It may not have been a bombshell announcement, but nevertheless if you’re going to release the rationale for not implementing a broad ‘Warrant of Fitness’ for housing that had gathered cross-party Opposition support, then picking a recess week does have a certain quiet zone effect to play to your advantage.
And that’s what Nick Smith, Minister for Building and Housing, did today in what was probably a welcome relief from being on the ropes on housing issues week after week.
This was on the face of it a simple and straightforward announcement. Yes to more insulation. Yes to smoke alarms. No to warrants.
And as an added compote, signal some sweeteners for tenants – a longer protected period to take landlords to task – and for landlords – a shorter period to swoop on properties abandoned by tenants. Both in different ways presented as being about being going after “bad apples”.
Mr Smith didn’t falter in this order of play and had some obvious winners to speak to. The three lives to be saved by enforcing standards for smoke alarms is entirely compelling, but as noted that’s the norm across in Australia which makes it a case of having to ask: Why do we take so long to do these things?
The WoF was dismissed primarily, or initially at least, because its framing had thrown up what the Minister called “pedantic requirements”, using window stays and stairway rails as two “over the top” whipping boys. Just not “pragmatic”. Just no “good evidence”. Just “passing on more cost to the landlord”. Not to mention, Mr Smith mentioned, an annual inspection element for warrants that would tot up to $225 per property per year .
Where there was some unravelling was the third of houses where insulation would be impractical and therefore open to exemptions, and where the passing on of costs from landlords to low-income tenants would clearly – with the Minister’s explicit acknowledgement – chew a figure like $3.20 a week off the benefit rise of $25 on the horizon for April next year.
Even before the typically swift, and narrow, flurry of media release responses had landed in media inboxes, it was apparent that on this occasion the Minister, Cabinet and officials had sewn up the framing of changes very tightly.
For insulation to be impractical for a third of houses added some diverting confusion and allowed Mr Smith to use a fond analogy that just as New Zealand’s housing stock – moving attention to owner-occupied houses – is known to exhibit woeful design weaknesses for retaining heat, this made the state of play similar to the woeful mix of inefficient and efficient cars that make up our collective automotive fleet.
For an issue that isn’t going away what’s changed today is that clearer lines have been drawn. A timetable is in place now that to a certain extent creates some breathing space on at least one aspect of the behemoth sized housing front. A tidy-up law will be introduced, and some ‘white charger’ regulations fed through the select committee process. And then it will be Christmas. And summer again.
What has to be learnt from today’s announcement is that all of these decision processes warrant the closest possible scrutiny and examination.
As the Greens quickly identified the job of warming up New Zealand had only really just begun.
It’s good that renters are getting to join some form of queue for insulation, but the question has to be what will truly encourage landlords represented by the likes of the New Zealand Property Investors Federation to implement the proposed changes, and not do so in ways that are so piecemeal and erratic and under-policed that the policy has to be retrofitted over and over again.