More than 42 people die every year in the ACT from living in a cold house, according to a new report from renter lobby group Better Renting.
The report, Unsafe as Houses: Cold-housing deaths in the ACT, compares average monthly deaths in cold months to average deaths in warmer months, and finds that around 140 more people die in the May to September period compared to other times of year.
It estimates that at least 42 of these deaths are due to cold indoor temperatures from low-quality housing.
The report identifies the most at-risk group as being low-income renters aged 65 years and over due to a combination of energy inefficient housing, less ability to pay for heating, and higher physical vulnerability.
Better Renting Executive Director Joel Dignam says that poor housing in Australia contributes to preventable deaths from indoor cold.
“It is appalling that people are dying in the ACT because their housing doesn’t give them shelter. Every year people are dying because people are living in ‘glorified tents’ that don’t protect them from the winter cold.
“These are lives that could be saved if housing in the ACT were better insulated and easier to keep warm.”
Better Renting has been campaigning for the Government to legislate minimum health and safety standards for rental properties.
It cites the example of Elaine, aged 83, who has rented for many years and developed pneumonia twice while renting a very cold apartment in her mid-70s.
“My doctor asked me about the heating arrangements in our apartment and suggested that my condition could be attributed to our cold living conditions,” she said.
“My husband and I had struggled to pay our previous electricity bill, which was over $600 for one quarter and had consequently cut down on our use of heating.
“We no longer scrimp on heating our house because I value my health more. But it’s clear that not much has changed to improve conditions for renters since we began renting in the 1960s.”
Professor Adrian Barnett, from the Queensland University of Technology, although not involved in the development of the report, backs Mr Dignam’s concerns.
“Every winter, most Australia cities experience a spike in deaths and hospitals have their busiest times. This is not simply because of the flu, but is also caused by cardiovascular problems such as strokes and myocardial infarctions, which are caused by temperatures being too low inside our homes,” he said.
“Too many Australians live in houses that cannot cope with even mild cold weather, meaning the indoor temperature is dangerously low. This happens every winter and there have been few state or national policies
to tackle this issue.
“These deaths and hospitalisations are completely avoidable, because countries like Sweden and Canada with far harsher winters, have far fewer winter deaths than Australia.”
Mr Dignam said people renting in cold homes could not make the improvements that would keep them healthy and called on the Government to require property investors to make sure their properties were fit to live in during
“Recently, the UK and New Zealand have introduced energy efficiency standards for rental properties,” he said. “Queensland and Victoria have also legislated on this issue.
“While the ACT Government sits on its hands, people are dying.”
Better Renting says it used data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), and the approaches and findings of international researchers, to estimate the number of deaths that could be avoided by improving the quality of homes in the ACT.
It says research from Europe, the UK, and Ireland suggests that 30 to 50 per cent of Excess Winter Mortality is related to housing.