Social housing  |  10 Sep 2019

Christchurch City Council is working on making its social housing units warmer and drier but there are challenges in maintaining the second largest housing stock in the country. Council Head of Facilities, Property and Planning Bruce Rendall explains.

 Christchurch City Council has a proud history of providing social housing for the most vulnerable in our community. We’re the second biggest landlord in the country with 2400 social housing units.

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s we took advantage of low-interest loans from the Government to raise capital to build hundreds of new social housing units.

Bruce Rendall

Bruce Rendall

Building standards were very different then than they are today and the units that were built have little insulation and are often difficult to heat.

We are working to phase out those old and cold units, but building modern replacement units takes time and money.

Our social housing is designed to be rates neutral. That means no money raised through rates is spent on it. 

It is essentially self-funding. Up until 2016 all the costs associated with our social housing were met through the rents tenants paid, or from interest earned on the small amount of money that was saved into our Housing Development Fund.

Our social housing was generally not eligible for central government subsidies and the low-interest loans that financed our social housing building boom in the 1960s, 70s and 80s covered only our capital costs, not the ongoing costs of maintaining those units.

Like any property owner who has limited money available, we have ended up having to make some compromises.

We wanted to keep rents affordable for tenants, we wanted to improve the quality of our units, and we wanted to build more units so that we could meet the ever-growing demand in Christchurch for low-cost rental accommodation.

But with a static pool of funding something had to give. We opted to keep rents affordable for our tenants and to increase the quantity of our social housing at the expense of the quality of our units.

Now, we’re trying to catch up on decades worth of deferred maintenance work. At the same time we’re having to repair and replace units damaged in the earthquakes.

Since 2013 we have been working with our community partners to voluntarily improve the warmth and energy efficiency of our social housing.

'We want our tenants to live in healthy homes.' - Bruce Rendall

We want our tenants to live in healthy homes so we’ve done things such as install insulation, upgrade their heating, put in curtains, draught stopping, pipe lagging, and stick-on double glazing.

Like all landlords we have to ensure our properties meet minimum insulation standards.

The standards were introduced in 2016 but properties can be exempted if, due to the nature of their design and construction, they cannot be insulated without major building work.

We have reviewed all of our social housing against the standards and have installed or upgraded insulation where required.  All our units are now compliant, either because of the installed insulation or because they are exempt.

We have in fact gone beyond the standard required by law, applying the higher Energy Efficiency & Conservation Authority (EECA) recommended standard to our units.

With all our units now compliant, our focus has turned to how we can improve the warmth and dryness of those 909 units that are currently exempt from the standards.

Some of these units are in multi-storey blocks. Others have insufficient room under floor to install insulation. More than 400 of them have skillion or flat roofs with no or insufficient ceiling space to safely install insulation without substantial building works.

We estimate that we need to spend about $16 million on upgrading those 909 units to make them warmer and drier for our tenants.

On Thursday I will be bringing a report to the Council that recommends we take out of a $10 million loan and use some of the money in the Housing Development Fund so that we can do the work as soon as possible.

We want to have heat pumps and improved ventilation in place in all the units by next winter. And we want to have the insulation improvements done by the end of the next year.

As always, there is going to be a trade-off. In order to do this work we will have to delay internal redecoration work on our units.

We are conscious that while adding heat pumps to our old and cold units should make them more comfortable to live in, tenants could find themselves facing higher electricity bills.

We will be offering our tenants advice on the best way to use heat pumps so they get value for money out of them.

It is important to us that all our tenants have a comfortable, healthy home to live in.