Thousands of Victorian renters have joined a campaign pushing for minimum energy efficiency standards to be set, ahead of a tight state election.
This week, Environment Victoria (EV) said more than 15,000 renters had signed its petition to introduce efficiency standards, which could help renters save up to $850 a year on energy bills.
On Monday EV handed the petition to the government, which is expected to introduce changes to the Residential Tenancies Act, as part of its Fairer Safer Housing review, in a matter of weeks.
The government has already flagged changes to rental laws, including longer leases, removing no grounds evictions and allowing pets. However, while an options paper regarding changes to the act flagged the introduction of energy efficiency standards, the government has to date been silent on the issue.
“It’s fair to say the government has been playing its cards fairly close to its chest,” EV efficiency campaigner Anne Martinelli told The Fifth Estate.
“There’s no clear indication whether or not [minimum efficiency] standards will be in the revised bill.”
The government has committed to introduce the changes in the current sitting, of which there is only five weeks left.
Ms Martinelli said she was in “wait and see mode” regarding whether efficiency standards would get up among the plethora of issues being tackled through the reform.
“The challenge is that Victoria is playing catch up on such a broad range of issues.”
Energy efficiency, however, is an important one.
According to Ms Martinelli, much of Victoria’s rental housing stock is not able to provide safe and affordable shelter, particularly with more than half of private rentals taken up by low-income or disadvantaged people.
She said people were “facing pretty harsh choices” about whether to spend money on keeping themselves warm or food.
EV has been compiling stories of hardship as part of its campaign. Northcote renter Liz said she lived in a completely uninsulated home and was struggling with winter heating bills.
“Every winter quarter my bill triples,” she said. “Last winter it was $740 from only using two plug-in electric heaters to heat the bedrooms, which I tried to use as sparingly as I could. I’m not able to heat the whole house, so there were mornings when I would walk into my kitchen to find the thermometer on my fridge reading minus two.
“Living in an energy inefficient home is also having serious impacts on my health. I’ve developed asthma in the time I’ve lived here and the cold triggers attacks.
“Minimum rental standards would make a huge difference to our family.”
Ms Martinelli said there was broad support for introducing minimum standards for energy efficiency.
“This is a mainstream issue that affects a large number of Victorians,” she said.
Renting is not always temporary
“We do deal with a cultural perception that renting is a temporary position. Obviously, particularly in an urban centre like Melbourne, housing affordability is at a point where [home ownership] is not in reach for a number of people, not just the disadvantaged.”
The main reason for the petition is to demonstrate to government that there is wide support for “sensible common-sense reform”.
“Often people are surprised to hear that standards aren’t already in place,” Ms Martinelli said.
Changes to legislation would introduce a “head of power” allowing the minister to regulate on energy efficiency, however what those regulations would entail is another discussion.
EV is proposing initially tackling only the worst 10 per cent of housing, with a gradual tightening over time so landlords would have the opportunity to adjust.
“The government has committed to making renting fairer and safer through its review of Victoria’s rental laws, and minimum standards are critical to delivering on that objective,” Ms Martinelli said.
“Requiring rental homes to have basic measures like insulation is the single most effective action government could take to cut renters’ cost of living, create thousands of good, local jobs, and cut climate pollution.”
Mandatory energy efficiency disclosure would be another key part of reform, with EV suggesting it be made mandatory at point of sale, potentially through the government’s relatively new Victorian Residential Efficiency Scorecard.