to, because wages are too low, houses are too expensive, and people need to live somewhere. But there’s money to be made exploiting that need, and when the choice is between ensuring everyone has a decent standard of living, or letting a greedy few keep on making money, we know which way the National Party will go.

Poor suffering property investors

Jess McAllen has a great article in the Sunday Star-Times about the plight of renters and the should-be-criminal state of many rental properties in NZ.

The rats have evolved. They used to fall for the traps Harley Neville set out in his bedroom but that’s just succeeded in killing off the weakest members of the herd. The strongest are left, he says. They’re smarter and walking straight past. He’s tried colby, he’s tried camembert. All the rats want to nibble on are his candles. It’s not a house in a third world country. It’s a four-bedroom villa in central Auckland that costs $720 a week. But people don’t care, he says. Buyers are the ones with the money. Renters are the unheard voice. It’s a castle compared to the rest of the rentals in this article.

It also unfortunately – or fortunately, from a “give them enough rope” perspective – includes quotes from Property Investors Federation head Andrew King, aka “least sympathetic man on the planet”:

Andrew King from the Property Investors Federation, whose group represents about 6000 landlords owning 22,000 properties, says that some of the power to stop it is in their hands. He says tenants often do things that encourage mould, such as not heating homes and drying clothes on clothes racks.

“A lot of tenants actually keep their curtains closed during the day. Both parties need to take responsibility for mould.”

“The only reason a tenant would choose to stay there if it was in an unsafe condition is if the rent was really cheap. Then it’s kind of their choice.”

His association is working with the Children’s Commissioner and Otago Medical School to see if families of children who are suffering can get electricity grants through winter months to encourage them to turn on the heater.

Yep, it’s the fault of the tenants for not leaving all their windows open all day in the middle of winter while they’re out at work, it’s the fault of the tenants for being too poor to use a tumble dryer for all their laundry, it’s the fault of the tenants for being human and having corporeal form and thinking they need to have a roof over their and their kids’ heads.

I mean, the poor little landlords are only charging the bare minimum to cover their costs! They got into property investment because they love helping people! Why doesn’t anyone appreciate their charity? And look, what would be best for everyone involved is if the government could subsidise the horrific power bills their tenants have to pay just to keep their homes liveable.

And they’ll probably get it. If there’s one thing National is really good at, it’s using the power of the state to make it easier for rich people to get richer at the expense of the poor. They’ll call it a community service and jump up and down about how much they’re doing to stop kids getting chronic lung infections, but ultimately, more money will be taken from the working and middle classes and funnelled into the pockets of the kind of people who own on average 3.6 investment properties and call their private lobbying club ~a Federation~.

Costly government

I wrote yesterday about our heartless, penny-pinching government, which emphasises Getting To Surplus at all costs even if that means kids dying in cold state houses.

This is the true irony of National governments. Their entire platform is one of “fiscal responsibility” and “good economic management” yet time and time again they spend money the way I did when I was a teenager: false economies and short-term wish fulfilment which meant at the end of the week I was calling home collect and begging for rides which cost our household a lot more than if I’d just made sure I had enough money for the bus.

Fifteen-year-old-me was pretty stellar at externalising the losses, but I don’t think anyone, especially my parents or me, would relish the idea of her running the country.

National are, on the surface, all about cracking down on unnecessary spending and bureaucratic bloat, delivering value for money, getting proper returns on investment.

And yet, they don’t save us money.

A 2013 report of the National Health Committee on respiratory diseases puts the cost of lower respiratory tract infections like pneumonia at:

The average length of stay was about 3.5 days and the average price per hospitalised individual was $4,700.

According to the coroner’s report, Emma-Lita Bourne was admitted to hospital on 6 August and died on 8 August. Three days; and probably higher than average costs given the complications she suffered.

Making sure her family could afford to heat their home and throw some carpet on the floor wouldn’t have cost $5,000 – and could not only have saved her life in 2014 but prevented any number of future illnesses for her and her siblings.

A 2014 report from UNICEF states:

Every year, taxpayers face a bill of $6-8 billion for additional health needs, remedial education and reduced productivity that result from 260,000 children living in poverty.  This cost is largely due to the fact that children most likely to be in poverty are very young, when the most important physical, mental and social development is occurring.  Furthermore, a large group of children live in poverty for a long time – 7 years – and about ten per cent of Kiwi Kids live in severe poverty.

Six to eight billion. What was the estimated cost of Hone Harawira’s Feed the Kids bill again? $100 million. Estimated cost of Sue Moroney’s extension to paid parental leave? $276 million over three years. Drops in a bucket.

The Greens-initiated housing insulation policy had, as of May 2012, cost $347 million and returned estimated benefits – in reduced healthcare costs – of $1.68 billion. That’s some good fiscal management right there.

And as the fabulous Dr Liz Craig put it a couple of years ago:

… a housing warrant of fitness could improve the condition of rental properties, and although it could increase rents, at the moment all taxpayers are covering the costs of substandard housing through the health system and it’s a conversation the country needs to have.

Emphasis mine.

