Everyone deserves a healthy home: Climate disruption and rental homes in NSW

Rita Wilkinson • 30/06/2022

Climate change is not new. Scientists have been monitoring the effects of increased carbon in our atmosphere, and the reduction of greenhouse gases has been a well publicised global issue since at least the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Whether you refer to the greenhouse effect or climate change, the result is climate disruption. Not every day will be hotter or every year a drought. But it will impact on our lives. Climate disruption will mean more heatwave events, more flash floods, more severe droughts, more outbreaks of viruses and bacteria. Climate disruption will not wait until 2050 nor even 2030. It is here now and is impacting on our lives.

And the homes we reside in are a major factor in ensuring a healthy and comfortable life. 

We've been talking for some time about the problem that in Australia our homes do not provide sufficient protection against the elements. During winter it is estimated there are over 10,000 deaths each year which can be attributed to the cold. A report by Better Renting stated that 5% of hypothermia deaths in Sweden were due to cold houses; compared to 84% in South Australia despite the higher temps in the latter during winter. This is because in Sweden they have higher building standards such as double glazing and high quality insulation. Sweltering Cities, an organisation campaigning for climate equality, states that rising temperatures are a health emergency, and “heatwaves are already the biggest killers of all natural disasters in Australia.” That is heatwaves outdo bushfires, cyclones, and floods. And as our temperatures soar we have yet to record the effect of insect borne diseases such as ross river fever, barmah forest fever or Japanese encephalitis. But there are growing concerns about the spread of disease.

In order to adapt to the changing world and to have a healthy comfortable life we need adequate and suitable housing that provides protection from the heat, cold and storms; that allows access to a cool green local environment and encourages positive social and community engagement. For people who rent this is a challenge. 

Renters face two major impediments to a healthy home – landlords do not have to meet minimum building standards on their investments and renters do not have security of tenure in order to seek adequate and effective repairs. According to the report by Better Renting renters are four times more likely to struggle with inefficient homes and lack of access to cooling. What renters also need is ready access to objective data that shows if a home is healthy.

Renters are also limited in other responses to minimising climate change such as participating in alternative energy projects, such as rooftop solar. Renters do not have control of fixtures on their premises. Unless the landlord agrees, they cannot install solar panels or power outlets for electric cars and their electricity must come from the main grid, which is increasingly expensive. Further they have even less access to features such as double glazing or good quality insulation.

What this means for renters is both opportunities and challenges. In the immediate future renters cannot rely upon the Tribunal to make orders that landlords improve or upgrade their properties to meet minimum energy efficiency standards. But the opportunities provide a chance to work with a range of partners to encourage governments to introduce both building standards for new builds (including any new rental homes built in the future), and mandatory minimum energy efficiency standards for existing residential buildings (our existing rental homes). As well as the opportunity for really positive community responses such as demanding increased vegetation and street shading in our common public spaces (also talked about in planning as green cover/canopy and open spaces) and the creation of 'public cool areas'.

Opportunities exist for renters and those who advocate for or support them to engage with community based campaigns. The Tenants’ Union of NSW is a campaign partner of Healthy Homes for Renters, a campaign involving an alliance of organisations working on issues such as renting, health, housing, energy, social justice, workers rights, and climate. As part of the campaign, Better Renting recruited 50 renters to monitor heat within their homes. Their report, Hot homes, drawing on the data collected by these renter researchers highlights the climate challenges facing renters:

  • A survey by the Australian Housing Conditions Dataset found renters were almost five times more likely to report struggling to stay comfortable during hot weather;
  • A pre-existing psychiatric illness has been found to more than triple the risk of death from heatwaves;
  • Prolonged periods of extreme heat reveal social injustices.

As one renter researcher described the heat in their rented premises: “heat becomes an almost anthropomorphic presence, an intruder stalking people in their homes”.

The report clearly establishes the need for minimum health and safety standards for rental homes. In homes this might include not only things like external shading; ceiling insulation; effective ventilation (including cross ventilation), but also even air conditioning.

There are other active campaigns that seek to improve climate justice. Sweltering Cities is not renter specific, but is an organisation that campaigns and advocates for more liveable, equitable and sustainable cities. They campaign on this issue because they see rising temperatures as a health emergency. They have worked closely with communities in western Sydney, highlighting the impacts particularly for the outer suburbs of Sydney. A recent Heatwatch Report from the Australia Institute, for example, recently predicted Penrith could face up to two months per year of extreme heat. 

Sweltering Cities also works with communities beyond western Sydney. One of their community organisers, Elyse Cunningham, recently met with public housing tenants in a highrise project in Melbourne. The residents told Elyse that in past years space within the building had been put aside as a cool area for residents to use during heatwaves. That communal space was closed in 2020 due to COVID 19 but has not re-opened. For older renters this has meant ongoing heat stress. One resident, Graham, told Elyse he finds the heat exhausting, nearly collapsing during the last heatwave. On hot days he cannot cook a meal.

There is no magic wand that can be waved to make houses better adapted to our changing climate. Renters often don't have access to reliable information about the energy efficiency their rented home, especially before signing a tenancy agreement. They have no security, and can face eviction if they try to raise any issues with their existing property, or even ask permission to make changes themselves to improve their home. There is also overwhelming evidence encouraging landlords to improve rental properties’ efficiency via incentives or disclosure schemes is not effective. Even when landlords have been offered free energy efficiency upgrades, many have declined. Mandatory minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties are needed to ensure landlords are required to provide homes that can be heated and cooled within safe and affordable limits. 

Healthy Homes for Renters and Sweltering Cities are great sites to check out. They list fantastic relevant useable resources, and they provide an opportunity for tenants to participate in research projects and tell their stories,

In addition to these sites there are great resources that can be found on the web. Try the following for factsheets that could be useful if presenting an application for repairs to the Tribunal; negotiating with landlords and real estate agents; or raising your concerns with your Members of Parliament: