New health protections for tenants launch in July, but those who see the health effects poor housing stock has on Kiwi kids want quicker and broader changes

A third of life is spent asleep – but not everybody gets to be warm, safe and healthy while doing it.

This used to be the case for 15-year-old Damien*. Cramped on a bed too small for him, exposed mattress springs would often scratch him until he bled.

Severely autistic and living in social housing with a father with his own medical issues, the options for Damien were limited.

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“Without help, we would have cut back on food and still my child would have gone without [adequate bedding],” his father said.

Luckily for Damien and his father, children’s charity Variety was able to provide him with a new appropriately-sized bed, mattress and bedding.

It’s done wonders for his health and wellbeing, according to his father. “He has more energy in the morning and he’s able to concentrate on tasks at school.”

Medical experts say the places we sleep have an immense effect on our wellbeing.

Damien was given the gift of a good sleep, but there are children all over New Zealand who still cope with substandard sleeping conditions – with around 30,000 hospitalised each year for illnesses related to cold homes like asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis.

Community paediatrician Dr Alison Leversha sees many of them come back to hospital again and again.

“More than one in three hospital admissions in zero to 14-year-olds were due to these preventable illnesses,” she said. “This shouldn’t be the case at all for our tamariki.”

Leversha said the quality of our housing had a direct link to health and wellbeing.

“The places we live shape our lives and our health,” she said. “New Zealand homes are not necessarily built for our environment.”

According to the longitudinal Growing Up in New Zealand study, half of Kiwi kids sleep in cold bedrooms.

“If you have a cold house, you sleep together,” said Leversha. “Cold environments also lead to a weaker immune system.”

She wants a system that does something about the root causes of these kids’ health issues, rather than one that just treats the symptom.

“I’m sick of seeing kiddies come in and we give them a band-aid and send them away,” she said. “We need a system change – we need to do more than just treat the cough.”

Community paediatrician Dr Alison Leversha says more than one in three hospital admissions in 0-14-year-olds are due to illnesses related to sleeping in cold and damp homes. Photo: Supplied

When Michelle Paekau first started going into homes as a case manager for Whare Ora in Waikato at the beginning of 2019, she was shocked by some of the living conditions she saw.

“What blew my mind were the conditions of the homes,” she said. “I wondered how landlords could see what I was seeing and do nothing.”

She said increases in the price of rent and food had forced families to cram into smaller living spaces, which could lead to respiratory illnesses and even conditions like rheumatic fever.

“You’ve got maybe two or three families splitting into one three-bedroom house, forcing children to bed-share,” she said. “What happens is those respiratory infections start to occur because there’s no space for them to separate.”

Paekau said damp conditions without suitable ventilation added fuel to the fire.

“Those contributing factors are a recipe for our tamariki to contract rheumatic fever,” she said.

Whare Ora is contracted by the Ministry of Health through its Healthy Homes Initiative. However, it pays its own way when providing whānau with heaters, beds and bedding. Charities like Variety play a big part in that.

But Paekau said where the Government needed to step in was by bringing broad healthy home standards in sooner than over the next five years as predicted.

“We need to lift the standards higher,” she said. “It needs to be sooner and these changes need to be more effective – or give something to landlords to make these changes quicker.”

Paekau said in her experience most landlords had been playing ball, although there were some shocking cases of property neglect.

“I’d go into a home and see black mould, which is a huge health risk for our babies,” she said. “The whānau said the landlord had already done their inspection, so I thought when was that – over a year ago? But it was only a couple of weeks ago.”

Paekau and her team advocate for families in situations like that by contacting landlords, but it isn’t always simple.

“If they have ticked all the boxes, there isn’t much leeway for us,” she said.

With projected standards covering the bare minimum, Paekau said there were still gaps in the legislation.

“From next month they are saying all homes need a main heating source, but it only needs to be in the living room,” she said. “It does nothing for the rest of the house where the children sleep.”

The standards also fall flat when it comes to curtains. “Curtains play a huge part in keeping the heat in the home,” she said. “But so often we see blinds or paper thin curtains that do meet the requirements but do nothing to help.”

Whare Ora often helps families by giving them tips and tricks to bridge the gap between adequate housing and the places they live.

Paekau said inexpensive work-arounds such as towelling moisture from windows and using bubble-wrap for makeshift insulation could help in the short-term, but like Leversha, she wanted to see changes made on a broader level.

Poorly-insulated and mouldy houses can seem par for the course in New Zealand, especially with the amount of people living in colonial villas with a history of dubious maintenance.

It is such an entrenched issue that Immigration New Zealand feels the need to warn prospective immigrants via its website.

“Houses here generally do not have central heating,” the website said. “New Zealand houses retain very little heat compared to other countries. Many new arrivals find the first winter here a bit of a shock.”

Last year, the winter energy payment was doubled to ease the burden on families in need during the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But as we head into the colder months of the year, these payments have returned to their usual rate of just under $32 dollars a week for families with children.

Children’s charity Variety has launched an annual appeal, calling on New Zealanders to help provide beds and warm bedding for over 500 kids in need through the coming winter.

“The nights are getting longer and colder, and this winter is particularly hard for one in five tamariki living in low-income households without access to basic necessities,” said Variety chief executive Susan Glasgow. “With the pandemic placing additional financial strain on families, these children need help more than ever to get through this winter.”

Variety’s Warm Hearts Appeal continues until the end of July, and hopes to raise $190,000.

* Damien is not his real name

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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