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Many Canberra rentals are ‘glorified tents’, energy efficiency analysis shows

By Ian Bushnell 12 April 2018 42

Better Renting is calling for minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties. Photo: Supplied.

Many Canberra renters are suffering through heat waves and cold snaps or paying through the nose to heat and cool properties that have been described as glorified tents, with a new analysis showing that four in 10 rental homes have the lowest-possible energy efficiency of zero.

Better Renting, a new lobby group for renters, compared advertised Energy Efficiency Ratings for properties for sale and for rent through January and February. It found that 43 per cent of rated rental properties had a rating of 0, compared with just 4 per cent of properties for sale. More than one in two advertised for sale properties had EERs of 5 or greater.

Better Renting conducted the analysis as part of its Comfy Homes campaign for minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties, and has launched a petition calling on the ACT Government to act.

Better Renting Director Joel Dignam said Canberra renters were being left to suffer in the worst properties on the market.

“This report shows that almost half of renters are living in glorified tents that do virtually nothing to keep inhabitants safe and comfortable through summer and winter. This means higher power bills, worse health, and avoidable climate pollution,” he said.

The report said that in a property with an EER of 0, it would cost roughly $1800 a year to achieve the same thermal comfort as an equivalent property with an EER of 2.

It said a NZ study found that insulation retrofits resulted in reduced hospitalisation and fewer GP visits, while a Scottish study found reducing cold, damp, and mould in flats resulted in reduced blood pressure and medication use.

Mr Dignam said the first step was to change the Residential Tenancies Act, which had already happened in Queensland.

“Queensland has updated its Residential Tenancies Act to allow minimum energy efficiency standards, and New Zealand requires landlords to install ceiling insulation, but in the ACT, renters are being left out in the cold,” he said.

“We’re looking for quite modest changes, we don’t think every rental property should necessarily have solar panels, but things like insulation in the roof, like 80 per cent of owner-occupied properties already do, making sure they’re not draughty and the wind doesn’t blow through, are quite cheap, low-hanging fruit that will make a big difference to renters’ lives.”

Mr Dignam said the analysis drove home the need for Government action.

“It’s clear that landlords are not acting themselves to make rental properties energy efficient,” he said.

He rejected suggestions that imposing minimum standards on landlords would push up rents, saying renters were already paying the costs of inefficient rental properties.

“Landlords are running a small business in effect and should be made responsible for making sure people in their properties can live safely and affordably through winter,” he said.

“Private renters don’t have control over their properties, and landlords don’t have an incentive to improve energy efficiency so that’s why there is a need to see these standards in legislation.”

The current Parliamentary Agreement between Labor and the Greens included energy efficiency for rental properties as a key priority, but progress had been too slow, Mr Dignam said.

Mr Dignam, who has a background in the community and campaign sectors, said there was growing need for renting to change, with more people renting than ever before in Australia and for longer.

“These people don’t have the sorts of protections that homeowners have. We think it’s time that that renters in Australia get a better deal,” he said.

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41 Responses to
Many Canberra rentals are ‘glorified tents’, energy efficiency analysis shows
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JC 8:49 pm 13 Apr 18

Is this really a rental issue or a reflection of all housing stock across the territory?

Simple fact is it is not financially viable to bring older dwellings up to modern standards, owned or leased. And if owners were forced to do so the cost would be reflexed in the rents.

    Maya123 9:59 am 14 Apr 18

    I believe it is a reflection of housing stock across the territory, especially older houses, many of which are in the inner suburbs. Owners are also living in these un/under insulated houses, but I haven’t heard anything about that from those demanding rental properties be ungraded. People mostly prefer to live in the inner areas and that’s where many of the worst offending houses will be found. A solution to that from people who don’t want to rent cold houses is to rent further out, where the chances of finding a better insulated house is greater. Or rent a new unit.

    Often tenants chose a house for convenience to work and cafes, rather than a house with better insulation, because they might have had to go further out in the suburbs, further away from work and cafes. It a lifestyle choice.

