Renters pocket $124,000 as landlords fail to insulate rentals

Renters taking their landlords to court for breaking insulation laws have pocketed more than $124,000 in fines.

Health experts and a leading property manager have praised the fines, saying there could be up to 10 times more landlords still breaking the laws.

But landlords say the number of fines was smaller than expected.

Renters won the damages in more than 120 Tenancy Tribunal cases heard since July 1 in which landlords failed to insulate rentals or provide accurate insulation statements, new Herald research showed.

They also pocketed tens of thousands dollars more in rent reimbursements and compensation as a result of living in cold houses where landlords failed to fix faults or provide adequate heating.

Associate Professor Nevil Pierse, a healthy homes researcher at the University of Otago, said landlords had been shifting the costs of cold homes on to taxpayers for too long.

“Children have been getting sick and we’ve been picking up the tab through the health system,” he said.

“This is a small level of fine for landlords, who despite repeated warnings and a lot of publicity are still breaking the law and putting their tenants’ lives and health at risk.”

The new insulation laws were brought in last year in a bid to ensure tenants live in warm, dry and safe homes and required all rentals be fitted with floor and ceiling insulation where it was practical to do so.

Pierse said cold and damp houses contributed to Kiwis making about 28,000 hospital visits each year.

And while these so-called housing-related illnesses – including asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis – were preventable, many children were dying.

Kids hospitalised with these illnesses were 10 times more likely to die in the next 15 years than kids hospitalised from other causes, he said.

Additionally, a Stats NZ study of 6700 Kiwi homes released last week found one-third of houses had winter temperatures below the World Health Organisation’s minimum healthy indoor temperature of 18C.

David Faulkner – a consultant to the property management industry with Real-iQ – said landlords had three years’ warning the new laws were coming and deserved to be hit with stiffer penalties.

He thought there could be 10 times as many uninsulated homes still out there and suspected private landlords were more to blame than bad property managers.

About 60 per cent of rentals were managed directly by their owners, who were often less versed in rental laws and sometimes had the attitude “it’s my home, I can do what I want with it”, he said.

He called for exemplary damage fines to be increased from a maximum $4000 for failing to insulate to up to 25 per cent of a home’s annual rent.

NZ Property Investors Foundation executive officer Andrew King supported the move to insulate homes but said the Herald figures suggested there weren’t as many landlords breaking the laws as the hundreds of thousands some had earlier predicted.

Yet while King and Faulkner supported insulation laws, they feared many landlords would not be ready to meet the next round of Government Healthy Homes regulations coming mid-next year.

These required rentals to, among other things, be well ventilated and able to be heated to at least 18C.

But Faulkner said some of the rules were too technical. The legislation should focus on whether rentals were warm and dry, not forcing landlords to install new windows because the old one didn’t open quite enough, for instance, he said.

The Government needed to be careful not to hammer landlords too much or they would sell or switch to Airbnb, and exacerbate the rental shortage, he said.

However, Associate Housing Minister Kris Faafoi said there was no doubt the new standards were helping whānau avoid the health risks of cold housing.

The Government was set to bring in stiffer financial penalties for law-breaking landlords, while also arming the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) with more tools to prosecute them, he said.

Pierse said the new legislation would build on a national health initiative aimed at pregnant women and children under 5 that had already reduced hospitalisations for housing-related illnesses by 1533 last year.

“In England, where they’ve implemented much bigger standards, they’ve reduced the respiratory burden by one third over 20 years,” he said.

“We’re at the start of a long process.”

AUCKLAND MUM HURT TO HEAR OF OTHER CASES LIKE HERS

Auckland mum Ataoletaeao Tigifagu says she’s “really sad” to hear there were 120 cases of landlords breaking new insulation rules.

She won $22,000 in damages late last year after living six years in a in a mould-infested rental riddled with holes, leaks, rats and fleas that her landlord failed to adequately repair or fit with insulation.

Tigifagu’s 10-month-old daughter went to hospital with bronchiolitis during the tenancy, while her mother also suffered ill health.

“It was not an understatement to say that people’s lives were at risk due to living in these premises,” Tenancy Tribunal adjudicator Nicola Maplesden said at the time.

For Tigifagu, even one case like hers was one too many.

“Those stats are pretty sad. It hurts to hear because I know what it’s like,” she said.

She spent six-years in her hovel-like West Auckland rental, paying rent totalling $117,465 in that time.

She moved in with one child and her parents, but went on to give birth to two more children while living there. Her father also passed away during that time.

Yet despite the long tenancy, owner Colleen Aberhart took years to complete any repairs, Tenancy Tribunal adjudicator Maplesden said.

It meant rain dripped through one bedroom ceiling on to a bed where Tigifagu slept with her daughters – aged 6, 3, and 10 months – and damp and mould filled the room.

Another bedroom had window sills “rotted right through”.

“This bedroom was not used by the tenants for over a year as rodents entered through the holes in the window-sills and it was cold and damp,” Maplesden said.

The rats chewed a hole into one of the bedroom walls and brought repeated flea infestations over the course of two years.

Other problems at the home included a shower the family couldn’t use for more than one year because it lacked water pressure, plus extensive mould, worn flooring and a “swollen and rotten” kitchen bench top.

There was also “no laundry area in [the] house as rodents had eaten through wiring”, no insulation or vent fans, and gutters that overflowed when it rained because of the plants growing in them.

Thanks to social workers and MBIE staff stepping in to help, Tigifagu won her case at the Tenancy Tribunal.

She has since moved into an Auckland state house with her three children.

“Thank God they gave us a brand new house, and our whānau finally have somewhere to call home,” Tigifagu said.

Yet while their health has improved overall, doctors were still treating her youngest daughter and her mum had to stay on longer in the old rental, only recently finding a new house to move out to.

Tigifagu was reluctant to speak out but said she didn’t’ want anyone else to go through the same thing she did and hoped telling about her experiences could help them.

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