The Covid-19 lockdown showed us all how important housing quality is. Some homes were uncomfortable or got cold. Some homes were fine physically, but not well suited for how they were used over lockdown. For me – a numbers-focused economist type guy – it’s a crucial reminder that it’s not just about the quantity of our housing and whether we’re building enough. It’s whether our homes (existing and new) are good enough, and whether they’re well suited to our needs: needs that can change over time, and sometimes in ways we don’t expect.
Housing quality is starting to get some long-overdue policy attention. Stats NZ define it as
“The degree to which housing provides a healthy, safe, secure, sustainable, and resilient environment for individuals, families, and whānau to live in and to participate within their kāinga, natural environment, and communities”.
Stats NZ published a Framework for Housing Quality last year, which looks at four interrelated elements of housing quality:
The top two elements focus on the ‘here and now’ whereas the bottom two recognise that housing is long-term, and has to meet people’s needs both now and into the future.
Habitability is the most obvious dimension; is the home physically fit to be lived in? Is it built solidly (structurally sound, ideally not earthquake prone, offering protection from wind and rain); is it secure (lockable, the occupants can feel safe that others can’t get in); is it healthy (offering water, light and energy sources, ways to clean yourself and prepare food, etc).
Our homes often underperform on the ‘healthy’ aspect. The home should offer “protection from cold, dampness and mould, indoor pollutants, and excess heat” and too many NZ homes don’t meet the mark. More on that below!
Functionality gets a bit broader, and different households have different needs. The home needs to meet the functional requirements of its residents, as well as the people who might visit. This could mean accessibility for people with disabilities; a place to practise religion or host friends and family, etc. Maybe it means a ‘home office’ space – but is this just a way for landlords to sneak an extra bedroom in and collect more rent on a space that wasn’t designed to be lived in?
Functionality includes several aspects that relate to transport:
- Social and economic participation: enabling “access to social support networks and interaction within the local community”, and “access to employment”)
- Connectivity: enabling “access to transport, services, and the environment, including health services, education, employment, food sources, green spaces such as parks, and blue spaces such as beaches”
Environmental sustainability Stats NZ talk about this as meaning ‘habitability into the future’, but it’s really a whole-of-life look at the home. Was it designed and built with sustainability in mind; can it be lived in sustainably (i.e. energy and water efficiency, ‘solar gain’ and consideration of heat and shade); and are the materials are durable so they will last into the future?
Social and cultural sustainability Stats NZ talk about this as meaning ‘functionality into the future’. It’s whether the home can be easily adapted to different needs – e.g. the same residents as they get older (can it be made safe for people with limited mobility or vision?) or different residents who might look for different functional elements.
Stats NZ note that a home’s location “is an important part of all four elements but may interact with them in different ways”. It can affect habitability as “proximity to busy roads and exposure to heavy traffic can result in exposure to noise, stress, and pollutants”. It affects all the other elements too:
Location can also affect people’s ability to access services, employment, and green spaces. Whether an area has easy access to public transport, cycleways, and walkways can be important in terms of both environmental sustainability (potential reduction of carbon emissions) and social and cultural sustainability (meaning that people are less reliant on private cars for transport).
Now there’s a framework for thinking about these things, Stats NZ and other agencies (including MHUD, apparently) can start to collect data. This has already begun:
- The 2018 General Social Survey found that nine out of ten NZers were satisfied (or very satisfied) with their home, but satisfaction was lower for renters.
- The same survey found that a third of homes were too cold in winter (almost certainly an underestimate, since temperatures were measured during the daytime in the part of the house most likely to be heated), and too warm in summer.
- The 2018 census asked a couple of questions on housing quality, including whether the home never/ sometimes/ always had mould, or was damp.The census found that 22% of homes were damp at least some of the time, rising to 38% for rented homes. The figures for mould were similar, and again renters came off worse.
Where to from here?
I want to write more about housing quality this year, as it certainly seems like one of the ‘less examined’ areas of our homes. The Framework is a good first step, but what will actually be measured? What is the role of the market, and government, in achieving better quality?
I’d like better information to be available for both buyers and renters – there’s a lot of potential for ‘information asymmetry’ when moving house, and it’s hard to know what you’re getting into. Who will be a trusted source of information (spoiler: probably not the real estate agent)?
Should the government (or councils) tighten up regulation, and if so what areas should they target? Their current focus is on habitability, but some aspects of functionality are covered too – e.g. the Unitary Plan has minimum living space requirements. If they broaden their focus too far, will they run into tradeoffs – quality vs cost, present vs future, or pre-empting people’s choices about how they want to live?
Should the government (or councils) fund quality improvements for existing homes? If so, should they subsidise people to renovate their kitchens as Australia is doing, or is there a public policy rationale for focusing on certain upgrades and household types (spoiler: yes)?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below – how can New Zealand get to a future of better-quality housing?