Cold, unhealthy rental homes don’t meet international standards

Australian renters are being forced to live in cold, unhealthy homes that aren’t meeting international standards on indoor temperatures, according to a new report.

Tenant advocacy organisation Better Renting tracked the temperature and humidity data of 75 renters across Australia during winter and found the majority of homes aren’t heated above 18 degrees, the minimum international standard for a safe and well-balanced indoor temperature.

The report found rental homes in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT recorded temperatures under 18 degrees more than 80 per cent of the time.

Rental properties in Tasmania were found to spend the most time below 18 degrees across Australia with temperatures at “unhealthy” levels 91 per cent of the time.

Meanwhile, the ACT had the lowest minimum temperature inside rental properties at 7.4 degrees, followed by Victoria at 9.8 degrees and NSW at 10.5 degrees.

Executive director of Better Renting, Joel Dignam said the report shows there are clear issues with both housing and the costs associated with heating.

“The number one issue is that rental homes are not at a standard where temperatures can be kept at a healthy level,” Mr Dignam said

“What was really striking was that even people who were running heaters really struggled to get temperature up to 18 degrees celsius.

“There’s partly a problem with the cost of living in terms of being able to afford to heat, but even for those who are heating, there are clearly issues with the housing itself.”

According to the report, many renters were forced to choose between staying warm and paying exorbitant energy bills.

In many instances, renters still attempted to heat their homes and pay the higher energy costs, only to find the homes weren’t able to be adequately heated.

Highlighting the issue even further, the report found the average temperature inside rental properties was significantly lower than in comparable owner-occupier homes.

In Sydney, rental homes were on average 16.2 degrees and were below 18 degrees 83.9 per cent of the time.

In contrast, owner-occupier homes had an average temperature of 21.2 degrees and were below 18 degrees just two per cent of the time.

Many renters in the report noted the measures they had to go to to try and stay warm.

“We run a tower heater every day in the lounge only….it takes edge off the cold but we’re never really warm,” a renter said.

“There is a gas heater in the living room but it only takes chill off the living room whilst it’s on – as soon as you switch it off, the temperature decreases and within half an hour it’s back to the original 10-ish degrees,” another renter said.

Alongside temperature, relative humidity (RH) also has implications for human health. The healthiest RH range is 40-60 per cent, with RH above 70 per cent encouraging condensation and which leads to dampness and mould.

Humidity levels were highest in NSW, with an average relative humidity inside was 70.3 per cent and levels were above this 53.4 per cent of the time. 

While, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland all recorded average relative humidity of over 65 per cent.

A number of renters in the report noted the high humidity was leading to health issues and to property damage.

“Mould grows in the bathroom and in any bedroom that is slept in,” a renter said.

“I have found it growing out of the damp walls, and I have had to throw away possessions because of it. 

“The worst experience has been coughing up blood because of mould growing in my pillowcase.”

Mr Dignam said minimum rental standards for heating and cooling in rental properties would be one way to help tackle the problem.

“One way we think this could look like is if governments specify minimum features,” he said.

“Victoria has currently specified that you need to have a heater and then from March next year, an energy-efficient fixed heater in the main living area.

“In the ACT, they’re looking at ceiling insulation being a part of that standard.

“Another approach is saying that a home needs to achieve a certain outcome such as an energy efficiency assessment which would allow a bit more of a flexible approach.”

Mr Dignam said he doesn’t think new standards would hurt landlords.

“A number of properties will already comply with these types of standards, particularly newer properties,” he said.

“At the lower end of the market, investors would need to bring them up to these standards but I don’t think it would impose any ongoing costs and just those initial upfront expenses.

“Past tenancy interventions haven’t seen any consequences of investors taking their properties out of the rental pool.”

According to Mr Dignam, minimum rental standards for heating and cooling are very common in other countries, particularly in colder climates like Europe.

“In the UK, they’ve had a similar scheme in place for a number of years and there haven’t been any issues,” he said.

“There’s plenty of landlords that would think that it’s reasonable to provide a quality home, particularly when they become aware of what could be going on in some of these cold properties.”

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Rowan Crosby

Rowan Crosby is a freelance journalist specialising in finance and real estate.