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Renters need assistance to improve poor housing conditions - study

Thursday 18 September 2014 11:46am

Among the medical students involved in the study were (from left) Ben Stegmann, Daniel Zi Yi Yeoh, Claire Munro, Faye Sherlaw and Harriet Weststrate.

Renters are living in poorer conditions than homeowners and are less empowered to improve their housing situation according to a study by medical students at the University of Otago, Wellington.

The fourth year medical students conducted face-to-face interviews on the street and in cafes in Newtown with 80 renters and 80 homeowners, as part of a five-week research project with University of Otago, Wellington’s Department of Public Health. They are presenting their findings at a public lecture on Friday.

Student Faye Sherlaw says while renters and owners who were interviewed had the same level of knowledge of how housing conditions can affect their families’ health, renters perceived themselves as having less ability to improve those conditions.

“Research has shown that housing conditions such as cold, damp, mould, injury hazards and overcrowding are associated with poor health. It’s important that people have knowledge about these conditions but, equally critically, they need to have the power to act on it. Our study suggests often they don’t, especially if they’re renting,” Sherlaw says.

Interviews with renters revealed that the main barriers to improving their situation were money and landlords preventing them making improvements to their homes, she says.

Both renters and homeowners identified government subsidies for insulation and for other housing improvements as top interventions that would help them improve their housing conditions, she says.

A warrant of fitness on housing and more information about how to keep their house healthy and safe for children were also frequently cited as desired interventions.

The findings of the study support overseas studies that suggest the capability of renters to improve their housing is lower than that of homeowners, Sherlaw says.

The students also asked questions regarding rheumatic fever to gain insights in to whether the Ministry of Heath’s Rheumatic Fever Prevention Programme is improving knowledge in the community.

With Māori and Pacific children over-represented in rental housing and also in the incidence of rheumatic fever, this latest research should be taken into consideration when deciding what approach to use when tackling the issues around housing conditions and prevention of this serious disease, Sherlaw says.

While the interviews showed that Māori and Pacific parents are getting the message about the importance of getting sore throats checked in case of “strep” throat which can lead to rheumatic fever, the study highlights the importance of interventions that empower renters to make their homes healthier, she says.

“Our concern is that educating Māori and Pacific on housing conditions that can contribute to the incidence of rheumatic fever may not change the exposure of children to those conditions as those families are more likely to feel unable to change their situation.”

Department of Public Health Professor Michael Baker says the students’ findings provide valuable insights into the differences in levels of empowerment between renters and homeowners.

“This unique research is a strong reminder that it is not enough to simply exhort parents to provide their children with healthy, safe housing. These parents know this already. What they need is concrete policies and programmes that encourage landlords to do the right thing and upgrade their housing. This means continuing subsides to support home insulation, introducing a housing warrant of fitness, and other actions to rapidly improve the quality of rental housing which is where most of our vulnerable children are living,” Professor Baker says.

Further details and information:

Public presentation: ‘Healthy Housing – Can they fix it?’

10.30am – 12pm, Friday 19 September
Small Lecture Theatre, Level D, University of Otago, Wellington
23A Mein Street, Newtown, Wellington


Faye Sherlaw
University of Otago, Wellington
23A Mein Street, Newtown

Professor Michael Baker
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington
Tel 64 4 918 6802

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