Renters deserve warm homes in winter

Riley Brooke • 17/06/2021

Like many Sydneysiders who rent, I live in an apartment that, in winter, is perpetually flippin’ freezing. My apartment is one of five in a subdivided former townhouse, and the bathroom and storage room of my apartment are an add-on to the back of the property, outside of the property’s original brick walls. You can actually see to the outside through the crack between the brick wall back of the original house and the walls of the added section. The door to the added section has a large gap underneath, and doesn’t close properly. This all means there is very little stopping the cold from getting in, and very little keeping any heating I put on inside the building – so it’s freezing!

Willow the tabby cat lying next to a heater
Willow the tabby monopolising the warm spot.

Day-to-day, this means a whole lot of inconvenience and expense for me. I’m using far more electricity than I’d like to on heating. I’ve had to buy a more expensive duvet and wear jumpers all the time at home, and getting out of bed in the morning takes a solid 15 minutes of mental preparation time. And then there’s the cat problem. Because my apartment is so poorly insulated, my heater can only keep the area in its immediate vicinity warm. I’d like to put my feet there, but my cat Willow has other ideas and will force herself in the gap between my feet and the heater. She's a cat, so as all fellow cat-owners will know I obviously can’t move her, so instead am left with perpetually cold feet. Call me a softie but I don’t think any fur-parent should have to choose whether to have numb toes, or leave their kitty in the cold.

What's the problem?

This might all seem pretty trivial, but my (very common) experience is indicative of a broader problem. There are no legislated minimum energy efficiency standards for rental homes in NSW. This means many of us who rent are living in homes that are inefficient and either too cold in winter, or too hot in summer. We are paying higher energy bills just to make our homes liveable, and potentially our health is also suffering. As the Healthy Homes Coalition explained in 2019:

Too many people who rent face the difficult choice between cutting back on energy use to the detriment of their family’s health and safety or going without other essential services such as food and medicine to afford energy bills. In some cases, people are forced to pay the energy bills over paying rent on time and end up homeless.

Community Joint Statement for Healthy, Affordable Homes

Overseas there are many examples of successful implementation of legislated minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties. For instance, New Zealand in 2017 passed the national Healthy Homes Guarantee Act, which sets minimum standards for heating, as well as ceiling and underfloor insulation, ventilation, draft-stopping, and moisture and drainage control. Burlington, Vermont in the USA in 1997 adopted its Residential Rental Housing Time of Sale Energy Efficiency Ordinance, requiring certain energy upgrade measures at the time a residential building with rental units is sold. It includes certain requirements such as insulated exterior walls, insulated attics and other areas, multiple-glazed windows or storm windows, and the sealing of large holes and gaps. Similar types of regulation can be found all over the world, including in Belgium, the Netherlands, many parts of the United States, England and Wales, and more.

Here in NSW, property investors aren’t required to implement basic measures that would make a rented home healthy to live in. Presumably, the excuse is that since our winters don’t get "that cold", it’s all a bit unnecessary. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. An international study published in 2015 analysing death rates due to variations in temperature, across 13 countries and over a 27-year period, found moderately cold temperatures actually impacted death rates more than extremely cold temperatures. Australia’s death rate due to cold weather (6.5% of deaths!) is higher than five of the other countries studied that have lower mean temperatures than Australia, and is almost double Sweden’s (3.9% of deaths). The same study found that Australia’s death rate due to heat is 0.5%. Further research has concluded that Australia’s alarming death rate due to cold weather is almost entirely attributable to the poor quality of Australian homes. Countries with harsher winters tend to already have the type of legislation that ensures rental homes can be kept warm and occupants healthy, preventing many avoidable deaths. Renters in NSW have no similar protections.

It's clear that energy inefficiency in our homes is a very real problem, with significant consequences - far beyond the competition between my feet and my cat for some heater space! Inefficient rental homes lead to higher energy bills for renting households, and significant health impacts. Improving energy efficiency in rented homes - and so decreasing the amount of energy required per household - would also have a positive impact towards reducing current emissions and help us to meet the NSW goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Currently residential homes contribute more than 11 percent of Australia’s greenhouse emissions.

What could minimum standards look like?

So, what is it exactly we’re talking about when we say we want legally enforceable minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties in NSW? The Healthy Homes for Renters campaign, of which the Tenants’ Union of NSW is a partner, is pushing for all Australian states and territories to introduce mandatory minimum standards within tenancy laws.

In NSW reforms introduced last year to our Residential Tenancies Act 2010 introduced a provision requiring rental properties meet 7 minimum standards to be ‘fit for habitation’. But there were no energy efficiency or measures that might ensure better efficiency - such as insulation, draught proofing, decent heating and cooling systems. Ideally when minimum standards are introduced we'd like to see the introduction of a 'performance based' minimum standard rather than a 'features based' one. Performance standards focus on the outcome, that is how much energy is required to keep the home at a comfortable temperature (often measured via a rating on a certification scheme). 'Features based' standards specify certain features (such as ceiling insulation) that a property must have to comply with the standard. While there are some definite advantages to 'features based' standards - they're often much easier for people to understand and enforce! - achieving energy efficiency will ultimately require different approaches in different properties and performance standards are able to take this into account better.

Everyone should have a healthy home.

Your home should be good enough that it protects you from the weather and supports you and your family to stay healthy. This is basic stuff. It’s what every home should provide. And yet, so many renters are living in housing that isn't up to scratch on this front.

Far more owner-occupied homes already meet these minimum standards than do rental properties. It makes sense why: when you’re actually living in the property, it's in your best interest to invest in making it efficient, healthy and livable. On the other hand, landlords have little incentive to invest in energy saving if all the ‘benefits’ are taken up by tenants – so instead of landlords paying for improvements, renters end up paying the cost of living in an inefficient home. Researchers call this the problem of the 'split incentive', and the Australian Housing and Research Institute (AHURI) provides a great explainer here. For as long as minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties aren’t mandatory, renting people will endure the consequences - which can be severe.

#HealthyHomes campaign: join up

More people are renting in Australia, and renting for longer. People are growing old, raising families, and retiring in rented homes. Too many renting people are freezing at home in winter, then sweltering in summer. Our homes are making us sick, and we’re forced to waste energy and money trying to stay healthy and comfortable. I don’t think that’s good enough: everyone needs a home that is livable and healthy in a summer heatwave or a cold winter, with affordable energy bills. Willow the tabby cat lying at the foot of the bed

If you agree, then sign up to the #HealthyHomes campaign here, and follow the campaign on Facebook and Twitter.

Here’s to a future where Willow and I can both be toasty warm together, all winter.


 

References:

Buildings Energy Efficiency Taskgroup (2020), Minimum Energy Standards for Rented Properties: An International Review, Australian Government Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, November 2020.

Gasparrini, A et al. (2015), ‘Mortality risk attributable to high and low ambient temperature: a multicountry observational study’, Lancet, 386: 369-75. 

Barnett, A. (2015), 'Cold weather is a bigger killer than extreme heat - here's why', The Conversation, 22 May 2015.