It’s almost like the radical notion that prevention is better than cure stacks up – ethically and financially. Maybe not on a single year’s balance sheet; but when we’re talking about caring for people from cradle to grave, a single year’s balance sheet is irrelevant.

So if National were truly interested in efficiencies and return on investment – instead of just using those buzzwords to sell their latest erosion of the public service – every state house would be warm and dry. Every kid would get breakfast and lunch. Every parent could give their kids the best start in life with mum or dad at home for those crucial early months.

Sometimes people on the left object to putting things in monetary terms – when the Public Service Association put the cost of domestic violence to business in numbers ($368 million a year) there was criticism: surely we’re motivated to stop domestic violence because it’s a bad thing which should never happen to anyone!

They’re right. They’re also wrong. This is a heartless government. They don’t do things “just because” it’s the right thing to do. Their focus is always on the money: they balance the books, they do the practical stuff, not the wasteful airy-fairy lefty stuff.

So we must, and can, argue this on both fronts. Of course every Kiwi kid should get breakfast and lunch because food is a fundamental part of being healthy and happy. But it’s also not just feelgood. It saves a huge amount of money in the long run, in education, in healthcare, in law enforcement.

It doesn’t mean we accept the frame that everything is about money. We just show very clearly how doing the right thing morally also means doing the right thing financially. The National Party isn’t selling our soul to save dollars; it’s selling our soul and costing us money at the same time.

That can’t be anyone’s definition of “good government.”

Heartless government

A few stories of recent weeks which show exactly what kind of government we have.

Last August, Emma-Lita Bourne died of pneumonia because the state house her family lived in was cold and damp. Soesa Tovo died after being admitted to hospital with heart and lung problems and pnuemonia. His house was so cold and damp they had to wipe down the ceiling every morning.

The response from Minister of Housing Nick Smith?

“People dying in winter of pneumonia and other illnesses is not new.”

Because people who expect state houses to not be so cold they kill people are clearly confused about the concept of mortality.

Marnia Heke and her children are living in their car because they can’t find stable accommodation. She doesn’t want to go to a motel for a night because it’ll get the kids’ hopes up.

The response from WINZ?

“We have told her that the Ministry would help her to cover the financial cost of temporary accommodation. We wouldn’t be paying for all of the accommodation as it would be reasonable to expect her to contribute.”

Because when a woman and her three kids are sleeping in their car what’s really important is making sure we spend the absolute minimum amount required to put a roof over their heads.

Peter Talley is given a knighthood for “services to business”. His business involves locking out workers, paying women less because they’re women, and trying to force workers to sign individual employment agreements which deny them the right to hold workplace meetings, criticise Peter Talley and his mates publicly, or deny their boss access to their entire medical history.

The response from the Deputy Prime Minister?

“It’s a big complicated business and I’m sure there’s been things go wrong over time, but I think the contribution he has made over the years has been beneficial.”

Because systematically, repeatedly exploiting your workers is just a boo-boo.

This is heartless government. A government that literally does not care about people. Not about providing warm safe housing (it might cost too much). Not about making sure they can come home every day after work (it might cost too much). Not about protecting workers’ right to freedom of speech and forming unions (it would definitely cost too much).

New Zealand is surely a better country than this.

Healthy, safe housing is a basic human right

[Content note: death of a child]

The Greens have been calling for a “Warrant of Fitness” on all rental properties for a while, and the need for one has been highlighted with the tragic death of a toddler in Auckland:

The damp and cold conditions in a state house may have contributed to a toddler’s death, a coroner has found.

Two-year-old Emma-Lita Bourne died after a brain haemorrhage while in Auckland Starship Hospital last August.

She had been brought into the hospital after showing symptoms of fever, which turned out to be a form of pneumonia.

Brandt Shortland concluded the pneumonia was a contributing factor in her death and that the Housing New Zealand house in Otara where her family lived in may have been partly to blame for her ill-health.

The home was described as very cold, with leaking ceilings, little natural light and no carpet.

The family had requested a transfer to a better house and were on the waiting list at the time of the death.

Housing New Zealand gave them a heater, but they were unable to use it due to the amount it added to their power bills, the coroner said.

We have a political discourse that loves to wave the flag of personal responsibility. If Emma-Lita Bourne had died as a result of child abuse, you wouldn’t be able to move for commentators making grand proclamations about the responsibilities that come with receiving government support, or the duties of parents regarding children in their care. We’d know exactly who to blame.

But when a small child gets sick and dies because the house she lived in was damp and cold and her parents couldn’t afford to keep the heaters on we don’t talk about the duty of housing providers – public or private – to maintain healthy, safe properties.

Yet that’s what it is. A basic duty to ensure the thing you provide is fit for purpose. A rental warrant of fitness is no different to imposing basic hygiene standards on restaurants or health and safety requirements on employers (though our government may need a refresher on those, too.)

And the other side of it that we don’t talk about is the duty of government to ensure all its people have a basic, decent standard of living. It’s nothing but heartless to put a family in a cold dark house and then tell them to fix the problem with a heater they can’t afford to run.

We need a rental warrant of fitness. And we need a proper social safety net which provides all families with enough support to keep their kids healthy and warm. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not communism by stealth: it’s called caring for each other. So no child has to die for want of a warm home.