Cold comfort – AHURI calls for minimum energy performance standards in rental homes

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A new report from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) highlights the energy hardships faced by renters and calls for minimum standards for energy performance in rental homes.

The ‘Warm, cool and energy affordable housing policy solutions for low-income renters’ research, undertaken for AHURI by researchers from the University of Adelaide, University of South Australia and RMIT examines the full impacts of energy hardship in Australia’s rental housing market.

In a survey of low-income renters, it was found 18 percent of public renters and 14 percent of private renters are unable to keep sufficiently warm in winter. Tenants, dealing with landlords who don’t see property upgrades that make dwellings cheaper to heat or cool as being smart investments, are limited for options. Landlords were reported to be ‘amenable’ to tenants spending their own money on the upgrades, though tenants were not enthused about investing their own money in these properties given the insecurity of their tenure.

Minimum standards for the energy performance of rental homes is a critical starting point to improving living conditions and energy affordability in the rental sector, the research finds. Furthermore, mandatory disclosure of dwelling performance emerges as a potentially powerful tool to aid residents in their selection of properties and as way of monitoring compliance with retail standards.

Simply installing heaters and air-conditioners to make housing more comfortable may mean lower income tenants are unable to afford to operate the appliances, leaving their home too hot or too cold.

“One strategy we propose is that landlords could be incentivised to improve their houses’ energy efficiency and performance over time,” says Dr Lyrian Daniel from the University of Adelaide. “This could be done through landlords being able to claim tax rebates or other financial assistance, so that appliances, such as old, inefficient hot water services, could be upgraded to more energy efficient models instead of replaced with ‘like-for-like’.”

The report explores energy hardship. Lead researcher Daniel, says, “One of the big problems is that there is no agreed definition of how the community measures energy hardship.

“It is critical that we’re able to capture and then monitor the different factors that lead people into energy hardship over time, so that effective policy responses that catch people before they experience deep and long-term disadvantage can be developed.”

Health impacts are one of the most powerful motivations for a response to these problems identified in the report. “Bringing together government and non-government experts, we reached a consensus that policy objectives that support tenants’ health and well-being must be the primary objective,” Daniel says. “A clear definition of what constitutes a ‘decent’ or ‘safe’ home – currently lacking in Australia – must be developed to support these objectives.”

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