It dawned on me one night in January, as I tossed and turned in my room in my inner-city Sydney terrace, that my summers might be sleepless forever.
Not only are most young people largely locked out of the residential market – unless they have parents wealthy enough to help out – but as life-long renters, we’re stuck in substandard housing that’s often ill-equipped to deal with rising temperatures due to climate change.
A new report from rental advocacy group Better Renting confirms that I’m not the only tenant struggling to sleep in my rental home now that “heatwave” temperatures are the norm.
The report is peppered with nightmarish experiences, including one renter who sleeps on her tiled kitchen floor on hot nights.
Most complained of poorly insulated homes with a fan the only weapon against the heat, which does little more than move the hot air around once the temperature is high enough.
The tragedy is that the people most vulnerable to heat are also most likely to be renting, such as the mentally or physically ill. For the most vulnerable, long stretches of hot weather where temperatures don’t drop overnight can prove fatal.
Renters also tend to fall into the lower income range, meaning that even if they’ve got airconditoning, they might not be able to afford to use it.
But differences in income are not always the problem. Stats from the Australian Housing Conditions Dataset showed that as many as 16 per cent of renters were “not able to keep comfortably cool in summer” compared with 4 per cent of owners, with both sample groups coming from the same income range.
One reason renters suffer more is because rental properties are much less likely to be energy efficient – meaning they heat up quickly and take ages to cool back down.
Rentals are usually the miserable, unkempt end of the housing stock, little more than “glorified tents” as Better Renting’s director Joel Dignam once described them.
In the ACT, the only jurisdiction where its mandatory to disclose an energy efficiency rating held by a residential property at the point of sale or lease, almost half of the residential rental properties were getting zero stars on the NatHERS scale in 2018.
Unlike a homeowner, tenants can’t just whack in some blinds or a ceiling fan. We’re at the mercy of our slum lords to do this for us, who might cooperate if we’re lucky but are just as likely to ignore the request, stall the work or jack up the rent. One pregnant renter was threatened with eviction after requesting repairs on an airconditioning unit.
Although I consider energy-guzzling airconditioners a last resort, the reality is that we’re probably going to need them in many Australian homes.
With a glut of apartment blocks that rely on airconditioning to be liveable, and more going up every day, passive cooling methods just aren’t going to cut it for many, especially the sick and elderly.
The report also grapples with the tricky question of airconditioning and lands on a “nuanced” public health messaging that encourages AC access for at-risk households, but supports moderated usage for other households.
The report offers some solutions, including improving the energy efficiency of all housing stock though building codes and other regulatory measures (not exactly holding my breath for this one) and cooling of entire streetscapes through greening and shading.
It also calls for more public areas with cooling, including libraries and pools because unlike shopping centres, they don’t encourage people to spend money. Shifting from gas to electric and rooftop PV are also highlighted as adaption methods.
I’m cautiously optimistic that change will happen, as an entire nation of bleary-eyed zombies isn’t appealing from a productivity standpoint.
The real tragedy will be the vulnerable people who suffer, or lose their lives, due to what I expect will be prolonged inaction to adapt the rental housing stock for a changing climate.