    In the past, I have both rented and owned houses without any or almost no insulation. They were cold in winter and hot in summer. This was a lifestyle choice; I wanted to be in cycling distance to work. My choice, so I had nothing to complain about. If I didn’t want to live there I could have moved, but that would almost certainly have been further out, too far for me to easily cycle. It wasn’t the owner’s fault I chose their house (uninsulated). I chose it for other benefits.
    Many of these inner city old houses are likely living on borrowed time. They will be knocked down and replaced with a new house (sadly likely a McMansion), or with units, so is it worth demanding that houses nearing the end of their life have lots of money spent on them, the results of which will in a few years mostly then end up at the tip?

    JC 12:39 pm 14 Apr 18

    Well put. My thoughts exactly but I didn’t have the time to put it the way you just have.

Guy Noble 7:03 pm 13 Apr 18

Dont have Canberra renters have the freedom to refuse a place if they dont like the looks of it??? Maybe try and negotiate a lower rate??? If you dont like it dont rent it,, simple

    Dave Ferymtok Ward 7:47 am 16 Apr 18

    No there is is no option for that. You take any property you can get because there's always 10 other people hot on your heels.

    Julie Macklin 11:50 am 16 Apr 18

    Dave Ferymtok Ward Even in the outer suburbs, where houses are better insulated, because they are newer, but where less people might want to live, so it should be easier to get a rental here I would guess? The rental field is not even, so "10 other people hot on your heels" is irrelevant. It's how good a potential tenant the person presenting seems. Someone could put in the last application, but be deemed the best and be the person to get the rental. Good references, good finances and the like is what counts, not where in the queue you are. Some people always would be put at the front of the queue.

Clare Moore 5:39 pm 13 Apr 18

My last place had no insulation and no built in heating. Since it couldn't retain heat from the floor heaters I bought myself, it was nearly always the same temperature outside as in. -10°C in your bedroom is literally life threatening, but my landlord was under no obligation to do anything.

    Julie Macklin 5:57 pm 13 Apr 18

    -10C in your bedroom; not unless you live in a freezer. I believe -10C is Canberra's all time recorded record temperature ...outside. An old house I lived in would go down to low single figure degrees inside, but hardly life threatening, unless the person had a medical condition. I just put on more clothes.

    Clare Moore 6:01 pm 13 Apr 18

    A quick Google search will tell you the coldest night last year was -8.7°C. That really doesn't feel that different from -10°.

    Clare Moore 6:07 pm 13 Apr 18

    It's great your old place retained heat like that, but mine didn't. For whatever reasons of design it was that cold. However, that's not the point, the point is that vulnerable people with limited incomes are being forced to live in inhumane conditions for our climate.

    Julie Macklin 6:43 pm 13 Apr 18

    My house had uninsulated fibro walls and I had on occasions found ice inside the laundry tub (that room had a leaky window). To see out in the morning I needed to scrap ice off the inside of the windows, but it never got to near -10C or -8.7C. Maybe 2 or 3C sometimes, but not the temperatures you are mentioning. I know this as I used a thermometer and measured it. Are you using a thermometer, or just using feel? My old house retain heat...that's a joke!

    Julie Macklin 6:58 pm 13 Apr 18

    Don't think I don't believe in well built houses. I just believe in actually measuring the temperature rather than guessing the temperature, because it feels cold. Real facts are so much better to evaluate the situation. Houses should be built to high energy standards. I have advocated this for many years, and I put my believe in this into practice, by rather than buying any house I considered not energy efficient enough (almost all new houses I still don't consider energy efficient enough), to keep living in a cold house until I could afford a good energy efficient house. I refused to add a house to the market until I could afford to build a house that needs no air-conditioning (not that I have ever had that; I just put up with it) and almost no heating. Just a few nights a year. I think in the few years I have now lived in my new house, I have only wanted to heat once in the daytime, as my new house is efficient. There are no doubt even better houses possible than this. But after 30 years of saving I decided to sell my old house and build. It was easy to live with the cold when young, but becomes harder as one gets older. I spent very little improving my old house, as I saved that money for my new house.

    Clare Moore 7:41 pm 13 Apr 18

    I did use a thermometer. It was that cold inside my flat. I may be young, but I have crippling arthritis and asthma, which means that I don't have the luxury of just living with it or assuming I will be healthy enough to work enough to ever have a choice in my housing beyond the bottom of the barrel. I'm not saying you don't advocate for that, just giving a real example of the harm being caused.

