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Extreme heat and vulnerable Victorian househo. . .

Extreme heat and vulnerable Victorian households

By Bridget Tehan.
Published on the VCOSS Voice on 11 January 2016.
http://vcoss.org.au/blog/extreme-heat-and-vulnerable-victorian-households-2/

The extreme heat experienced in Victoria during December and again in January is a real risk to people’s health. The Victorian Government has developed these messages and resources on the health impacts of heat, particularly for older people, and actions to take to protect and preserve life. This advice recommends people do their best to keep their homes cool such as checking that fans or air-conditioners work well, having air-conditioners serviced if necessary, and things that can be done to make homes cooler such as installing window coverings, shade cloths or external blinds on the sides of the house facing the sun.

Homes are the foundation on which people build stability in their lives. They provide the shelter, security, safety and privacy that people need to reach their potential, participate in the community and live healthy and meaningful lives. Housing is also an important determinant of health – good quality housing protects against heat and cold extremes, and other effects of extreme weather including fire, flood and storms.

However, despite doing their best, many thousands of Victorians are unable to keep their homes cool. People on low incomes who live in sub-standard private rental properties, public or community housing, and vulnerable people who live in boarding or rooming houses, hostels, caravan parks, residential parks or camping grounds, can lack the money, capacity or choice to keep their homes cool in periods of hot weather.

The quality of housing is a significant risk factor during periods of extreme heat. Housing which is poorly ventilated, unshaded and does not have cooling increases exposure to high temperatures. Living on the top floor of multi-story dwellings or sleeping in the roof cavity is also associated with higher risk of death.[1]

More than 160,000 people live in social housing in Victoria, including 44 high-rise public housing towers across Melbourne’s inner suburbs. Public housing provides around 65,000 households with long-term, rental accommodation, including some of the most disadvantaged Victorians, including people with a disability or mental illness and people with a history of homelessness. Community housing provide short-term crisis or transitional housing for people who are experiencing homelessness, or at risk of becoming homeless, as well as longer-term rental housing for around 100,000 Victorians.[2]

Recent legislation provides that all future community and public housing in Victoria will be built to achieve a six star rating as determined using the FirstRate House Energy Rating software or Sustainable Energy Authority of Victoria approved equivalent, including solar water heaters. This is good news for future tenants of social housing, however tenants of existing housing stock face a starkly different picture.

Many older public housing buildings were built without insulation, passive cooling or heating considerations, with air vents that allow uncontrolled air movement, and increasingly have gaps and cracks that develop with age. Ceiling fans are generally not installed in public housing and windows are only able to be opened a fixed and restricted amount in high rise buildings. Few would have external window shades and air conditioners are not installed except in the case of medical advice. These factors make public housing residents less able to moderate temperatures during consecutive days of extreme heat or cool.

“…energy-related poverty and climate change impact on the lives of low-income and disadvantaged households, particularly renters. We see the consequences of rental properties with no insulation, no heating, no window coverings and poor ventilation. The current legislation does not require it to be possible or affordable to keep a rental dwelling cool in summer or warm in winter.”[3]

More than 500,000 people or households live in private rental homes across Victoria, with low-income households more likely to rent homes than other households. However apart from the obligatory installation of a smoke alarm, there is no minimum housing standard for private rental housing in Victoria. In terms of keeping homes cool there is no minimum standard for insulation, ventilation, internal or external window coverings, or even openable windows. VCOSS’ 2015 Submission to the Residential Tenancies Act Review recommends that rental housing should provide a healthy environment, including being weatherproof, have hot and cold running water, be free of germs, mould and vermin, and have decent facilities for food preparation and maintaining personal hygiene. VCOSS also recommended that rental housing should be safe and secure to live in, have structural integrity, safe electricity and gas connections, and locks on external doors. Importantly, rental housing should be affordable, including meeting a basic standard of energy efficiency, such as having insulation and efficient heating and hot water services.

In addition to private rental and social housing a large number of other people live in other housing types, including boarding or rooming houses, hostels, caravan parks, residential parks or camping grounds. Minimum standards for these are poor or non-existent. For example rooming houses must provide natural light, ventilation and smoke alarms, but no access to cooling or cool spaces. The minimum standards for dwellings in caravan parks include access to water, waste disposal and smoke alarms but no access to cool spaces.

