Talk radio was saturated at the end of last week with opinions on the tragic deaths of two toddlers. Chronicle readers are well aware of one of these deaths, which occurred in January and had its sentencing hearing at the High Court in Wanganui on Friday.
The other death occurred in August, 2014 at Auckland’s Starship Hospital, but the coroner’s report released last week blamed the cold and damp conditions of the family’s home in Otara as a contributing factor to the toddler’s death.
Emma-Lita Bourne suffered from bronchopneumonia for days before her death, which Coroner Brandt Shortland identified had caused a septic embolism that lead to an acute brain bleed. “I am of the view the condition of the house at the time being cold and damp during the winter months was a contributing factor to Emma-Lita’s health status.”
Sadly, the coroner’s report did not come as a surprise to those of us who work in the fields of “healthy homes” and eco-design. The social and medical costs of poorly designed and constructed homes in New Zealand is well documented. The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) estimates that unhealthy homes cost $400 million per year in unnecessary medical costs and $300 million per year in unnecessary energy costs.
On Tuesday this week, the death of 37 year-old Soesa Tovo was also linked to a cold, damp, Housing New Zealand home.
It is important to understand that it is not just Housing New Zealand homes that fall into the category of unhealthy, and that simply insulating a structure is only the first of many steps to improving its health, comfort and energy efficiency. Note that the ceiling of Emma-Lita’s home was insulated.
Cold, damp homes contribute to hundreds of deaths in New Zealand every winter, particularly elderly residents. There is no doubt in my mind that dozens of seniors in Whanganui have died prematurely due to unhealthy living conditions. Three years ago while assessing a home for a mother of five, she said she called because she was convinced the house had killed her mother-in-law who was the previous occupant.
Around the same time I visited a 75 year-old woman who rang because her house was frigid and difficult to heat. After assessing the home with her for an hour we both came to the conclusion that the best thing for her to do was to move out. The irony was that she had just bought the home six months earlier, but nothing short of a $50,000+ renovation would have made it fit for purpose. The house may as well have been her coffin.
While the premature deaths of seniors do not make headlines, our city could suffer a toddler’s death just as easily as Otara, and it would not necessarily happen in a state house either.
If and when that tragedy were to occur in our community, and the headline of the Chronicle were to echo that of the Herald – Damp house played part in toddler’s death – we would hear complaints that our daily paper only puts bad news stories on the front page. The story would be another black spot on our community spread by the national media painting Whanganui as a third rate city.
As someone working at the coalface of this issue, I can assure you that many of these deaths – and a massive amount of suffering, illness, missed school and work – is preventable. What people need is good, accurate, affordable advice. The other thing they need is someone to trust.
There is a significant amount of misunderstanding, deception, half-truths, bad advice, corner-cutting, and high pressure sales tactics in the housing sector in New Zealand, which I believe disempowers people when it comes to making good decisions. I see it everyday in my work with renters, owners, landlords, and public service agencies.
When my two year-old daughter sees me putting on trousers and a collared shirt she says, “Are you going to work?” I say yes.
“Why you go to work, papa?” I say to help people.
“Fixing their houses, eh?” I pause, and say yes.
While I love my job and thrive off of the positive feedback I get from clients everyday, it is discouraging that I must travel away from Whanganui to do it. There is huge need in this community and no one wants another “negative headline” putting us in the national spotlight.
Above all else, improving the housing stock of New Zealand and of Wanganui is a matter of will. As yet that will has not emerged in our community to any significant extent. Will it take an Emma-Lita to shock us into action?