“Why should people have to suffer?”: Peter’s story of living in Melbourne’s baking hot public housing

For the last five years Peter has been living in high-rise public housing in Flemington, a suburb north of the city. In the three decades since Peter moved to Australia, he has seen Melbourne’s summers grow hotter, more intense and harder to cope with. A lack of insulation and cooling measures means that Peter has to go to extreme lengths to survive the summer. He relies on blankets, towels, cardboard and frozen water bottles to keep himself cool.

“Summers have changed.”

Peter has seen Melbourne’s summers change a lot over the years, with more extremely hot days than ever before. In his building, the lack of insulation exacerbates the heat, making it difficult to stay safe in summer. For the first few years in his current home, the heat made it extremely difficult for him to sleep. Last summer, the lobby in Peter’s building reached a scorching 37°C, and his apartment remained consistently around 32°C.

Left: Thermometer in Peter’s apartment that tracks the temperature year round. Right: Bluetooth temperature tracking app that Peter and a group of other residents have installed to track the temperature in their homes.

I use blankets and towels to keep it dark.”

Taking matters into his own hands, Peter has come up with his own tactics to survive the heat. During summer, he fills bottles with ice-cold water and stands in front of the fan that he purchased. When a friend gifted him a portable air conditioner (AC) a few years ago, he created a hole in his bedroom window to install it, and it has made a huge difference for his quality of life. During hot nights, he surrounds his bed with cardboard, allowing the cool air from the portable AC to gently circulate without blasting him with cold air. For residents who can’t afford a portable air conditioner, it’s a different story. Peter says that “they are going to suffer” during summer.

Cooling measures that Peter uses during summer. Left: Peter’s portable air-conditioning set up. Middle: Peter demonstrating how he lines his bed with cardboard. Right: Towel hanging from Peter’s window, which helps keeps the heat out during summer.

“Why should people have to suffer?

Peter believes that public housing residents shouldn’t have to suffer in the heat. He thinks that it is unacceptable that some residents in his building can’t afford air conditioning and are left to fend for themselves during heat waves. “We’ve got nearly 12 hours of sunlight” beating down on the building every day during summer. Many residents “just survive with a fan. They have to suffer.”

During the COVID lockdowns, the closure of the community room, an air conditioned space where residents can socialise and find relief from the heat, left residents trapped in their apartments. Fortunately, the community room has now been reopened, but Peter emphasises that not everyone is able to leave their homes and access cool spaces during hot summer days. According to Peter, the only thing residents can do to stay safe is “go downstairs”, but for many older residents or those with mobility challenges, accessing communal spaces or finding refuge from the heat in shopping centres and cinemas is not always an option, leaving them at higher risk of heat related illness.

“The climate has changed, and the government must accept that cooling is a necessity, not a luxury anymore.”

“They know that people are suffering in the heat.”

Peter’s suggestions to keep residents safe during heatwaves are straightforward and practical. He wants the Victorian Government to install portable air conditioning in every apartment. Years ago, portable AC holes were installed in every unit, but the actual air conditioning remains uninstalled, leaving residents in limbo and at increased risk each passing summer. Peter also thinks that the government should introduce a law for the comfort of the tenant to help keep people safe. 

Portable air-conditioning hole in Peter’s living room.

When asked how he is feeling about this coming summer, Peter said that “I’m trying to be prepared for it. You’ve got to be mentally prepared.”

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