A student is questioning how a mouldy flat could simultaneously meet healthy home standards and send him to the emergency room.
Andre Mason , 25, spent 2021 documenting the damp and mould in his Dunedin flat and the number of times he visited a doctor, but it wasn’t enough – the tenancy tribunal stood by the property owner.
“I genuinely thought with it being called a ‘healthy home standard’ I had a case,” he said.
During the year, the PhD student went from being physically fit and a keen mountainbiker, to not even being able to walk to university.
About 28,000 homes in New Zealand are always damp and always have visible mould, a report says.
He’d become short of breath and experienced chest pains. His symptoms became so severe that he was forced to visit the emergency room.
His declining health resulted in several doctors visits, and although the cause was never conclusive, his doctor believed it could be damp and mould-related.
“I’d never been asthmatic, but suddenly I’m on an inhaler,” he said.
He had been symptom-free since moving out in December.
The flat was in the suburb of Dalmore, where homes were known to get less sun and were prone to damp.
Mason knew this moving in. He said at $220 a week, a self-contained flat he could live in on his own that had a garage to store his mountainbike was too good to pass up.
After several years of being a tertiary student, he figured it couldn’t be worse than what he’d lived in before.
“You expect condensation, having to keep windows open and wipe them down every morning… my old flat was like that, that’s when I got a dehumidifier.
“But I’d never seen that level of condensation and mould before, definitely not in summer months.”
The property managers sent in tradespeople three times across his tenancy to bleach visible mould. Mason ran the dehumidifier in different parts of the house 24 hours a day for six months, and said it had to be emptied every 12 hours.
Come winter, he was struggling to keep on top of the mould and his health was worsening.
His property manager agreed he could end the tenancy early if he could find a replacement, but he couldn’t.
By the time it came to move out in December, he was shocked to discover mould had infected areas he hadn’t thought to check, including his bed base and mattress.
Despite never closing the wardrobe door “to keep it airing”, an expensive sleeping bag and clothes, including a kilt he used for bag piping, were covered in mould.
“I wasn’t planning on going to the tenancy tribunal… but I added it all up to see what it’d cost to replace, and it was over $6000.”
He assumed he’d get less than that, something to cover dry cleaning bills for what could be salvaged.
But the tenancy tribunal dismissed his case in March 2022, ruling that because the house technically met healthy home standards and because the property managers had treated the mould when requested, there was no fault.
The ruling suggested the landlord look into improved sealing and check the wallpaper for mould spore contamination.
Because there was no fault, Mason couldn’t claim insurance on his damaged property.
There was no requirement for a professional to inspect properties to determine whether or not it met the standard. Anybody, even the landlord, could declare that their home met the standard. It was up to the tenant to prove otherwise.
If an inspection was carried out, the landlord had no obligation to share the findings with tenants.
According to a work order provided to the tribunal, a healthy homes inspection was completed in early 2021 by Betta Group.
Mason said his requests to see the report had been denied.
Phil Squire , the Fair Energy Manager at the Sustainability Trust in Wellington said a healthy home and a home which met the healthy home standard wasn’t necessarily the same thing.
“[It’s] simply saying that the rental property either meets or is exempt from meeting basic insulation, heating, ventilation, moisture ingress and drainage requirements.
“Meeting, or indeed being exempt from the standards, does in no way warrant that the house is able to be kept warm and dry at a reasonable cost. As an example, a compliant heating device is only required in the main living area.”
Although he couldn’t comment on the condition of the property in question, he said properties with breeze block walls on a concrete pad like Mason’s wouldn’t need to be insulated under the current standard.
It was why organisations like his advocated for better standards, including a requirement for healthy home assessors to be certified.
He said many landlords used professionals to assess their homes, as failing to comply meant tenants were eligible for thousands of dollars in compensation, but they had no obligation to share those reports with tenants.
A University of Otago study into tertiary student housing conditions released earlier this month showed 35% of the 522 respondents said they had mould larger than an A4 sheet of paper growing in their houses “at least some of the time”.
This was compared to 17% of the general population.
Harcourts declined to comment.