Housing WOF Field Tests to Start in Wellington

16 December 2013

The first step in a nationwide project aimed at making rental housing safer to live in – especially for children, students and the elderly - is to start with ‘warrant of fitness’ field tests in five cities, including Wellington, in January.

Some 125 rental properties – 25 in each city – are to be given the once-over by home assessment experts in Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

The field tests will not result in the immediate issue of WOFs for the 125 houses but will be an important step towards standardising methodologies and checklists to ensure the credibility of the WOF scheme.

“Too many people live in cold, damp housing,” says Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown. “It’s bad for health and productivity. We want children, students and older people to have warm, dry and safe homes.  

 “I made a personal commitment at the election campaign to introduce a rental housing warrant of fitness. The first steps are now being taken between the five councils and other.”

“Regardless of the reasons why the houses were built to these standards in the first places, it is well-known that poor housing conditions contribute to more severe asthma, rheumatic fever and other housing-related illnesses,” adds Cr Paul Eagle, Chair of the Council’s Community, Sport and Recreation Committee. 

The WOF will be an innovative tool that will benefit both landlords and people looking to rent,” says Buildings Portfolio Leader Cr Iona Pannett. “Landlords will be able to attract good tenants more easily and renters will be given information on whether a property meets a good standard or not before they sign on the dotted line.”

The rental housing WOF field test involves the Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin councils, ACC, New Zealand Green Building Council and the University of Otago (Wellington).

The assessment tool was developed by the NZ Green Building Council and the University of Otago (Wellington) with feedback and input from the five councils, ACC and other housing experts.

ACC's Programme Manager for Home Safety, Megan Nagel, says: "ACC is supporting the warrant of fitness trial as part of our focus on reducing injuries in and around the home.

"Environmental factors such as poor lighting and maintenance, slippery surfaces and steps and stairs contribute to many home injuries, so by helping to address factors such as these, a housing warrant of fitness will potentially support efforts to bring injury rates down."

Leigh Featherstone, Homestar Director at the New Zealand Green Building Council, says the support of ACC and the cities involved shows a strong joint commitment to improving local housing and health. “We hope that by the end of this project there’ll be a working tool to rate rental standards nationally. This will make sure rental housing isn’t endangering the health of the families living in it. The long-term payoff will be better health, particularly of our kids and elderly.”

“The agreement to pre-test the rental warrant of fitness is an outstanding example of what can be achieved by local councils working together to improve rental housing quality for families and communities” says Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, at the University of Otago, Wellington.

“Over a decade of robust research by the Housing and Health Research Programme has enabled us to develop a world-class rental housing WOF, which we are pre-testing before it’s rolled out more widely.”

When will the field tests start?

The field test will start in January and run through to the end of February. The results will be published in March.

What will the assessment cover?

The assessment uses 28 criteria, an associated checklist and a technical manual. See Attachment 1 for the criteria and checklist.

How long will it take?

The assessment should take only about an hour from when the assessor enters the front door to when they leave.

What does the assessment aim to achieve?

The assessment aims to identify whether the rental property meets basic housing quality standards that impact on the following areas: warmth (or ability to effectively heat), dryness, mould and dampness, injury risk, sanitation, basic state-of-repair and basic living needs.  These factors impact the health and safety of the occupants. 

Why is a WOF being considered in the first place? 

Housing is one of the key material determinants of health and wellbeing.  New Zealand housing is of a lower quality than most OECD countries and several national surveys and research studies have shown that private rental housing is in poorer condition than either social housing, or houses that are owner occupied. Living in substandard housing is seriously damaging the health of New Zealanders with children from low-income families, Māori and Pacific peoples disproportionately affected. Over 70% of all children who are in poverty live in rental accommodation (20% in Housing New Zealand housing and 50% in private rentals). 

The Children’s Commission’s Expert Working Group on Solutions to Child Poverty recommend the introduction of a Rental Housing Warrant of Fitness (WOF) as a means to addressing the health and safety of a large proportion of children living in poor quality private rental housing. 

In addition, each year, ACC receives around 600,000 claims for injuries that happen in or around the home.  It is estimated that around 30% of home injuries are caused by environmental factors such as poor maintenance, slippery surfaces, paths, steps and stairs as well as poor lighting. 

The overall aims of this partnership group for a WOF is to improve the health, quality of life and energy bills for those in rental accommodation.

What is the Government doing?

The NZ Government signalled it wants to develop a WOF for use initially on its 69,000 Housing NZ properties with a potential wider roll-out to other areas:
Housing WoF to be Developed and Trialled - beehive.got.nz

How does this field test relate to the Government’s project?