In our Feeling the Heat report, VCOSS documented some of the impacts of extreme heat as described by community organisations:

  • Vulnerable people living in public housing properties, rooming houses and caravans that were described by staff as ‘hot boxes’ and who had no access to cooling or cool areas
  • Lifts out of action in high rise accommodation because of heat-related power shortages
  • Landlords who did not allow air-conditioning or fans because of operating costs
  • Lack of access to drinking water, particularly for people who are homeless and sleeping rough, as well as those living in accommodation that restricts access to kitchens and bathrooms.
  • ‘Older people and people with disabilities in public housing particularly seemed really concerned about their own health and articulated frequently that they felt especially vulnerable and that there should be special measures put in place to help protect them.’
  • ‘They [caravans] are just so small … they are just those old fashioned round ones, the windows are really small, the doors are small, there is no way you can get significant airflow … and often there are women and children living in those environments too.’
  • ‘I know of two community housing providers that made it their policy to go and knock on at least the older people’s doors at least once a week … when they got a call or heard that someone was worried about someone else, they would kind of draw straws over who would go and knock on the door. They were all afraid someone would be dead, because it was happening so regularly…’
  • ‘Increasingly, rooming houses in ordinary suburban areas don’t have any communal areas, so even the lounge room will be converted to a bedroom. So you can have severe over-crowding of an ordinary suburban property without a communal area and, when it’s hot, people are much more likely to seek refuge outside their bedroom so that increases the risk of conflict.’
  • ‘In the previous summer, in rooming houses where people were running cooling devices, we did see operators basically coming around to the residents and saying you’ve got to stop using your air-conditioning because it’s costing me too much … they would issue very strict and harsh instructions about the use of air-conditioners. ‘
  • ‘There was no water in this supported residential service. This has since been addressed … there is a water machine now, but clients had to knock on the locked door of the kitchen to get a glass of water. ‘

As noted in the Feeling the heat report, low income and disadvantaged groups are more likely to live in poorer quality housing, and have less capacity to ‘climate proof’ their homes by installing insulation, shading and cooling systems, including air-conditioning. Uninsulated homes use about twice the energy of insulated ones for heating and cooling.[4]  The costs of running an air-conditioner are more expensive in poor quality housing, even if air-conditioning is installed. High energy use is often caused by poor quality housing, inefficient appliances and the fact that vulnerable people often lack the funds to upgrade appliances or improve the energy performance of their housing due to financial constraints or because they are tenants.

Energy costs can also push households into financial hardship, and prevent them being able to afford other household necessities. This is most likely to happen among low-income households, who spend twice as much on electricity and gas as a proportion of their total income than middle-income households.[5] One in six low-income households cannot pay one or more bills on time in any given year, and almost one in seven have their energy disconnected.[6]

VCOSS has a long history of advocating for minimum rental housing standards. With climate change anticipated to increase periods of hot weather and extreme heat in Victoria it is time that housing regulations ensure that public and private rental properties meet community standards for housing affordability and security and protect people from increasing extreme weather.

[1] Vandentorren S et al, ‘August 2003 heat wave in France: risk factors for death of elderly people living at home’, European Journal of Public Health, vol. 16, no.6, 2006,

[2] New directions for social housing: A framework for a strong and sustainable future, Victorian Government 2014

[3]   Brotherhood of St Laurence , Rental properties are people’s homes:  Response to the  Consultation Paper of the Review of the Residential Tenancies Act (Vic.) , Brotherhood of St Laurence, 2015

[4] Alternative Technology Association, 2.5 billion reasons to invest in efficiency: Modelling the impact of improving the energy efficiency of Victoria’s homes on the Victorian Energy Concessions Budget, One Million Homes Alliance, 2012.

[5] Australian Bureau of Statistics, (2013) 4670.0 – Household Energy Consumption Survey, Australia: Summary of Results, 2012

[6] Australian Bureau of Statistics, (2013) 4670.0 – Household Energy Consumption Survey, Australia: Summary of Results, 2012

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