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September 16, 2013 | by  | in News |
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Mayor Wades Into Housing Debate With Election Bribe

Mayor Celia Wade-Brown has announced a major housing initiative in partnership with VUWSA, in the hopes that improving students’ flats will improve her student vote.

VUWSA’s Healthy Homes campaign was launched at a Housing Forum held after their annual general meeting last Wednesday in the Hub, where Wade-Brown announced a local bill to introduce rental warrants of fitness for housing in Wellington.

The rental warrant of fitness would set minimum standards for rental housing in insulation, heating and ventilation, for public and private rental properties. Every rental property would be inspected on a regular basis by trained inspectors to ensure it met the minimum acceptable standard. The scheme would operate in conjunction with central government and Housing New Zealand, and would also address housing initiatives including reducing homelessness, introducing rent-to-own schemes for tenants, and streamlining building consents.

As previously reported in Salient, the Wellington City Council (WCC) will work with VUWSA, Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull—who is sponsoring a similar bill in Dunedin—and local MPs to advance the Bill. The next stage is for the WCC to draft the Bill, before submitting it to Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson, who will take it to Parliament.

Wade-Brown has described her housing initiative as a “key plank” to her election campaign, and will be hoping it is well-received by students for the upcoming local body elections in which she is re-standing for Mayor. With councillor John Morrison currently leading in polls, Wade-Brown is not expected to be re-elected, leading some to speculate that the initiative is an election bribe.

“To a certain extent I think it is a vote-grab, sure. But if it works out it’s going to be great for students,” said one student spoken to by Salient.

Turnouts in local-body elections is traditionally very low, and this is especially the case for students. Young people are also the most likely demographic to not be enrolled to vote.

Wade-Brown maintains her initiative would cover not just students, but all those living in rental accommodation in Wellington.

“Wellingtonians deserve to live in houses that are affordable to buy or rent, are affordable to heat, and that ensure they and their families remain healthy,” said Wade-Brown, adding that the Council has a role to play in providing such outcomes.

“High-quality housing is a fundamental right, and we need engagement from across the private and public sectors to deliver the outcomes Wellingtonians deserve.”

In addition to Mayor Wade-Brown, Director of the He Kainga Oranga Housing and Health Research Programme Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman spoke on the need for a rental warrant of fitness.

Howden-Chapman called the plan an important “first step” towards tackling wider housing issues not just in Wellington, but across New Zealand.

“This is a move which should have been done many years ago, but which central government has side-stepped,” said Howden-Chapman.

Students spoken to by Salient were impressed with the measure, with one stating it was “about time” something was done, and another describing a rental warrant of fitness as “a pretty good idea [if] it means that things will actually change for the better”.

However, the scheme hasn’t impressed all, with landlords wary of having to pay more and increasing rents. A landlord spoken to last week by Salient said any legislative changes would have to cover his expenses to have his support, and Wellington Property Investors’ Association President Jackie Thomas-Teague has said the costs of bringing a house up to standard could affect rates and rents.

“Everyone would like to see healthy homes; it’s clear that is better for people. But it has got a huge cost involved in it,” said Thomas-Teague.

Neither Howden-Chapman nor VUWSA President Rory McCourt thought the Bill would lead to rental prices rising.

“It’s not going to push up price at all, and that’s because price isn’t necessarily determined in Wellington based on the cost of the landlord. There’s lots of subsidies available, but even if there weren’t, we know that our rents aren’t being determined by the cost of the landlord to rent out the place,” said McCourt.

“Some of us are paying $160, $170, $190, $200 a week, and there’s definitely room for movement for landlords to improve.”

The Forum was also attended by former Green MP Sue Kedgley, and local-body candidates Paul Eagle, Paul Bruce, Helene Ritchie and Justin Lester.

If successful, the Bill would affect more than 60,000 Wellingtonians who currently live in rental housing.

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