3 May 2021

Fresh call for action to fix Canberra's unhealthy rental ice boxes

| Ian Bushnell
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Canberra winter

A Canberra winter can be time of great privation and poor health for some renters. Photo: File.

Canberra’s infamous ice boxes remain in the sights of housing campaigners as they launch a new campaign today (Friday) for minimum energy efficiency standards in rental properties.

Winter is coming, and the national push, dubbed Healthy Homes for Renters, involves 50 community organisations including ACTCOSS, Shelter ACT and Better Renting.

The campaign claims thousands of Australians are dying in cold homes due to poor design and construction and inadequate or no heating at all.

Research points specifically to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, including a 2015 study published in the Lancet medical journal which estimated that 6.5 per cent of deaths in
Australia are attributable to cold.

The community organisations are calling for minimum standards such as measures to reduce heat loss through ceilings, or draughts around doors and windows to reduce the health risks of inefficient housing.

Professor Peter Sly, a paediatric respiratory physician, says a healthy home environment is essential for optimising child growth, health and wellbeing and for decreasing life-long risk of chronic disease.

“Adverse environmental exposures in early life, including during fetal development and early childhood, increase life-long risk of chronic non-communicable diseases such as asthma, chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease and stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes and neurodevelopmental and behavioural disorders,” he said.

Better Renting Executive Director Joel Dignam said adopting minimum standards was part of the the Labor-Greens Parliamentary Agreement and the ACT Government had begun talking to community organisations and other stakeholders about the issue.

But what the organisations and ACT renters, who were already under pressure paying the highest average rents in the country, want to see was “enactment and implementation”.

“This is an issue where rapid action can make a big difference for people currently struggling,” Mr Dignam said.

He said renters faced high energy costs and some did not even use what heating there was.

“But for many people the issue isn’t higher power bills, it is an issue of not being able to heat their homes adequately at all,” he said.

Mr Dignam said that the cold forced people to go to bed early wearing beanies and jackets, or they avoided being at home by staying out at libraries or the office where it was warm.

He said many properties that were too cold and damp and suffered from mould, which was something a lot of Canberra renters would be familiar with, and which had particularly pronounced health issues.

“These are experiences that they shouldn’t be having in their homes and everyone in Canberra should have a home that is going to support their health,” he said.

Concerns that some landlords would simply pass on the cost of such measures to their tenants were dismissed.

Mr Dignam said landlords were already charging the maximum amount the market could stand and there was not much room for rents to go higher.

But he said he knew landlords who were prepared to update their properties because they wanted to do the right thing by their tenants as well reduce their property’s environmental impact and carbon footprint.

Australian Council of Social Services CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie said people on low incomes often lived in inefficient rental homes and had no ability to make improvements, so they were forced to either ration energy or go without other essentials like food and medicine to pay their power bills.

Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Shane Rattenbury said the government was developing mandatory energy efficiency standards for rental properties and would enact regulation by the end of this year with measures to be phased in over coming years.

He said this work would include consultation with a range of stakeholders including renters, landlords, rental advocacy groups, the Real Estate Institute ACT and the insulation industry.

“In a recent survey on the ACT Your Say Community Panel, more than four in 10 renters said they cannot keep their homes comfortably warm, so we know energy efficiency is a problem that needs to be addressed here in the ACT,” he said.

Mr Rattenbury said several government programs were already helping renters to reduce energy costs including the Actsmart Renters’ Home Energy Assessments program, which offers a free online assessment tool and free in-home energy assessments and the Actsmart Sustainable Home Advice Program.

The Government had also committed to a five-year $50 million program to improve building efficiency and sustainability for social and public housing, low-income owner-occupiers and the lowest performing rental properties.

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Julie Macklin, that’s a great idea.
The point is though, an owner has the option on upgrading on the gounds of comfort, cost and rebate. A tenant has access to none of these options.

If the Greens really want to achieve this they need to stop scaring the horses. Case studies with actual costings would go a long way to getting landlords on board. Show us how we can improve our poorly oriented 0 EER ex-govies to 5 EER. Is it even possible without a $50,000 reno or a knock-down rebuild?

An older less improved house is a legitimate housing choice rapidly being taken away from renters. Not all renters want to live in a apartment or a newer build on a tiny block in a far way suburb with a torturous commute to work. This kind of rental housing already wears an unfair share of land tax ($160 per fortnight land tax and $110 rates on a $480 per week ex-govie rental in Belconnen) and will again wear the greatest cost in energy efficiency upgrades.

