HRC researchers have been instrumental in building the body of evidence that shows the profound impact that cold, damp, mouldy homes have on the health of families, and particularly children. Likewise, overcrowding profoundly contributes to the spread of infectious illness contracted due to these poor living conditions – including respiratory diseases, rheumatic fever and meningococcal disease.
Children and the elderly are at the greatest risk, and a quarter of Māori households and nearly half of Pacific families are living in overcrowded homes.
The University of Otago He Kainga Oranga Programme, led by Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman QSO, has proven the link between meningococcal disease and household overcrowding, and shown that uninsulated houses negatively impact on school attendance, sickness and hospitalisation, and that retrofitting insulation not only improves health and wellbeing but also produces energy savings and reduces carbon emissions.
The team of public health, medicine, building science, architecture and Māori health experts influenced both policymakers and community perceptions of the importance of warm, dry houses on health, providing evidence to support the NZ Healthy Homes Initiative (HHI) between Housing NZ, Auckland Regional Public Health Institute and NZ Institute of Architects. A 2018 evaluation of the HHI  found that families/whānau/aiga expressed a high level of confidence in and gratitude for the service which contributed to them living in warmer, drier and less crowded homes and made a difference to their health and wellbeing.
A 2019 evaluation estimated that the HHI has resulted in 1,533 fewer hospitalisations, 9,443 fewer GP visits and 8,784 fewer filled prescriptions in the first year after the programme’s intervention. The savings to the health care system due to these reductions are estimated to be approximately $10.4 million. In total, the HHI programme is expected to avert approximately $30 million in health care costs over a three-year period. The return on investment is expected to be less than two years.
The research results also underpin the Government’s Warmer Kiwi Homes insulation programme (replacing the previous Warm Up NZ: Healthy Homes programme) offering insulation grants for low-income homeowners, and the Rental Warrant of Fitness, an app that will allow tenants and landlords to check their house against minimum housing and health standards, currently utilised by Wellington and Dunedin City Councils.
This programme of work highlights the wider benefit to NZ from investment by the HRC in building researcher careers. Director Howden-Chapman’s leadership expertise, cultivated over years of HRC-funded research projects, has gained international reach through her chairing of the 2018 World Health Organization Housing and Health Guidelines  contributing to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals 2 (Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages) and 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable).
The research is undertaken with the principle of ‘no survey without service’ with participating households linked with local collaborating agencies who can offer advice and sometimes subsidies for heating and insulation.