The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms access to adequate housing as a vital part of human rights. The Six Dimensions of Housing Adequacy is used by Statistics New Zealand, and Habitat for Humanity CNI to describe and identify what we mean by a “decent” place to live.

The six dimensions are: affordability, suitability, habitability, free from crowding, free from discrimination, security of tenure. Unaffordability and undersupply of housing in New Zealand has for many years been driving families to live together in overcrowded situations which have drastic effects on physical and mental health.

When combined with other factors, overcrowded houses cause more child deaths in New Zealand than car accidents or drownings. Specifically, overcrowding has direct links to the incidence of respiratory diseases and exacerbates the risk of rheumatic fever for children.

There are two main reasons for overcrowding
• Functional overcrowding is where a house might be deemed to be fit for the number of occupants, but rooms are not able to be utilised. For example, members of a family might be sleeping together in a lounge or, perhaps because it’s the only room that can be heated for either financial or practical reasons.
• Structural overcrowding is when there is simply not enough space for the number of people who need or want to live there.

There are some cultural drivers and benefits for families co-habiting, and we recognise these. However, unless a house has been designed for the number of occupants, it’s not going to result in a positive outcome.

The Canadian National Occupancy Standard is a globally recognised guideline for helping to assess whether a home is suitable. This says:
• there should be no more than two persons per bedroom
• children less than five years of age of different sexes may reasonably share a bedroom
• children five years of age or older of opposite sex should have separate bedrooms
• children less than 18 years of age and of the same sex may reasonably share a bedroom
• single household members 18 years or older should have a separate bedroom, as should parents or couples.

Between 2000 – 2016 poverty related diseases related to over-crowding have contributed to approximately 494683 hospitalisations of New Zealand kids.

At Habitat we regularly see situations in this region where there are functional or structural factors which result in overcrowding. Three cases in recent times stand out. All were encountered through our home repair programme and were referred by the Waikato District Health Board because the children or adults were identified through multiple admissions or serious conditions.

Crowding in one Waikato house saw a woman and her 12-year-old grandson – who had rheumatic fever – sleeping under a tarpaulin on a deck. Her six adult sons were using the three bedrooms in the house, and her husband was sleeping in the shed.

One extended whanau of 13 was sleeping in a shed – the house had no power or insulation, and the shed was newer and in better condition.

Another couple, both with serious health conditions who had more than eight children in their care, made a decision to house all the children in a converted garage, while they slept in the uninsulated two-bedroom home, also with no electricity.

All of these whanau owned their homes. Habitat helps these families to get the necessary structural work done to their homes and offers no-interest repayments for up to five years.
Other solutions can be implemented to remediate overcrowding in the short or long-term. Temporary sleepouts or cabins can help to ease the sharing of rooms.