The parties in this agreement will share the assessment tool and the findings with the Government with a view to collaborate to create one WOF assessment tool that can be applied in the social and private rental markets.

Have other countries implemented a warrant of fitness?

Yes, in 2001 the United Kingdom established a ‘Decent Homes’ standard, which states that houses should be warm, weatherproof and have reasonably modern facilities.  Rather than assessing against a fixed standard, the HHSRS employs a risk assessment approach to enable risks from hazards to health and safety in dwellings to be minimised. The system applies to all dwellings, regardless of ownership.

What type of properties will be involved?          

There will be a mixture of private rental properties and Council social housing properties.

How will the homes be selected?

The individual councils involved in the field test will recruit landlords to volunteer to participate and the councils will also select a sample of their social housing portfolio for the field test. 

Who will conduct the assessments?

Each council involved in the project will be responsible for identifying service providers to conduct the assessment. This may be Council staff (i.e. environmental health officers or eco design advisors) or independent contractors with experience in home assessments. All of the assessors will undergo training with the checklist and technical manual prior to the assessments beginning.

Will the homes be getting an actual “warrant of fitness” rating?

No, this project is just to test the draft assessment tool to see how practical and usable it is. The homes will not receive an actual WOF rating.

Landlords will be presented with the assessment findings to help them understand how their properties performed in the assessment. Landlords will also be provided with information such as insulation schemes, curtain banks and other informative material.

What are you predicting for pass/fail rates?

We are predicting a relatively high fail rate. New Zealand’s housing stock has well-documented quality problems (i.e. lack of insulation, dampness and inadequate heating) and there are some fundamental things that are missing in many homes to keep them warm, dry, healthy and safe.

What other objectives do you have?

We want to gather feedback from participating landlords on effective and transparent ways of engaging with the rental housing sector. We want to understand landlords’ experiences to having their house inspected, their feedback on the field test and their post-inspection intentions.

We want to understand what type of tenant-education material will be effective and useful to be delivered in conjunction with a housing WOF assessment to help address issues related to occupant behaviour (e.g. venting the home properly and the use of un-flued gas heaters causing moisture problems and health issues).

We want to understand tenants’ experiences towards having their homes inspected and their understanding of the benefits, or otherwise, of a WOF.

We want to share the results of the field test with the Government and collaborate with a view to producing one effective WOF tool for all of New Zealand.

Assessment Criteria

  1. Is there a functional, safe stove-top and oven? (Yes/no)
  2. Is there adequate space for food preparation and storage? (Yes/no)
  3. Is there an adequate supply of hot and cold potable water? (Yes/no)
  4. Is the hot-water at the tap 55°C (±5°C?) (Yes/no)
  5. Is there a functional toilet, which does not have a cracked or broken seat, cistern or bowl? (Yes/no)
  6. Is there a suitably located bath or shower in good working order? (Yes/no)
  7. Are there secure or high level cupboards or shelves for storing hazardous or toxic substances out of children's reach? (Yes/no)
  8. Is there a fixed form of safe and effective space heating? (Yes/no)
  9. Do the bathroom, kitchen and all bedrooms have some form of ventilation to outside? (Yes/no)
  10. Is the house reasonably free of visible mould, i.e. the total area of mould is less than an A4 sheet of paper?(Yes/no)
  11. Are the power outlets and light switches safe and in good working order? (Yes/no)
  12. Is there adequate indoor lighting? (Yes/no)
  13. Does the house have adequate working smoke alarms? (Yes/no)
  14. Have the windows got effective latches? (Yes/no)
  15. Have high windows got security stays? (Yes/no)
  16. Do glass doors have safety visibility strips? (Yes/no)
  17. Does the house have ceiling insulation to WOF standards? (Yes/no)
  18. Does the house have underfloor insulation to WOF standards? (Yes/no)
  19. Is the house weathertight with no evident leaks, or moisture stains on the walls or ceiling? (Yes/no)
  20. Is the house in a reasonable state of repair? (Yes/no) 
  21. Is the storm and waste water drainage being adequately discharged? (Yes/no) 
  22. Is there any water ponding under the house? (Yes/no)
  23. Is there adequate outdoor lighting near entrance ways? (Yes/no)
  24. Does the house appear to be structurally sound? (Yes/no)  
  25. Are there handrails for all internal stairs and all outdoor steps that access the house, and do balconies/decks have balustrades to the current Building Code? (Yes/no)
  26. Is there fire egress to the current Building Code? (Yes/no)
  27. Is the address clearly labelled and identifiable? (Yes/no)