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Illness, mould, and a battle to stay warm: Australian tenants’ winter struggle

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Sam* has been a renter all her life and knows that when winter and summer come around, dealing with the cold and heat can be an uphill battle.
She rates previous properties that she’s lived in as “about the same” when it comes living comfortably during these seasons, but her current rental — a unit in an older brick apartment block in metropolitan Sydney — has been “very cold this winter”.
She said she feels like her apartment is “lacking a lot”, particularly on the insulation front.

In fact, Sam knows there is no insulation in the roof. She found that out recently when the ceiling collapsed.

The ceiling of the property Sam* rents recently collapsed, and showed there was no insulation in the roof. Source: Supplied

It’s not just the lack of insulation that makes living there in winter difficult. She has only one reverse cycle air conditioner in the lounge room, which has to be run for “quite a while” to get the rest of her home warm.

Sam said she tries to take an energy-efficient approach to keep warm. She has installed thermal curtains (which she paid for herself) in a bid to keep the heat in, and wears extra layers inside.
But it’s been “near impossible” to stay warm using this approach alone this year during the colder months, she said.

“In the summertime, we will try to switch off appliances when we’re not using them at the power source. But this winter, because we’ve had to run things for such a long period of time. It just hasn’t been possible,” she said.

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Tenants shiver through winter

Sam isn’t alone in her experience. A tracked temperature in more than 70 rental homes through June and July and found they were routinely below safe temperature levels. It notes a World Health Organisation benchmark of 18C as the minimum healthy indoor temperature.

It found indoor temperatures were below 18C at properties they tracked:

  • 85.1 per cent of the time in NSW
  • 80.2 per cent of the time in Victoria
  • 79.2 per cent of the time in South Australia
  • 56.5 per cent of the time in Western Australia
  • 91 per cent of the time in Tasmania
  • 28.6 per cent of the time in Queensland
  • 88.3 per cent of the time in the ACT
  • Zero per cent of the time in Darwin
  • 89.5 per cent of the time in Alice Springs.
A comparison group of three NSW owners in energy efficient homes barely recorded temperatures below a key safe level of 18C, with the incidence recorded at less than five per cent.
Humidity — key to mould growth — was also monitored. The report notes the healthiest relative humidity range is 40-60 per cent, and anything above 70 per cent encourages condensation and mould, especially in the absence of adequate ventilation.
Average relative humidity in participating NSW properties was about 70 per cent. Homes in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland all recorded above 65 per cent but below 70 per cent.

Properties in the ACT recorded an average relative humidity level of just below 60 per cent, and in Darwin and Alice Springs it was 53 per cent and 42 per cent respectively.

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‘I wake up coughing and wheezing’

The report calls for Australian governments to introduce minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties to better protect renters.
“Renters told us about getting sick more often, about a constant state of worry over energy costs, and an unending battle against mould and damp,” said Joel Dignam, head of advocacy group Better Renters.
But many aren’t choosing between a cold home and expensive bills — they end up with both.

“Many of the homes in this study were so substandard that even when people chose to run their costly, inefficient heaters, they were still unable to get warm,” the report said.

A Melbourne streetscape with a sign at the front of a property that says "For Lease".

The report by Better Renting calls for Australian governments to introduce minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties to better protect renters. Source: AAP / James Ross

Nor were they able to make changes to weatherproofing, insulating, and energy systems.

One study participant said temperatures dropped to 12C in their bedroom, and it was so cold that they work up “coughing and wheezing with a sore throat from breathing in cold air all night”.

“Mould grows in the bathroom and in any bedroom that is slept in. I have found it growing out of damp walls, and I have had to throw away possessions because of it,” another said.

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‘We always built for heat’

Professor Emma Baker leads the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Housing Research.
She said Australia has “always been obsessed with heat”, and even a decade ago. “no one was talking about cold housing.
“It was just kind of assumed that all of our problems happened in heat waves,” Professor Baker said.
“We always built for heat.. you’ll often verandahs, and sometimes quite small windows to keep the heat out in summer.

“A lot of that was also built on the assumption that power was really cheap.”

While the sample size of the Better Renting study was small, the issue is not isolated, she said.
Professor Barker lead a 2020 study that collected data on the housing conditions of 15,000 rental households. About 25 per cent of those homes reported being cold in winter, she said.
*Name changed for privacy reasons.

– With AAP.

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