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Health and home

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Tuesday 14 May 2013 12:59pm

Over the last decade Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman has repeatedly drawn attention to the detrimental health and social effects of low-quality housing and fragmented policy in housing, cities and energy.

In 2012 the Health Research Council supported these studies by funding an extension to the He Kainga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme she heads, investigating the burden of disease from poor housing.

Howden-Chapman (Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington) is also a member of the Children’s Commissioner’s expert advisory group looking at solutions to child poverty: she and her doctoral students have recently been looking at their research results through the lens of child health.

“Because 70 per cent of children living in poverty are in rental houses, with 50 per cent in the private sector, we’ve been calling for all rental housing to have ‘warrants of fitness’. We’ve helped develop a Healthy Housing Index that assessors can use to rate a house for energy inefficiencies that cause illness and injury.

“Home ownership has fallen from 75 per cent in the 1980s to around 65 per cent today,” she adds. “On top of that, we have the leaky-homes debacle which exacerbates these problems and is costing individuals and the community billions of dollars.”

Consequently, Howden-Chapman believes that New Zealand now has serious challenges in housing policy. She says housing, energy, transport and cities are not considered in an integrated way, so that low-income families in outer suburbs often have to pay high commuting costs and have less disposable income for electricity and good food.

Results of her studies published in the British Medical Journal show that insulation and better heating of homes make a significant difference to the health of residents. This leads to fewer days off school, less sickness, less hospitalisation, reduced mould and dampness, and less money spent on increasingly expensive electricity. The results have been replicated in an evaluation of the first 46,000 households in the government’s Warm Up New Zealand: Heat Smart Programme.

“These findings are very important when you consider the high numbers of children with asthma and infectious diseases in New Zealand, made worse by overcrowded households and the relatively high annual excess winter mortality rate of 1,600 people.

‘We clearly need an exemplar of well-designed, affordable and social housing in a mixed community,” she says.

Consequently, this year she co-ordinated an Affordable and Social Housing Day on the University’s Wellington campus, attracting more than 100 architects, representatives from central and local government, developers, bankers, iwi groups and housing companies.

“What came out of that day is that we don’t have a strategy to supply large numbers of affordable and well-designed houses. We used to do this kind of thing, with support from the state, providing quality housing for ordinary people with three per cent state loans and capitalising of the family benefit.

“We used to be world leaders in building state houses and communities, but not anymore and this is leading to huge social and health problems. By attracting public, private and community groups, this seminar has acted as a catalyst for a new kind of development.”

Currently, Howden-Chapman is working with key stakeholders to build 500 energy-efficient, affordable, modular houses in mixed communities in Christchurch within a year.

She says the Christchurch earthquake has highlighted that housing must be linked to transport, infrastructure, schools and issues of broader urban design and sustainable development. “Housing must be considered in relation to the city as a complex system and not in isolation.

“We don’t do that very well in this country. We continue to build large, expensive houses on the outskirts of cities in private subdivisions, while ignoring the social and environmental costs. This is not sensible in an age of rapid climate change and energy insecurity,” she says.

“Our research can continue to inform policy and demonstrate that better quality housing is absolutely vital if we’re to have a resilient, healthy and economically successful country.”

The New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities, also directed by Howden-Chapman, has recently been awarded a $9.2 million grant from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment for a Resilient Urban Futures research programme, linking the University of Otago with four other universities, NIWA, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research and local councils.

This looks at the broad costs and benefits of compact versus greenfield housing developments for a range of stakeholders including councils, communities, iwi and developers; and key inter-urban infrastructure including rail and broadband.

“We’re focused on helping to build knowledge to shape our cities of the future.”