Rental housing, climate change and adaptive capacity: a case study of Newcastle, NSW

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Lesley Instone
University of Newcastle

Executive summary from final report:

Housing tenants, especially low-income tenants, are often forgotten when it comes to strategies that seek to lessen the impact of climate change on households. Rental housing comprises 27% of housing in Australia, is currently poorly adapted to climate change, incorporates the lowest quality housing which is over represented by low-income earners and is the most vulnerable to climate change. 

This research project sought to understand the adaptive capacity of rental housing, including potential adaptions by tenants, landlords and housing managers by asking:

  • What adaptation strategies are tenants, housing managers and landlords currently undertaking?
  • What assets do tenants, housing managers and landlords bring to adaptation?
  • What are some of the barriers to adaptation?
  • How might landlords, property managers, tenants, governments and NGOs work together to strengthen the adaptive capacity of rental housing in Australia?

The project resulted in the development of widely accessible resources such as YouTube clips, as well as a community implementation plan that included a best-practice guide that supports the rental sector in acting on climate change.

The project employed an asset-based approach to understanding the capacities, assets and skills which tenants, landlords and housing managers bring to climate change adaptation. The project also took a pro-poor approach focusing on the adaptive capacity of low-income renters in the public and private sectors, and addresses equity dimensions of vulnerability and adaptation.

The research involved literature review of asset-based and pro-poor approaches to adaptation, the role of property managers in the rental sector and the role of everyday household practices in adaptation.  Data analysed included secondary sources such as recent media articles on sustainability in the rental sector, sustainability resources already available for tenants, and policy and legislation affecting adaptation in the rental sector. Primary data sources included interviews and focus groups conducted with tenants and housing managers in the public and private rental sectors. The analysis focused on the following aspects of adaptation:

  1. The assets of the rental sector in adapting to climate change, including existing everyday practices by tenants and property managers, existing capacities and commitments of individuals and organisations to sustainability and climate change adaptation
  2. Barriers which limit the capacity of individuals and organisations to exercise these assets, including quality, availability and affordability of housing stock, attitudes of stakeholders to climate change adaptation, lack of resources (particularly financial resources), public perceptions of tenancy, and regulatory constraints
  3. The relationships between the stakeholders – tenants, landlords and property managers – which underlie both assets and barriers to adaptation.

The tenants we interviewed were motivated by concern about the impact of human activity on the environment, and exercised this concern through everyday sustainable household practices, as well as through engagement with community or political organisations. They believed however that their capacity to act in the home was inhibited by a lack of care from some landlords and property managers about the sustainability of rental housing.

Public housing managers positioned the public housing sector as policy leaders in sustainability and adaptation, but as constrained by a lack of resources (human and financial) and the busy reactive nature of their work.  Busyness and lack of resources was also seen as a constraint on private property managers’ capacity to advocate or arrange for sustainability modifications to the properties they managed. Property managers emerged as crucial ‘knowledge brokers’ mediating between landlords and tenants, but expressed a need for more information and training in order to be able to advocate effectively to landlords and influence tenant practices.

Both tenants and property managers acknowledged that the current shortage of rental housing in many areas, including the Newcastle area, was one of the most important constraints on tenants’ ability to influence the market through preference for more adaptive and sustainable housing. The research identified a desire for more opportunities for tenants, housing managers and landlords to work together to address climate change in a way that would benefit all these groups and the environment.

The interviews with tenants and property managers mapped out a strong asset base in the rental sector which could be used in the sector’s adaptation to climate change. These assets included:

  • tenants’ strong visions of the future and understandings of what would make climate change adaptation more possible
  • property managers’ deep understanding of the possibilities of the tenant/landlord/property manager relationship, tenancy legislation and contracts, costing and procurement processes for maintenance and improvements to houses
  • existing capacity on the part of both tenants and property managers to act on adaptation through everyday practices, despite structural, material or resource limitations
  • networks which could be mobilised to support climate change adaptation. For tenants these networks included neighbourhood, community and political networks. For property managers these networks included networks within their institutions, professional training and information networks, and their role as ‘knowledge brokers’ for both landlords and tenants.

The research report makes recommendations in the following areas:

  • increased support for an enhanced role for property managers as advocates and knowledge brokers for sustainability and adaptation in the rental sector
  • incentives and education for landlords to see investment properties as ‘ethical investments’ which provide opportunities for tenants to practice sustainability and adapt to climate change
  • increased overall supply of rental housing, particularly affordable rental housing.  Low vacancy rates and the fear of eviction inhibit adaptation in the rental sector
  • increased assets for tenants to enable investments of time and money in a secure ‘home’ through short-term lease of installations such as solar panels or water tanks
  • changes to tenancy conditions and better communication with landlords to enable, rather than inhibit, adaptive modifications by tenants such as gardens and water tank
  • government action on regulatory change to support the above changes;
  • government consideration of the Housing Supply Bonds proposal recently released by AHURI (Lawson et al. 2012), and different more sustainable housing models
  • government review of rental building sustainability standards
  • such changes need to be implemented with care and consultation with representatives of landlord, tenant and property manager groups.  Investment in rental property sits alongside other potential investment strategies for landlords.  When regulatory impositions appear too onerous landlords may choose to sell rental properties, and these may be lost to the sector.  The loss of rental properties would inhibit adaptation in the rental sector.