Not cool: push for insulation in all Australian rental homes as study shows dangerous heat levels

People in social housing often face hottest conditions and struggle to pay for air conditioning, advocates say

Advocates are calling for insulation to be regulated in all Australian rental properties as research shows some people swelter through temperatures above 30C in their homes for extended periods in summer.

Many of the hottest homes are those of people living in social housing, with some residents forced to go into debt to buy air conditioners, or hose down their houses to stay cool.

The tenant advocacy organisation Better Renting is tracking temperatures in 75 rentals across Australia to see how far they exceeded the recommended safe limit of 25C for more than nine hours a day.

Joel Dignam, Better Renting’s executive director, said renters were recording temperatures of up to 70C in their roofs, with the heat travelling down and keeping the rooms above 30C for long periods of time.

One participant reported their Melbourne home reached 67C in the roof on Boxing Day, when the temperature outside was 31C.

“In winter insulation plays a big difference in keeping the warmth inside the home,” Dignam said. “In summer it provides benefit in the opposite direction.

“With the hot weather, it makes a difference to protect you from the heat from above.”

An infrared image showing yellow and orange shading where the roof is hot and blue around it
An infrared image of Claire Phelan’s roof taken on a 31C day. The yellow and orange areas show where there is no ceiling insulation. Photograph: Claire Phelan

He said some of the monitored homes were fitted with air conditioning, but because of the heat coming from the roof it did little to combat the temperature.

“Having insulation in a home is like having glass in the window pains, like having a flushing toilet,” Dignam said. “It should be seen as an absolute basic. Leaving it out is not making an adequate home to rent.”

Perth renter Claire Phelan is taking part in the research. She is in social housing with her partner, and while they have insulation in the roof, part of it has been removed.

“Since I moved in, I’ve been complaining about the difficulties I’ve had regulating the temperature inside the house,” she said.

“In summer all I can do is drip sweat and sit in front of a fan or portable air conditioner in my underwear.”

Claire Phelan
Claire Phelan says subsidised housing residents should not ‘subsidise our dignity’. Photograph: Claire Phelan

An infrared image taken on a 31C day shows the part of the roof without insulation heating up to more than 36C.

Phelan said last summer her digital thermometer recorded indoor temperatures of up to 43C. At one point she and her partner had to go on a payment plan to afford their energy bill.

“During heatwaves, I spray down the bricks so they can cool,” Phelan said.

“Just because we are poor and living in subsidised housing, doesn’t mean we should subsidise our dignity.”

Wongi woman Janine Tremlett lives in the Kimberley in Western Australia’s north, one of the hottest places in the country. For at least 207 days a year, parts of the Kimberley hit 35C – the temperature at which heat becomes dangerous to humans.

During a recent heatwave, with outside temperatures above 40C, there was only one livable room in Tremlett’s house, where she lives with her son.

“You have to have the aircon on all day,” Tremlett said. “You can’t even walk outside or do anything. You can’t go to the shops, anywhere, it’s just so hot.”

Tremlett initially bought a cheap fan but it broke down, so she spent months saving up for an air conditioner that cost her more than $1,000.

“You need a strong aircon that can make it cool,” she said. “Living in the desert, it’s hot, very hot.”

Tremlett said in her community a lot of people couldn’t afford air conditioning, so they slept outside, kept their clothes wet or hosed down the tops of their homes to keep cool.

A Melbourne renter with no insulation recorded 67C in their roof during the Better Renting study. Photograph: Better Renting

Grace Dudley, an advocate at Kimberley Community Legal Services, said air conditioners are not provided in social houses across WA under current policy, although homes for government employees have air conditioning and an energy subsidy to cover their bills.

“Tenants are unable to control the temperature inside due to the poor quality of the housing, outstanding maintenance issues and high rates of overcrowding, which is really prevalent in Kimberley,” Dudley said.

Almost half of the renters in the Kimberley are in social housing, and Dudley said with climate change the issue will just get worse.

“In 10 or 20 years the days over 40 or 45 will increase. It will become unliveable and could have dire consequences,” she said.

Union calls for homes to be assessed before being rented

Leo Patterson Ross, chief executive of the Tenants’ Union, said most states have loose rules around air conditioning and insulation, despite many renters suffering now the hot weather has arrived.

“In every state and territory there’s a broad statement that rentals have to be fit for habitation, but that’s not enough to give tenants the certainty,” he said.

“If you went to see a place that didn’t have a door or a roof, everyone would accept that that is not up to scratch.”

Patterson Ross said an independent third party should have to assess each house before it’s put on the market.

“A lot of this problem is that the standards of housing are built into the tenancy contracts but it’s to each tenant to enforce,” he said.

“What needs to change is that an independent third party comes in and ensures the properties are up to the standards.”

The ACT is leading the country in terms of insulation requirements: from April this year, private rentals and public housing properties will begin having to be fitted with high-standard ceiling insulation.


Cait Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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