Society’s most vulnerable tend to be worst hit by energy inefficiencies and severe weather.
Helen Masterman-Smith was shocked to discover Albury residents living in public housing either without any provided heating, or with inefficient heaters.
“I was surprised in 21st century Australia not all our public housing accommodation had what we would consider to be standard heating or cooling,” she said.
“Some people have assistance to buy their own, but others have to ask family or friends to help them with the upfront costs.
“One man had a small wall panel heater but it was a long way away from the bedroom or where you’d sit.
“We assume public housing will look after people, well not always.
“Ultimately in the scheme of things, it comes down to state and federal priorities – is the housing, health and wellbeing of the nation’s citizens a priority, or not?”
A family and community services spokesman said NSW public housing tenants can install air conditioning at their own expense or those with medical conditions can request FACS install it.
They said “some older properties also have heating appliances”.
In Victoria, department of health and human services spokesman said their design specifications include heating in all dwellings, with a gas heater rated at least 4-stars in new builds.
Border’s poorest residents pay the most to stay warm in winter
Both NSW and Victoria have no minimal rental standards, meaning houses can be leased regardless of age, condition or energy efficiency.
Tenanted homes are typically less energy efficient and have higher operating costs than owner-occupier homes, Environment NSW found.
Senior sociology lecturer at CSU, Helen Masterman-Smith said landlords have no incentive to upgrade their rental properties – not having to pay the electricity bills themselves. While renters are usually either unable or unwilling to upgrade a property they don’t own.
A Better Renting study found a three-bedroom ACT house with an energy efficient rating of zero would cost $2800 more per year to heat, than a five-rated home.
Dr Masterman-Smith believes some Border residents were paying similar inefficiency costs.
“Quite a number of low-income renters don’t have what we’d call adequate heating cooling appliances,” she said.
“The ones that do have are inefficient and many people are scared to turn them on, so they sit in the cold or the stinking heat.”
Dr Masterman-Smith said an unexpected bill can send a low-income earner into a “spiral of debt”.
“It’s not just the cost of an unexpected heating or cooling bill, medicine can act differently in the heat or cold, which could cause additional heathcare – there’s all sorts of ways it spills over and has a trickle effect on a budget,” she said.
“On average low-income earners in often older rentals have lower electricity costs than the rest of the population, so what’s going on?
“They’re paying with their health and wellbeing.”
In 2017, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage released a Draft Plan to Save NSW Energy and Money, including plans to improve energy efficiency in rental homes.
The final plan is yet to be released, with the department saying the 3,400 submissions received would be taken into account.
The Victorian government is currently reviewing the Residential Tenancies Act.
Victorian Council for Social Service’s Emma King said annually 40,000 residents have their power disconnected.
“Energy efficiency and the plight of people living in poverty are inextricably linked; they cannot and must not be discussed in isolation,” she said.
“More energy efficient homes means more people who can meet their basic needs.”
NSW and Victorian peak tenancy organisations want the government to enforce a minimum standard before a property can be rented.
But Dr Masterman-Smith said that might cause renters more headaches.
“One concern is if you have regulation requirements, private landlords could increase rent to cover the upgrade costs – that would create further pressure on housing affordability,” she said.
“It’s already very difficult to find affordable rentals.”