30 Jun 2020

Research team given $5m to study NZ's old, cold, mouldy homes

7:12 am on 30 June 2020

A long-running project to tackle problem housing has received $5 million from the Health Research Council, which has handed out $71 million for 47 studies in its latest funding round.

Hand draw on glass and water drop.

Photo: 123RF

Otago housing and health researcher, Associate Professor Nevil Pierse, said the He Kāinga Oranga team will use the funds over five years to study the country's old, cold and mouldy homes.

"The key things we're looking at are: What are the little changes that make the biggest difference?

"What kind of homes make the best environment for kids to study in? We think we can show a link between a nice warm, dry studying area and that will drive better grades in New Zealand children."

Dr Pierse said previous research by the same team drove the Warmer Kiwi Homes programme, which has resulted in more than 300,000 houses insulated, but there's a long road ahead.

"Despite the significant progress made in recent years to improve the quality of New Zealand's homes through subsidised insulation schemes and energy efficient heating, up to 900,000 New Zealand homes remain unhealthy, with low-income renters most at risk," he said.

"New Zealand's poor housing quality, particularly private rental housing, has created a large health burden with 28,000 children and 54,000 adults hospitalised each year for potentially avoidable hospitalisations linked to old, cold, damp and mouldy houses."

Most of these children come from low-income households with Māori and Pasifika children three and four times over-represented, he said.

As part of the five-year programme, the research team will work with the government to measure the impact new mandatory Healthy Homes Standards for rental properties are having on housing quality, including indoor temperatures, air quality, physical and mental health and mortality.

The standards, due to be in place from July next year, cover improvements to heating, insulation and ventilation and address issues with moisture ingress and drainage.

Health Research Council chief executive Professor Sunny Collings said He Kāinga Oranga's research had received funding for 25 years, and had made a major difference to the quality of New Zealand housing.

"Through their research, He Kāinga Oranga has completely changed the conversation around housing and health. People now understand that the condition of their house can significantly impact on their health," she said.

Professor Collings said the new rental standards had led to estimated cost savings of about $4 billion to the health sector and prevented some 80,000 hospitalisations.

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker Photo: University of Otago, Wellington / Luke Pilkinton-Ching​

Professor Michael Baker, also from Otago University, has also been awarded $5 million for work looking at the connection between infectious diseases and chronic health conditions.

Professor Baker said the central idea is that infectious diseases and serious long-term conditions such as chronic lung disease and diabetes tend to occur together, known as "syndemics".

"The programme was written in 2019 but the ideas are very relevant to our current response to Covid-19 where the risks of infection and poor outcomes are strongly influenced by the presence of chronic conditions and poverty.

"A major goal of the programme is to better understand the two-way relationship between acute and long-term conditions to improve health and equity in New Zealand."

Pacific projects have received $4 million in funding, including one led by Dr Seini Taufa at Moana Research, that will look at ways of improving Pacific mental health.

Close to $5 million has been awarded to Māori health projects, including more than $1.1 million to a project looking at Rongoā Māori - traditional Māori healing.

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