    Julie Macklin 8:08 pm 13 Apr 18

    I'm sorry for your condition; that would be very tough. Can you add some heat to one room? I used to heat one room, although I turned the heater off when I went to bed. Is your flat part of a complex or attached to a house, because I find it hard to believe a flat in a complex, with other flats attached acting as insulation, would get this cold.

Maya123 1:15 pm 13 Apr 18

If you rent a badly insulated house you can make some improvements yourself. There’s no reason you can’t take down too thin curtains and carefully store them and put up your own thicker curtains. If the window frames are suitable (not all are for this, although frames can be built to overcome unsuitable window frames), discuss with the house owner about adding a clear film layer to the windows to give some of the effect of double glazing. The owner might even pay for this, or at the least, if they regard you as competent, let you do this at your expense.

There is also no reason you need to heat the whole house. Past generations didn’t; expecting to do this as the norm is a recent expectation. In the past often only one room was heated and the family gathered there. I did this in my past very bad energy efficient house and the household would spend most of our waking hours in that one heated room. That way, even though the heat travelled straight through the walls, the energy bill was kept lower than average. We also set the room temperature no higher than 18C and tuned the heater off when we went to bed. Beds had electric blankets and I wore a woollen hat to bed.

Don’t have bare uninsulated floor boards. If the owner won’t insulate them underneath, or carpet them with underlay, cover them with mats yourself. I replaced thin carpet with no underlay (as I discovered) with carpet and underlay and it made a difference.

Maya123 12:53 pm 13 Apr 18

It’s sad to think that over thirty years ago I belonged to a group that looked at housing. We recommended a higher standard energy wise for housing, but our suggestions were completely ignored. Then, there was no Gungahlin, not all of Tuggeranong had been built and I don’t think all of Belconnen existed either. Just think, if our suggestions had been considered and implemented, how much better the housing stock would be today. So much lost opportunity. Now all those badly designed houses exist that didn’t need to. That potential bad future scenario was also pointed out at the time. It’s frustrating that so many people just don’t get it; not then, not now and they still won’t get it for this and other issues in the future. And they can be the ones making decisions.

John Minns 10:15 am 13 Apr 18

What they are asking for is not a level playing field but one deliberately slanted towards tenants. It is highly likely if we looked at the energy efficiency of every property in Canberra, particularly given the higher percentage of tenants who live in apartments, that the average energy efficiency level would be at best about the same and more likely higher in many rental properties. So we would be saying to an owner they are more responsible for providing expensive improvements to a rental property than their own house.

Of course we support energy efficiency in housing and for some people it is a driver for the decisions people make when they choose accommodation, whether to own and live in or rent out. And the better the property the more someone will pay to own it or lease it. Having said that, some of the most expensive properties in Canberra’s established housing market are in areas such as Inner South Canberra which at the time of purchase will often have very low EERs.

Rather than have a deliberately divisive tenant vs owners conversation, let’s have a proper discussion about energy efficiency standards in all housing and how as a society we continue to make positive improvements in addition to the many initiatives that have already been undertaken.

jjandb 9:54 am 13 Apr 18

It’s ridiculous to force owners to upgrade their properties to meet retrospective energy efficiency standards, the cost would be prohibitive in many of the older paper thin houses in inner Canberra, either further reducing the supply of free standing housing available in the rental market, or, most definitely increase rents. Rental investment is indeed a business, however not a charity, owners would be forced to make tough business decisions to assess the viability of their investment. With skyrocketing land tax and the costs associated with retrofitting an old shonky house without the prospect of increasing rents to offset the expenses most business owners would make the decision that it was no longer a wise investment. Rental stock would dwindle forcing rent up, renters to live in apartments or on the city’s fringes where newer houses have better energy efficiency.
We live in one of these paper thin houses, where the temperature inside is the same as it is outside! But it would be inconceivable to waste money trying to improve this house that was so poorly designed from the beginning. But we wanted to live in a house, in this area, and we had to start somewhere. We prioritised saving over holidays, eating out and shopping, and finally got our foot in the door in this delightful house. We can’t afford everything we want at once, we will make do in this house, freeze and boil through another few Canberra seasons until we can afford to do something about it. Why should renters be any different, they can’t have their cake and eat it too. Save, buy, or accept some of the negatives that come with renting. The fact is landlords aren’t evil rich corporations and we actually need them to provide houses for people to live in.

