Campaign for heatwave safe rental homes kicks off online

This week activists and supporters met online to talk about the goals and strategies for the campaign to win heatwave safe rentals in Victoria. The group included renter activists, housing researchers, campaigners and curious supporters who all want to contribute to building a powerful campaign that will win better rules for heatwave safe homes in Victoria. 15 people joined the meeting and agreed to meet again after easter.

One of the most important problems is that in Victoria, rental homes must have heating for winter, but there aren’t rules about cooling for summer. This means that even if renters can provide records of unsafe hot temperatures in their homes, there are no standards that help them advocate for cooling. One attendee described the the “malicious compliance of landlords installing a single heating and/or cooling device in one room of the house and presumably claiming things are sorted”. Heatwave deaths are projected to double in Melbourne by 2050 and our coming summers will be the hottest of our lives. There is an urgent need for heatwave safe homes.

The key issues that came up were:

Lack of air conditioning or other cooling: Many renters in Victoria do not have access to air conditioning or other mechanical cooling like fans, which puts them at risk during heatwaves. Incentives for people to install energy efficient cooling aren’t available to renters and landlords rarely take advantage of them.

Inspection pressure and scarcity issues: Often people only have 15 min to inspect a property before applying to rent. That amount of time isn’t long enough to properly investigate the energy efficiency or how you might keep cool during heatwaves. People aren’t getting enough information about the property, and this lack of transparency locks in tenants who may be shocked by how hot or cold the house or apartment gets.

Poor building design: Many rental properties are not designed to be heatwave safe, with inadequate insulation, poor ventilation, and limited shading. Current rules mean that renters don’t have the power to compel landlords to improve energy efficiency or thermal comfort.

Financial barriers: Rents are climbing but the quality of housing isn’t improving. Renters may not be able to afford the installation or running costs of air conditioning, and may not have the option to make modifications to their rental property. It shouldn’t be on the shoulders of rentals to make their homes liveable.

Health risks: Heatwaves can have serious health impacts, particularly for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, children, and people with pre-existing health conditions. Renters are more likely to live in poorly designed houses and may be particularly vulnerable to getting sick in the heat.

These are the key ideas that were proposed that we’ll be following up and investigating:

  • Build a plan for short, medium and long term solutions. Short term solutions will address the immediate crisis of hot homes in our coming summers by helping renters access cooling or paying for high electicity bills due to low energy efficiency homes. In the medium term we need better rules for renters to negotiate for and have access to heatwave safe homes. In the long term we need to address the structural problems that leave some people in substandard housing and others profiting off the rental crisis. One attendee suggested: “there should be regulations around temperature in living spaces enforceable immediately for landlords, but maybe some kind of interim state government provision of funding to people to get stopgap cooling solutions before landlord deadline”.
  • If renters make changes to their homes that improve thermal comfort or energy efficiency, these should be considered beneficial and either be reimbursed or at the very least not result in the tenant being penalised.
  • Simple fixes like fly screens or screen doors can help with ventillation and air flow, but even these basic things are often refused.
  • Either incentivise landlords or plant trees for cooling, or give renters the right to plant trees that can shade homes and yards.
  • Add ‘for thermal comfort’ or ‘for heatwave safety’ to existing minimum standards, like the ones for blinds.
  • Add a rule about rental homes needing to be safe during heatwaves with a maximum temperature limit for living spaces. If a specific temperature is exceeded then renters can negotiate with landlords for cooling solutions.
  • It’s unclear whether existing rules around ‘structural soundness’ and homes needing to be weather-proof would apply to heatwave safety. One attendee is investigating this.
  • Insulation and energy efficiency rules will help many people, but they won’t necessarily make homes safe in heatwaves. Cooling will be essential for some, but it’s also very expensive to run without access to solar for cheap renewable energy.
  • Advertising the level of compliance for vacant properties so potential tenants can make informed choices.
  • On attendee commented that a barrier is that “getting rentals to have a performance standard would be best overall, but for now features based is just what we’re seeing as the infrastructure isn’t in place foe performance based”.
  • The new Victorian rental minimum standards started in March 2021. We are keeping an eye on how they help people advocate for safer homes.

The group agreed to meet again after easter. Next summer is going to be extremely hot, so we’re building a campaign now to take action and win policies and funding next summer when heatwaves make this an urgent issue that can’t be ignored. One attendee suggested a collaboration with organisations like RAHU on a public event that will bring more people together to discuss the problem and work together for solutions.

You can sign the petition for heatwave safe homes for renters to keep in touch with the campaign and future actions. Sign here!

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