If the Greens can show us that it can be done with $15,000 of draught proofing and insulation upgrades and ensure the ACT Government interest free energy efficiency improvement loans are available to cover the cost then perhaps the loss of rental stock will not be so significant.

Commandeering all land and rental property is no avenue to request the government to financially support the practice.
Get out of property and let those wo need it have it.

Not just renters – many people own cold houses and flats and may be unable to afford updates; more often in Canberra they are badly oriented, thermally inefficient and often also have unflued gas heating – which should be banned as it is in Victoria.

Rent will increase if landlords have to pay for the improvements. Look at the land tax. Only a fool cannot see a link between higher costs and higher rents.

Agree with this comment. The ACT government recently made it a law that landlords can only increase rent by Canberra CPI (which is currently 1%, so rent can only increase annually around $6 per week for most places), yet the ACT government puts up land rates and land tax by substantially more than 1% each year. So the rent cannot be increased, but all the land taxes and rates can be exorbitantly increased every year? This means the landlord cannot charge going market rent, is actually going backwards each year, and is subsiding the tenant. What moron in the ACT public service invented that scheme? People think rentals are difficult to find in Canberra now. It is going to get much worse…

Oh ye proponents of modern fuedalism, you’ve supported a Ponzi spiral and groan when it’s no longer sustainable? Call it a lack of foresight and return ownership to the occupier.

Wysiwyg placement of buildings means that the buildings ignore the direction of the wind and sun. Then poor choice of surrounding vegetation (sun & wind shields) further create temperature extremes.
Dealing with the extremes of day – night temperatures needs opening and closing of air flow inside the house, to better avoid artificial heating and cooling.

Maybe the ACT Government will finally see the stupidity and inequity of charging land tax on the dwindling number of dwellings that lower income people can afford. It is total hypocracy to, on the one hand, argue that people deserve better energy amenity while, at the same time, charging them land tax which makes such amenity unaffordable. Oh “but the tax is on landlords” I hear them say. No, the tax is on renters. Landlords simply pass it on as not to do so reduces returns, which have now, with Land Tax and other silly rules and regulations, reached the point where landlords are deserting investment properties in the ACT in droves. Houston, we have a problem – and it is a big one. When will the ACT Government wake up to its own stupidity and greed.

Andrew Caird1:22 pm 30 Apr 21

Hi it on the mark.

Abandoned mine last week for just these reasons. Developer was happy as he can build three x million dollar townhouses on the block that once housed an aging ex govie

Sounds like that’ll increase the housing supply. Land tax working as intended.

@Ians, agree 100% with you. Land tax is exorbitant. The people making these laws are unrealistic and live in some fairyland. Most owners of houses cannot afford to heat their own houses they live in. Housing and electricity has become so expensive for everyone and it is wrong to say landlords are responsible for the tenants electricity bills. No one I know of has a warm house in Canberra winter, either home owners or tenants. The prices for everything are just too high.

Unfortunately for the would be renters the new properties will be $900 pw whilst the old one was $520

Yes, beats me why in this climate double glazing and decent insulation haven’t been long mandated for all residences. Solar assisted hydronic wall heaters could also be part of the solution though retrofitting may not always be possible or competitive upfront. (Ours work very well.)

Must admit though I initially thought this article might be referring to those damn awful ice chests, or whatever they’re known as, blighting some (many?) of our local shops. If they have to stay they might at least be cleaned up.

Please note that in Europe, for walling in houses and apartments
A Precast Concrete Sandwich Panels which has an inlayer of insulation that controls the internal winter and summer; not been used because the developers don’t want to spend the money
This type of precast walls, not produced in the ACT or NSW commercially
But we are about to develop a factory that will make this sort of precast for apartments and houses in Goulburn, and this will solve the cold weather issues in the Act for the developers and builders and renters and new owners
Richard Anderson 0414 888 802

My house’s external walls are pre-cast concrete with insulation in the middle. They are great. I hardly need to heat, and have not had a heater on this year, as my house has nor dropped below 22C so far.
I hope your business goes well.

Thanks, sounds promising. Seeing all those skimpy frames that will form the basis of so many ‘dream homes’ (ha!) in new housing developments here in the ACT is not only pathetic but almost criminal.

We had our family’s old double brick place retro-insulated underfloor (sprayed), walls (pellets), and roof (R7 batts – R2 crossed over R5) and it certainly makes a difference, though in the colder months we still very much depend on the retrofitted hydronic heating panels (mainly solar powered during the day). In summer though, with judicious opening of windows to catch the night breezes, we find no need for active cooling, apart from the assistance of a $15 K-Mart fan on the hottest few days.

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