Matt Donnelly 9:00 am 13 Apr 18

After rates and taxes, there’s very little profit to be made renting out a home in Canberra. Improving the energy rating of a property can be quite expensive. It is likely that landlords will look at the cost of works and decide to take the house/unit off the market.

What happens when demand is high, but supply is low? Rents go up.

And what about all the properties that don’t make the grade, and so the owners put them up for sale? What happens to all those old houses that no one wants to purchase as investment properties because expensive improvements would be required? They rot on the street until someone decides a knock-down rebuild is profitable.

And please remember that Canberrans have been heating these old homes for generations. We’re talking about punishing Canberra’s landlords for skyrocketing energy prices. That’s wrong.

    George Arteta-Darroch 11:16 am 13 Apr 18

    So? You're offering a service and it needs to be up to standard. I got chronic bronchitis living in one of Canberra's brick tents and that is not acceptable.

    Landlords could be stupid and leave them empty in a flat property market, or they could spend a few thousand dollars and put in proper insulation and seal drafts.

    Matt Donnelly 11:35 am 13 Apr 18

    George Arteta-Darroch

    As my mum used to say; If you don’t like the weather... move!

    If there’s a market for it, then owners can make their own decisions whether to upgrade their properties. They don’t need govt to force them.

    That “few thousand dollars” you mentioned could well be an owner’s net profits for the year. Why would they bother if there’s no money in it?

    Comfy Homes 10:39 am 16 Apr 18

    Matt Donnelly if landlords can't afford to maintain a property at a decent standard and they decide to sell them, then this will reduce the costs of properties. There's no situation in which properties would "rot on the street" because the sale prices would come down and they'd be bought either by home-buyers or investors who could afford to make capital improvements.

    Julie Macklin 11:29 am 16 Apr 18

    Better Renting If people started selling their rental properties, then there would be fewer properties to rent and this would have an upward pressure on cost of renting. Most of the worst insulated properties would be inner city areas, and that's where most renters want to rent; nearer work, etc. If they think the inner-city properties are under-insulated, they could move to outer areas in Canberra where the properties are newer and likely better insulated. Or out of houses into newer built units. But many won’t do this, so this is their choice to live in these properties.

    “It found that 43 per cent of rated rental properties had a rating of 0, compared with just 4 per cent of properties for sale.”

    Is that in the same area – ie neighbouring properties – or Canberra wide? In other words, are rental properties in older inner areas (where I would guess there are more rentals) being compared to private houses in the same area, or private housing Canberra wide, where I would guess most people buying (especially first time buyers) would buy further out, where the housing is newer and better insulated. I asked that, because I had a rental property in an inner area that was badly insulated. (It would have been a waste to improve this house because I was planning to replace the house, but if you had your way, I would have had to spend my limited funds, and then waste the resources that were needed to do this when the house was removed.) I also lived in a house not far from my rental property and it was also badly insulated. They were both houses from the 1950/60s, when insulation was rarely considered. (The house I lived in also wasn’t plumbed for hot water; another thing not considered as seriously then. The rental property was.) Actually, my house was worse than my rental, as my house was fibro and the rental property was wood, and wood is better insulation. So as an owner I knew what it was like to live in such properties. I was not living in any better conditions than my tenants, but I had no problem coping and I heard no complaints from my tenants.

    Comfy Homes 4:44 pm 16 Apr 18

    Julie Macklin if people sell rental properties then they are either bought by other investors OR by a first-home buyer who stops renting. Either way, there is the same balance of renters per number of rental properties. If more people sell rental properties then it will reduce the cost of housing which is a good thing and would actually reduce the costs that landlords face.

    Matt Donnelly 4:52 pm 16 Apr 18

    So let the market sort it out. No need for further govt regulation.

Peter Buckley 8:38 am 13 Apr 18

Duh!...All adds to the magic that is Slumgahlin.

    Lin Van Oevelen 9:32 am 16 Apr 18

    Most houses in Gungahlin were built after they brought in minimum EER requirements so they are much cheaper to heat and cool then houses in the older suburbs.

Lin Van Oevelen 7:35 am 13 Apr 18

You might as well burn banknotes to heat most rentals. I used to pay $1200 a quarter for gas alone in my last rental. I bought a new house with a 6 EER and I don't even pay that for a whole year now.

