Brisbane renter Kate Fox has moved six times in three years, always on the hunt for a habitable and healthy home.
Her search intensified when she spent the 2020 summer visiting Royal Brisbane Hospital. First, for asthma attacks, as bushfire smoke filled her drafty rental apartment. Then for dehydration, as her unit reached 40 degrees Celsius inside during the heatwaves that followed. When she developed autoimmune conditions from heavy air pollution entering the vents, it was a wake-up call.
“I realised my home was so unhealthy; it was disabling me. Now I have to work from home. If I can’t find a healthier home, I can’t really work. This caused me a lot of stress; as a carer for my elderly parents, I need to stay well myself to care for them.
That summer, I sacrificed a lot of work time to take my mother out, just to escape the heat at South Bank and do a frantic search online for a better rental.”
This summer, she took matters into her own hands.
Since December, Ms Fox has been part of the citizen science project, ‘Renter Researchers‘. The project, coordinated by tenant advocacy organisation Better Renting, aims to highlight the extra challenges faced by renters living in energy inefficient low-quality homes, struggling to keep themselves safe and healthy as heatwaves become more severe and frequent.
Better Renting Executive Director, Joel Dignam, says that Renter Researchers is a way to help more people understand what people who rent are going through every summer.
“Renter Researchers aims to bring out into the open what people who rent their homes are experiencing, combining data and people’s stories to highlight the challenges of enduring an Australian summer in a poor-quality home.”
As a Renter Researcher, Ms Fox has set up a temperature tracker in her bedroom that records indoor temperature every minute since last December. Ms Fox is keen to share her experiences and hopes that it can lead to action to ensure that she, and thousands of renters like her, can have decent and healthy homes.
During this summer’s heatwave, Ms Fox says La Niña made the heatwave shorter and less severe but brought home the need for minimum energy efficiency standards for rental homes.
“For the first time in three years, I wasn’t afraid of us having heat-related medical emergencies all summer—a huge relief.
“But we still cancelled plans and lost sleep. I had financial anxiety from running so many fans so often it trebled our power bills. I can’t afford the extra expense, but I didn’t dare turn them off once my parents became disoriented by the heat.
“It’s confronting, that this was the coolest summer in Meanjin in a decade, but even this new unit wasn’t built to cope with it.”
Ms Fox’s dilemma isn’t rare for renters. A 2020 report by Better Renting found that renters are four times more likely than owner-occupiers to struggle with heat in their homes. The Queensland government recently passed the Housing Legislation Amendment Bill 2021, introducing minimum standards. But the new measures do not have any requirement for features to keep rental homes cool in summer.
Heatwaves are the deadliest natural disaster in Australia and becoming more frequent. Recently published research from Macquarie University linked 354 deaths in Australia to heatwave conditions between 2001 and 2018. They are predicted to become the leading cause of death in Queensland this century, but unlike fire and flood, there is no Brisbane or statewide disaster plan for them.
There is a compelling case that any government plans for living with heatwaves should prioritise minimum energy efficiency in housing. Housing is a common theme in heatwave health literature, as heat injury is also a social equity issue. Renters are over-represented for fatalities and health complications during extreme heat, along with seniors, youth and people with chronic illness.
This stems from renters being more likely to live in poorly maintained homes without the ability to modify the property themselves. Renters may also find the homes available to them are more exposed to other heat risk factors. These include homes without renewable energy or other passive cooling strategies, homes in urban heat islands and homes in areas with inadequate tree cover, greenspace, or cool, public spaces for residents to escape to during heatwaves.
This is true of Brisbane housing. Research into rental affordability commissioned by tenant advisory group, QStars in 2016, found that renting in Brisbane is most common in the inner city. Up to 50 per cent of residents in the CBD and surrounding suburbs are renters, compared to medium density, leafy suburbs like Bardon being up to 70 per cent owner-occupiers. Home-ownership is the great divide in accessing affordable renewable energy too. One in three residents nationally have taken up home solar, the majority owner-occupiers.
While new rental properties in Brisbane typically include one air conditioning unit, AC is just one of several measures needed to ensure healthy homes in future heatwaves. A Sweltering Cities survey of urban heat island residents found that most renters with air conditioning units, but no access to renewable energy, won’t use their units due to concerns about expense and climate impact. In addition, over-reliance on air conditioners to make apartments habitable in summer can contribute to power blackouts. By comparison, the French government responded to 2003 heatwaves by requiring all apartments to be comfortable in free-running mode, i.e., habitable for several days without any air conditioning.
Better Renting recommends a retrofit of all rental properties to ensure a range of minimum energy efficiency measures which are genuinely inclusive. For example, ceiling insulation, window coverings, door and window seals included reliable sources of heating and cooling and access to solar power. Currently, Brisbane City Council offers some financial incentives for owners to incorporate universal design and energy efficiency into new properties, but they are optional, with no input for renters.
Cover image, by Chloe Tredrea, provided by Better Renting.