Wellington rental horror stories: 'I had spores and fungi in my system'

by Michael Cropp / 18 August, 2017
Mould in the bathroom of a rental property. Photo / Michael Cropp

Call for new voluntary scheme to be rolled out nationwide - and made compulsory.

Wellington's renters are keen on a new voluntary rental Warrant of Fitness scheme, saying it is a good start but it needs to be compulsory.

The City Council announced the initiative on Thursday morning, in partnership with Otago University.

Landlords will be able to book an inspection for $250, and if their building fails, they will have six months to make the necessary changes to meet the criteria. The warrant of fitness will then be valid for three years.

However, some students are doubting their landlords will submit their properties to the test.

In a nine-bedroom flat just five minutes from Victoria University's Kelburn campus, it was no warmer inside than outside.

On a cold day, a fourth-year university student said she would wear "a thermal singlet, two thermals, a jumper, a puffer jacket, a beanie and a scarf" inside.

She paid $206 a week for her room.

There is no insulation in the walls or floors; and clothes, shoes, handbags, even the curtains, are mouldy or heading that way. It would not pass a rental Warrant of Fitness.

This young woman wanted to find out why she constantly felt rundown.

"I had these tests done to see how my health's going because I get sick really easily, and it showed I had spores and fungi in my system.

"I told the woman [who showed me the results] my room is really damp ... and she was like, that's probably a contributing factor.

"It's probably making it worse," she said.

Renters United, an advocacy and lobby group, said the Warrant of Fitness would set a benchmark for housing that did not make people sick or injure them.

However, they want every rental property to meet it.

Rory Lenihan-Ikin Photo / Michael Cropp

 That view was echoed by Rory Lenihan-Ikin, the president of the Victoria University Students Association.

"Everyday, we see students who are sick because of their cold, damp and mouldy flats.

"The research that's been done by the public health unit at University of Otago in Wellington suggests that the only real solution to this problem is a mandatory Warrant of Fitness," he said.

Rents had skyrocketed in recent years, with no real improvement in the quality of student accommodation, despite insulation subsidies, Mr Lenihan-Ikin said.

"A whole lot of flats and rentals remain uninsulated and that's because there is so much demand for rental properties in Wellington.

"Landlords aren't under pressure to make any of these changes because they know they're still going to have students rolling up day after day, in their hundreds, wanting to secure the flat," he said.

Otago University public health professor Philippa Howden-Chapman said the evidence around poor quality housing was clear: it was giving children life-long respiratory and other diseases, and contributing to deaths in winter.

"We have an extraordinarily high rate of respiratory diseases in New Zealand.

"The lungs, like any organs, if they're damaged once they're more fragile the next time an infection comes along.

"We have children with bronchiolitis, we've had children with childhood pneumonia going in and out of hospital - the frequent flyers," she said.

Those children would then go back into the same cold, damp houses - just to be re-admitted to hospital, Professor Howden-Chapman said.

Property Investors' Federation executive officer Andrew King said landlords supported raising standards but did not support this initiative.

"We do not need people going around with clipboards looking at the kitchen to find out if the bench is big enough, if the toilet is working, saying whether the hot water is hot or cold enough.

"We just don't need the extra expense and the future potential problems it will cause by doing this. The regulations are already there," he said.

The scheme would be closely monitored for adverse effects on the rental market.

Once any kinks are ironed out, Wellington's mayor Justin Lester said he planned to ask parliament to make rental Warrants of Fitness compulsory nationwide.

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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