    Dave Ferymtok Ward 7:49 am 16 Apr 18

    I did $1900 last winter quarter on gas along with $500 electricity. It still hurts and we're headed into winter already this year.

    Lin Van Oevelen 9:29 am 16 Apr 18

    Dave Ferymtok Ward That $1200 is 5 years ago now, so I can imagine it is much more expensive now.

    It's probably not just heating that contributed either. I always suspected my old hot water system in my rental was very wasteful too.

    I really think there ought to be a minimum EER for rentals.

    I'm about to sell my new house and buy an older one in an older suburb and I know I will have to invest in increasing its EER over the years. But I'll get my money back not only through decreased energy bills but also by increasing the value of the house, so it's a good strategy. No such options for tenants.

Maya123 11:31 pm 12 Apr 18

It’d cost a fortune to improve some properties, making it uneconomic. I used to rent out such a property. It would have needed more insulation in the ceiling, the walls and under the floorboards, the windows would have needed replacing with double glazing or at least very expensive curtains and pelmets built. (The curtains weren’t bad, but some could have been improved.) Would have cost MANY thousands of dollars. The house was likely one of the cheapest rentals in Canberra and wasn’t worth the money to be spent on it. The rent reflected its condition. Such a waste for a house nearing the end of its life. Imagine being forced to spend this money and then a few short years later the house is demolished, as happened, (or in my house’s case was carried off on the back of a truck for a new life elsewhere.) All that money going to waste. (I wasn’t paid for the house. I just saved some demolition costs and saved the house from going to landfill.)

I do get tired of reading these complaints, as if the owner is living in splendour, while the tenants live in squalor. As the land lady, the house I lived in was even worse than my rental and I put up with it. (I now have an energy efficient house.)

I also have been a tenant in the past, but we just put up with it. I preferred to have cheaper rent, even if it was badly insulated. I still used minimal heating (never air-conditioning), instead putting on a jumper and woolly hat to save money. A better house would almost certainly have had higher rent.

Probably some of the worst offending houses are old houses in the inner-city, but many likely have a short future life expectancy.

Lauren Melksham 8:54 pm 12 Apr 18

It always blew my mind how many rentals in Canberra - not even cheap ones - had no heating/cooling with our climate. A min energy rating should be introduced.

Monika Hegadus 8:25 pm 12 Apr 18

Land taxes in the ACT are such that there's not much reserve left for improving old properties. It also might explain why the stock of rental properties is declining in the ACT.

    Chele Forest 11:49 am 15 Apr 18

    Land tax increase was why my property came off the rental market.

    Monika Hegadus 4:10 pm 15 Apr 18

    I'm an 'accidental' investor having inherited my mother's property. I'm seriously considering selling it and investing in another state. I feel for ACT renters, and also understand the tenancy union's position about energy efficient housing. But when the costs of having a property (one without a mortgage) are greater than the rental income, something is wrong. There is simply no reserve to improve energy efficiency as much as I would like to.

Jennifer Strover 8:11 pm 12 Apr 18

I've rented for about 15 years at the lower end of the market, mostly in Melbourne, currently in the ACT. I would love a more energy efficient place to live, but it's a reality that, the cheaper the rent, the less money the owners want to spend on the place, to get more return on investment. I can think of no scenario in which forcing owners to update their investment properties wouldn't inevitably mean rental increases.

Again, would love to live in a place that costs less to heat and cool. But TBH, I'm just happy to have heating and cooling that's built in at this point.

    Comfy Homes 10:37 am 16 Apr 18

    Jennifer Strover this is an understandable concern, but there's no evidence that when landlord costs go up rents have to go up. A more likely effect is that the value of the asset (the property) goes down - which then has the unintended benefit of making housing more affordable for first-home buyers.

    Jennifer Strover 10:48 pm 16 Apr 18

    Rents won't *have* to go up. But it's a good excuse.

    Shane Rogers 11:05 pm 16 Apr 18

    any excuse is a good excuse :(

    Anthony Robinson 2:16 pm 17 Apr 18

    Better Renting are you joking? Rentals always go up if costs go up.

Kristen Skinner 7:39 pm 12 Apr 18

So true. Not many landlords care about tenant living conditions.

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