Monday, April 22, 2019

Mike Butler: Rental property child hospitalisation claim contradicted

Housing Minister Phil Twyford justified the launch of costly new rental property standards in February by saying “6000 children are admitted each year for ‘housing-sensitive hospitalisations’” but, when questioned, two Ministries provided contradictory data that undermined the claim.

I sent a series of questions to the Minister’s office, to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and to the Ministry of Health, all seeking evidence to support this rather specific claim.

The full quote was that “6000 children are admitted each year for ‘housing-sensitive hospitalisations’, and that these children have been found to be nearly four times more likely to be re-hospitalised and 10 times more likely to die in the following 10 years.”

Answers to questions asked under the Official Information Act revealed:

1. The Ministry of Health does not list “housing-related hospitalisation” as a condition that people are hospitalised for, but does list it as “circumstances that may cause diseases (or exacerbate existing conditions)”.

2. That category in a table titled Publicly funded hospital discharges 2015/16, at showed that of the 244,152 discharges of children and young persons to age 19 that year there was a single entry recording a hospitalisation for a condition exacerbated by housing.

3. MBIE said that the claim that “6000 children are admitted each year for ‘housing-sensitive hospitalisations’, and that these children have been found to be nearly four times more likely to be re-hospitalised and 10 times more likely to die in the following 10 years” appears as an assertion on page 41 of A stocktake on New Zealand Housing, published last year. That assertion was made with no supporting data other than a footnote.

4. That footnote, to a paper titled Risk of rehospitalisation and death for vulnerable New Zealand children, identified crowding as the housing factor and said that death was rare. (See

In Stocktake, there was another assertion about children and asthma on p43, and diseases resulting from crowding in p44, again without supporting data other than unhelpful footnotes. If that was the only support for the Minister’s claim, it would appear that his “we are doing it for the children” utterances were exaggerated.

A stocktake on New Zealand Housing was written by Salvation Army social policy analyst Alan Johnson, University of Otago Public Health Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, and economist Shamubeel Eaqub, and has a foreword signed by the current Housing Minister, Phil Twyford.

An 85-page book, Stocktake was commissioned by Twyford in November 2017. Copyright is to the Crown although it carries a disclaimer that accuracy or completeness is not guaranteed and no liability is accepted for any error. It is a political publication. It is not research.

The Minister has made various “hospitalisation” claims while pushing for so-called “healthy homes standards”.

During the first reading of the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill on May 4, 2016, Mr Twyford said: “It is no longer good enough in this country of ours that there are 42,000—in fact, the latest figures indicate 50,000—preventable hospitalisations of children with respiratory and infectious diseases”.

In the foreword of the Healthy Homes Standards discussion document when he said that Ministry of Health data (2018) shows that there are approximately 10,800 children or 13,000 events with potentially housing related conditions presented to the hospitals in New Zealand each year.”

The Healthy Homes Guarantee Act was passed in 2017. Standards had not been created when MPs considered the legislation. The standards would be created later, outside of parliamentary scrutiny, and were to be imposed as a regulation.

The standards that eventuated concerned heating, insulation, ventilation, moisture control and drafts, presumably to combat what the Minister thought was a prevalence of cold, damp housing.

These standards, of course, would have no effect on hospitalisations resulting from disease-transmission in crowded houses, respiratory diseases resulting from indoor smoking and unflued portable gas heaters, or infections resulting from poor hygiene.

This means that a fully compliant but crowded dwelling would continue to drive high rates of close-contact infectious diseases such as pneumonia, meningococcal disease and tuberculosis.

Insulation top-ups merely ensure that the costs of heating are marginally reduced, a fixed heater does not ensure that it is used, and ventilation would remove some steam from kitchens and bathroom, which could be achieved by opening a window.

The news that one Ministry contradicted data from another Ministry and undermined the Minister’s emotional “for the children” claim, and that the rental property standards would have no effect on crowding-related diseases, will go down like a cup of cold sick for rental property owners forced to spend up to $7000 per dwelling on largely unnecessary modifications.

The current Housing Minister built his career on over-the-top assertions that New Zealand rental housing is cold and damp.

However, a survey by the Building Research Association of New Zealand, that found that only 2.7 percent of renters complained that their houses were cold and damp, undercuts the Minister’s claims. (Check p40 of the BRANZ report at

The standards are part of a multi-faceted compliance drive by the Government against the rental property sector which would require extra spending by owners that will be passed on to tenants. This includes:

• Letting fees roughly equivalent to a week’s rent charged to tenants at the start of a tenancy were banned in November. Property managers adapted by levying a tenancy fee charged to owners recouped by owners who charged an extra $10 a week.

• A review of the Residential Tenancies Act that could end the contractual nature of tenancy agreement by removing the owner’s contractual right to end a tenancy, require owners to accept pets and allow modifications as of right.

• Ring-fencing of rental property losses. Owners for whom the costs of owning a property exceed the income on that property would no longer be able to claim this loss against other income either from a day job or business. This could cause up-to 116,000 negatively-geared owners who lose on average $7000 per year on their rental to exit the market.

The standards appear to have been hijacked by the insulation industry.

The new standards require, by July 1, 2021, ceiling and underfloor insulation to the 2008 Building Code, or (for existing ceiling insulation) insulation that is at least 120mm thick.

The Government apparently caved in to the “more the merrier” insulation myth pushed by the industry despite evidence MBIE has that shows that the costs outweigh the benefits when insulating above the 1978 standard of R1.9 in ceilings only, which was required by the 2016 law change.

MBIE had a brief consultation period on standards and proposed tenancy law change last October, with most attention on proposals to change tenancy law to tip the balance further in favour of tenants.

Owners were not informed directly, even though Tenancy Services had the contact details of all property owners who had lodged bonds. Advertising calling for submissions appeared limited to social media. No explanation was given.

A total of 4761 submissions were received for the Residential Tenancies Act consultation and 1769 were received for the extra standards for rental property, according to a response received under the Official Information Act. A request for details of how many owners submitted was refused.

The absence of evidence of harm from the alleged condition of rental property is reminiscent of the hysteria about meth-contaminated houses that came to a spectacular end about a year ago.

A request under the Official Information Act in 2014 on the numbers of illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths resulting from methamphetamine contamination or fires from P labs shows no record of such hospitalizations. See

In June of 2018, the Prime Minister’s former chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, reported that there’s never been a documented case of someone getting sick from third-hand exposure to meth. See

Since then, meth contamination has largely become the non-problem that it always was and credit should go to the current Housing Minister for recognising that.

Nearly a century ago, outrage about the condition of some inner-city slums, like Aro St in Wellington, or Ponsonby-Herne Bay in Auckland. That outrage prompted a long-running programme of state house construction that is still going on.

Much of the housing that was regarded as a health hazard 100 years ago is still there as gentrified, high price inner city living.

Rental property is a $6-billion sector, which is about the same size as the local government sector, and includes 524,000 private rental properties and possibly 290,000 owners.

Changes that add costs to owners make renting more expensive, drive some out of the industry, and reduce the supply of rental property.

Policy makers would be better off thinking through the implications of policy change before rushing an agenda into law because what they get may be the precise opposite of what they want.

Mike Butler is a rental property owner and spokesman for Stop The War on Tenancies, which was founded last year to research rental property policy.

1 comment:

Allan said...
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Trying hard to work this out! One branch of Government says we're all going to fry with the effects of global warming. The other branch of the same Government claims we're all going to freeze because of poor housing. WHY DO PEOPLE PAY ANY ATTENTION TO THE WORDS THAT COME OUT OF POLITICIANS MOUTHS..