Sarah Bierre – PhD 2008

This thesis explores the social constructions of the private rental sector, housing quality and health, and the implications these have for the potential for healthy private rental housing. Owning or renting a house has been associated with different experiences of housing quality, health, wellbeing, and a sense of home. Findings on the relationship between tenure and health favour homeownership, the tenure of preference in New Zealand, despite almost a third of households renting from the private rental sector. Associations between housing tenure and health, and the increasing role of the private rental sector in the housing sector make the viability of healthy private rental housing and important question for public health research.

Habermasian critical theory and historical institutionalism provide a complementary theoretical base from which to develop an analysis of themes and discourses in contemporary language concerning the private rental sector. This contemporary analysis is set in the context of a historical study of housing quality and health in the private rental sector between the 1930s and 1940s; a period of much public debate on housing in New Zealand, and one in which the foundations of present day legal regulations of housing quality in existing dwellings were developed. Government archives are used to inform the historical study, and policy documents, legal decisions, and key-informant interviews with people from public organisations involved in housing or health are the basis of the contemporary study.

There are considerable, though not insurmountable, barriers to achieving healthy private rental housing; barriers which in some cases have been present since the 1930s and 1940s. Despite the longevity of private rental housing in society, the results of this thesis suggest we are yet to reconcile the discourse of private property with the practice of renting, or establish clear and enforceable expectations of housing conditions. Imaginings of the private rental sector as a temporary living situations, the social categorization of tenants and landlords, and the discourse of the market influence ideas about housing quality and health and the manner in which housing conditions are thought best addressed.