Researchers help make some homes less damp

It’s awful to live in a damp home. We know it from experience, or from stories, like the one told by Kayla at the Wellington Renters United launch: of multi-coloured mould, of asthma, of a damp bed, of the loss of home as a sanctuary, of a dehumidifier covered in mould, of “a spacer prescribed to you because you no longer had the respiratory capability to use your asthma inhaler [which] has mould on it.” We also know it from research, which shows that dampness hurts respiratory health[1] and mental health.[2]

Many homes are damp in New Zealand, but more rental homes than owner-occupied homes are damp.[3] A year ago, a paper by Sarah Bierre, Mark Bennett, and Philippa Howden-Chapman pointed out that our law on residential tenancies requires rental homes to be “free of dampness”. And yet, the dampness standard was not mentioned in the Government’s guide to renters’ rights or in the standard tenancy agreement.[4]

Worse, it seemed like the Tenancy Tribunal adjudicators – the people charged with getting people to follow that law – also didn’t know about the dampness standard. When the researchers reviewed a year’s worth of Tenancy Tribunal cases in which dampness was a problem, they found that adjudicators often did not apply the dampness standard, or applied it inconsistently. This was very worrying, as it meant “different tenants and landlords are, respectively, accorded different rights and duties”.[4]. The researchers put forward that the dampness standard should be consistently interpreted to require landlords “to address any dampness that results from the state of the house rather than from the actions of the tenants living in the house in a normal way”.[4].

Six months after the publication of the article, the Government noted in a paper that the regulation on dampness was “not well known” and announced an information campaign to improve the knowledge that landlords and tenants (and, one hopes, adjudicators) have about the dampness and other standards.[5]

An information campaign is not the strategy recommended by the researchers; they discuss the desirability on a rental warrant of fitness. And relying on tenants to report illegal housing, as current and planned regulation does, is a whole other problem, which I’ve discussed in regard to these upcoming changes here and here.

But that’s another story. For now, I just want to celebrate how some researchers brushed off a neglected piece of regulation and analysed how it worked in practice. They drew attention to how it wasn’t working – and what this meant for justice and for health. Their paper contributed to a Government commitment to making the dampness standard better known. This will not solve everything, but it is progress. Some people living in damp homes will be better off because of it.

NB: The Government has opened up consultation on some of the upcoming changes mentioned in previous posts. Submissions are due 11 February.

 

[1] Mendell, M. J., Mirer, A. G., Cheung, K., Tong, M., & Douwes, J. (2011). Respiratory and allergic health effects of dampness, mold, and dampness-related agents: A review of the epidemiologic evidence. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(6), 748–756. doi:10.1289/ehp.1002410

[2] Liddell, C., & Guiney, C. (2015). Living in a cold and damp home: Frameworks for understanding impacts on mental well-being. Public Health, 129(3), 191–199.

[3] 34%, compared to 24%. Buckett, N. R., Jones, M. S., & Marston, N. J. (2011). BRANZ 2010 house condition survey: Condition comparison by tenure. Wellington: Building Research Association New Zealand. Vol 26, No 2, pp 153-185  Retrieved from http://www.branz.co.nz/cms_show_download.php?id=53af2b0c2e5ca5169a0176996bba7ee88de082c0

[4] Bierre, S., Bennett, M., & Howden-Chapman, P. (2014). Decent expectations? The use and interpretation of housing standards in tenancy tribunals in New Zealand. New Zealand Universities Law Review. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2594584

[5] Cabinet Social Policy Committee. (2015). Insulation, smoke alarms and other residential tenancies improvements. Wellington: Office of the Minister for Building and Housing. Retrieved from http://www.mbie.govt.nz/what-we-do/housing/pdf-document-library/cabinet-paper-insulation-smoke-alarms-other-tenancy-improvements-jul2015.pdf

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