Yesterday the Tenants' Union of NSW alongside Better Renting and Sweltering Cities provided a briefing on Healthy Homes for Renters to a diverse, cross section of Members of the NSW Parliament. The briefing focused on the need for energy efficiency standards in rental homes and renters’ current experience of unhealthy homes in NSW.
We particularly thank our co-hosts for the time taken to attend and speak to the issues at the event: Minister Victor Dominello, Jenny Leong - NSW Greens spokesperson on Housing, Jihad Dib - Shadow Minister for Energy, and Alex Greenwich Independent Member for Sydney. We also offer a sincere thanks to every Member who attended at this very busy time in the Parliamentary calendar, including Minister Anthony Roberts, Janelle Saffin, Phil Donato, Joe McGirr, Cate Faerhrman, Liesl Tesch, Roy Butler, Dr Marjorie O'Neill, Dr Michael Holland, Leslie Williams, Trish Doyle, Tamara Smith, Kate Washington, Jason Li, and Jodie Harrison.
Below we publish the presentation given on the day by Jemima Mowbray, Policy and Advocacy Manager of the Tenants' Union of NSW highlighting the impact of poor standards in our homes, especially in the context of an inability to pursue existing basic protections in place because of the threat of unfair 'no grounds' evictions. Members also heard from:
Better Renting on their 2022 winter renter research report, Cold and Costly Homes, tracking winter temperature and humidity in 16 rental homes across NSW through the 2022 winter months; &
Sweltering Cities on the health impacts of hot homes and their 2022 ‘Summer Survey’ in which they heard directly from thousands of people about their experiences of summer heat and how it affects their daily lives in the hot months, with a focus especially on Western Sydney.
Healthy Homes for Renters NSW Parliamentary Briefing
It’s a real pleasure to be in the room with you today. As Policy and Advocacy Manager at the Tenant’ Union many of us have not only met, but may know each other well and have worked together previously because we share a very strong concern and commitment to ensuring everyone in our community has access to a healthy, secure, and affordable home.
However, today I am wearing a few hats. The Tenants’ Union is a proud partner member of the Healthy Homes for Renters Campaign. You may also know the NSW Make Renting Fair campaign, I am of course wearing my Make Renting Fair hat (well, t-shirt!) today.
I am also going to take a moment to spotlight a couple of hats you might not know I wear, hats I never take off.
I’m a renter. And I am a mum.
So, here’s another personal reveal: my passion when I talk about the issues renters face has a number of roots.
It comes from a place of policy expertise. I advocate passionately because my advocacy comes from a place of confidence in our understanding of the problems – we hear directly from renters on a daily basis. And complete confidence in the evidence and data about the effectiveness of the solutions we put forward.
My passion also comes for a place of personal experience. As a renter I have very likely personally experienced the issue I am highlighting when I knock on your office door. I’ve been renting since I was 19. I now rent in South West Sydney with my family, my partner and two kids.
Today I want to advocate by sharing my personal experience.
I’m going to take you back 7 years. My first born was 9 months old. My partner and I and bub had been living in a very small one bedroom apartment. He’d been sleeping in a cot at the foot of our bed. When I say ‘sleeping’ I mean that loosely, as every parent of a young baby knows. My son was a terrible sleeper. We took the big decision to move houses when he was just 9 months old primarily so he could move to his own room, and hopefully sleep better!
First night in new house. Cot is set up in new room. Everything else still in boxes, but moving 101: unpack the beds! One thing I knew as new mum: a healthy indoor temperature is around 18 degrees. This was burned into my brain because it is also the ideal temperature for a baby to sleep.
You might have seen the scarves, hot water bottles and bubble wrap on windows around the briefing room. We wanted to highlight with these the many hacks renters with chilly rented homes are sometimes forced to take because it is so hard, and so expensive, to heat our homes in winter. But babies can’t sleep with a hot water bottle. You can’t load them up with heavy blankets or doonas. It’s not safe.
When we put our bub to sleep the room with a heater on, the new room was a perfect 18 degrees. At two am, first night in our new home, the baby monitor starts shrieking. An alarm had gone off. My 9 month old baby's room was a terrifying 11 degrees. That small room that had been advertised as a bedroom, had no insulation, no draught proofing, a tin roof. It was freezing. Even with the heater we’d left on through the night.
My son moved back into our bedroom that night. It was only 3 months later in summer, after we had invested in heavy duty shadecloth and a beast of a room airconditioner, that he moved into his ‘bedroom’. We paid through the roof in energy bills to run the aircon in that room through the night so we could move our baby in – and claw back sleep and some sanity for ourselves.
We didn’t raise the problem with the landlord even though we actually had a clear right to raise a concern and have the landlord do some work to make that bedroom ‘fit for habitation'. So even though we’d more than doubled our rent and moved further out west so we could have a house with an extra room, we paid to not-quite-fix but instead find a workaround to the problem. We were worried if we raised the issues of the unliveable unhealthy room the landlord might kick us out once our fixed term lease ended. And we didn’t want and couldn’t afford to move again.
This lack of confidence and fear of eviction if you assert your rights is a challenge every renter in NSW faces.
In NSW renters know that a landlord can evict us without having to provide a reason - they are called ‘no grounds’ evictions in our NSW tenancy law. This means they can actually evict us for very bad reasons; a bad reason like simply deciding we’re too much trouble for raising concerns about the poor, potentially unhealthy standard of the home we are paying for.
Recently when the Tenants’ Union of NSW reached out to NSW renters to tell us about the problems they were facing with mould we heard this same story or a variation of this again and again. Renters had mould spreading across their ceilings, crawling through the underlay in their floors. They had mould growing on their kids’ clothes stored in built-ins with structural damp causing significant mould problems destroying their belongings. Every renter – I’d put a bet likely every person right now in NSW – has white vinegar in a spray bottle, and knows about the need for ventilation. But the problems we heard about in relation to mould couldn’t be fixed by a vinegar scrub. These were serious issues, and the fix required the landlord address the sometimes significant, structural issues leading to damp and mould in the first place.
Many renters did not feel confident in pursuing their landlord for the repairs needed once they had reported the problem. Many renters told us they felt powerless to even ask for their rights to have basic repairs and maintenance done in case they faced a retaliatory eviction.
A significant number of renters just don’t raise the problem. They will do everything they can to avoid raising an issue, because the threat of an unfair eviction is ever present.
So today Joel, Emma and I, and our colleagues will talk to you about the need to introduce mandatory minimum standards, in particular around energy efficiency, to improve the quality of NSW rental homes. But we will also and equally importantly talk to you about the need to address the problem of ‘no grounds’ unfair evictions. Because unless we get rid of ‘no grounds’ evictions, even with a strengthened right to a healthy home in place, renters just won’t have the power and confidence to assert their rights.