It’s early afternoon and already you can feel the chill leeching out of the exposed brick walls inside Chris White’s apartment.
The electric heater fixed to the wall takes up to four hours to heat the lounge room – but he can’t afford to keep it on for that long.
Chris and his partner Chelsea McKean have been in their Newington home for less than a week and already they’re preparing for a whopping electricity bill.
The couple, who are on student and unemployment benefits, had been knocked back from 30 properties before they were accepted.
“At the time, applying for so many houses it was just if we get a house we won’t care if we’re warm or not as long as we’ve got a roof over our head,” Chelsea said.
“There was a house we looked at, it was just in a foul state. We inspected the property and it was freezing in the house, there were gaps between all the doors, the floors were uneven but in a situation where we were approved for that house we would have had to take it because there would have been no other options.”
Chris and Chelsea’s situation is typical for low income renters, Peplow House senior worker Lisa Keddie says.
Their clients often leave Peplow House for homes so poorly insulated they’re soon back for blankets, or with outsized electricity bills they can’t afford to pay, Ms Keddie said.
Some have put all their money towards bills and have none left over for food. Most of the men supported by the service are on New Start allowance and can pay no more than $150 a week before they enter rental stress, she said.
“Poor heating comes with our guys having to make the decision ‘do I pay my gas bill today or do I actually eat?’,” Ms Keddie said.
“Sometimes they’ll come to us and say ‘I was to pay it, this is my responsibility but can you help me out with some food, or can you take me to a few of these appointments that I can’t afford to put petrol in my car for.’”
Welfare organisations are already warning people are forgoing necessities to pay rising power bills, with the problem set to worsen when gas and electricity prices increase in Victoria at the start of 2018.
No protections for renters
The absence of legislated property standards “poses a very real health risk” to the state’s renters, Tenants Union Victoria says.
Victoria is yet to introduce minimum property standards, meaning technically landlords can legally rent out a property without a heating system or insulation, Tenants Union Victoria’s Devon LaSalle said.
The union is calling for minimum standards including insulation and energy efficient heating to give renters recourse when they find themselves in impossible-to-heat houses.
The state government is currently reviewing tenancy laws.
An international study in 2015 funded by the UK Medical Research Council found 6.5 per cent of deaths in Australia were the result of the cold – almost double the number of deaths that occur in Sweden where tenants have a legislated right to “fully serviceable accommodation”.
Ms LaSelle said the system gave “few incentives” for landlords to maintain their properties to a livable standard.