A new voluntary tool for assessing a house's warmth, safety and dampness has been launched, but renters say it must be mandatory and be enforced to be effective.
It uses a free 20-question self-assessment questionnaire to gauge whether your home is dry, healthy, economical to run and safe; that is followed by a paid building inspection which used internationally-developed guidelines.
Green Building Council chief executive Andrew Eagles tells Nine To Noon's Kathryn Ryan they developed the tool based on previous research and advice from the industry.
"This has been 18 months of work with a variety of organisations across the community ... Community Energy Network, Energy Eco Design advisers, Home Performance Advisors, EECA and others working in the space. REANNZ and others are on the steering group."
The questionnaire is relatively simple, something they were aiming for, he says.
"It covers simple questions that people can follow on insulation, heating and ventilations ... questions like 'do you have an extraction fan in your bathroom or extraction in your kitchen?'
"What they receive is a report setting out the difference between their home and what a healthy warm home will deliver - and some suggestions on how to improve."
He says 40 percent of New Zealand homes are damp and mouldy, so some of the questions focus on whether there's mould on the walls.
"If somebody has got mould on their wall, that is an issue, and that is an indicator that the home is damp and not well ventilated."
He says the questionnaire is partly to educate people about what a healthy and warm home is, and provide a clear and simple way to attain it.
Stamp of approval
Once people have completed the questionnaire, and remedied any problems, the next step in the scheme is getting a HomeFit certification.
"The second part, the stamp, is a way to start mainstreaming this, so in two to three years people are asking for Homefit when they go to buy a home," Eagles says.
He says it's supported internationally.
"We are part of a cohort of 73 countries looking at how to improve homes and buildings for a sustainable and healthy future, so we collaborate with countries around the world on these standards."
Assessors would require a qualification from NZ Institute of Building Inspectors, NZ Institute of Building Surveyors or Home Performance Advisors qualifications. They would also need training to qualify for the HomeFit programme itself and become registered on the NZ Green Building Council register.
While the assessment will follow on from the basic questionnaire and use the same components, it will require a more thorough examination of ventilation, insulation, heating and energy efficiency standards.
HomeFit will also require efficient and safe heating in main living rooms.
Voluntary scheme vs mandatory requirement
Eagles is hopeful HomeFit will be taken up, despite a lack of uptake of some similar schemes. The rental warrant of fitness in Wellington which has seen only three warrants completed in the first year, with fewer than 20 inspections.
Meanwhile the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development is working on new minimum standards - the Healthy Homes Standard - for rental homes that will be brought in as part of the Healthy Homes Guarantee Act.
He says most landlords want to keep their tenants and a dry, warm home would also mean less maintenance.
"Enlightened landlords could now use the Homefit to illustrate that they meet the Residential Tenancy Act amendment and, in time, the healthy home standard.
"We're not going to shy away from the fact that there's a housing crisis and we do need more homes. I think it would be a shame if we were to stop asking for quality because we need more quantity."
The tenants' perspective
However, Robert Whitaker from advocacy group Renters United says such a scheme would need to be mandatory to work.
"We've seen rents going up in Wellington every year for several years now, and I don't think that's going to change whether or not these standards are introduced.
"Where there's a constrained market, renters can't be choosers, it's the reality: they have to take a place that they can find.
"When you're choosing between somewhere to live and nowhere to live you're going to choose somewhere to live."
Any sort of voluntary standard, he says, will fall down at that first hurdle and rental housing is also significantly behind owner-occupied homes when it comes to quality.
"We think that that's principally because the responsibility for improving housing is with the person who owns it but the beneficiary of the improvements of housing is the people who live in it - if those are two different people, i.e. renter and landlord, then there's not the same incentive to improve the quality."
He says even if a mandatory regime is brought in, it also needs to be enforced.
"There's no point having a mandatory standard if it always falls back on the tenant to take their landlord essentially to court, to the tenancy tribunal, to have the standard enforced.
"We need somebody out there like these independent inspectors that Andrew is talking about who are going to … actually go out and check that the houses are up to standard."
Need for social housing, government intervention
Whitaker says part of the problem is the effect of a lack of social housing on the property market.
"What we're seeing … is the private rental sector has expanded enormously in the past couple of decades and that's because the government's got out of the business of providing housing for [tenants] who shouldn't really be in the private rental sector.
"We've got the government spending more than a billion dollars a year on accommodation supplements to compensate for the fact that they're not actually providing the housing they should be through state housing, council housing, all of these other forms of public housing.
"What we need is a lot more houses, a lot more affordable houses and a lot more quality houses of various kinds."
He says New Zealand has much housing stock - particularly rental housing stock - that's been neglected for decades.
He says the "sad reality" is that there are homes that will never be able to be brought up to decent standards.
"And right now people are living in those houses and it's making them sick."