High Rise Apartments and Public Health

Decent, affordable housing is a basic building block of healthy communities and is a major health equity issue (Commission on Social Determinants of Health, 2008). For example, living in poorer-quality housing has been associated with poorer mental health and higher rates of infectious diseases, respiratory problems, and injuries (Howden-Chapman, 2002; Krieger & Higgins, 2002).

Unfortunately, in recent years concerns have been raised about the quality and liveability of high rise apartment buildings in the City of Melbourne (the inner-city local government area).

For example, in February 2019, a fire burned at least five stories of a building on Spencer St Melbourne (Cunningham & Fox Kobb, 2019). In 2015 there was another major fire in the Lacrosse apartment tower on LaTrobe St Melbourne. Both of these fires were exacerbated by flammable building cladding, similar to that which caused the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017, where 72 people tragically died. A federal government Senate enquiry has found that other buildings have similar flammable cladding in Melbourne’s CBD (also see Clay, 2017)

There have also been concerns about the small size, poor lighting and ventilation, and construction quality of many inner-city apartments. This has led to apartment design guidelines being released by the Victorian state government in December 2016 (see https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/policy-and-strategy/planning-reform/better-apartments)

Compounding the problem of poor-quality apartment design and construction, there has been evidence of overcrowding and poor living conditions for overseas students and workers in inner-city apartments (see extracts below).


Extract from Vedelago and Houston (2015):

“Extraordinary images obtained by The Sunday Age reveal that up to a dozen overseas students and suspected illegal workers had been crammed into two-bedroom apartments in the Lacrosse tower on Latrobe Street.

Photographs taken after the fire show residents were also sleeping on mattresses on open-air balconies, while some living rooms had been partitioned with curtains to accommodate more people.

The Sunday Age understands that Asian students and workers are being enticed by greedy operators who advertise beds for rent on accommodation sites including AirBnB, Gumtree, and Chinese-language websites.

The admission from city authorities that overcrowding is “almost impossible to police” has prompted Melbourne City Council and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade to call for new enforcement powers from the state government.”


Extract from Dow (2015):

“Melbourne City Council’s emergency management coordinator, Christine Drummond, said that in some units at the La Trobe Street tower, beds were being used by different people throughout the night and day.

 “It was almost like a shift or roster for who slept in the beds at what time,” Ms Drummond told a fire seminar this week…..It is now suspected that up to three times as many people were living in the Lacrosse building than it was designed for when the fire stuck in November last year.

Two-bedroom apartments had up to 15 people living in them, with lounge rooms divided up by shower curtains, the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council seminar was told.

An MFB investigation found the Docklands fire started because of a discarded cigarette on an eighth-floor balcony and was fuelled by both “non-compliant” combustible cladding on the facade and personal items stored on the balconies due to overcrowding. The fire quickly spread from balcony to balcony, scorching 20 storeys of the 23-level building.

Although it is understood Melbourne City Council staff are trying to work with the building’s managers to fix the problem, city authorities concede they have no way of knowing how many illegal boarding houses are hiding in Melbourne’s high-rises.

Ms Drummond said building inspectors could only go into towers if they had received intelligence suggesting there was an issue.”


Extract from Cunningham and Fox Koob (2019):

“Firefighters found up to 10 beds crammed inside some two-bedroom apartments after a fire tore through a notorious tower in Melbourne’s CBD….

…Investigators believe the fire’s likely cause was a discarded cigarette that ignited combustible materials stored on the balcony.

The council confirmed on Tuesday it was also investigating issues of overcrowding in the apartment building after an inspection discovered that some apartments had more beds than deemed appropriate….

…Residents told The Age on Monday that balconies were often crowded with possessions and the problem was hard to police.

‘It’s private property, you can’t just go into private property,’ one resident said.

‘The council can check for overcrowding but they have to give a warning … We know we have had beds in the stairwell [in the past].’”


This assessment involves you assuming the role of an Environmental Health Officer working for the Department of Health. 

You will conduct an environmental health risk assessment involving the quantification of hazards associated with poor living conditions. You will provide the findings of the assessment, their recommendations for intervention, and an appropriate communication plan to alert stakeholders about their findings.

Specifically, you should cover the following:

  1. Issue identificationIdentify at least 2 likely health hazards associated with poor living conditions (e.g., infection risk, exposure to noise, air pollution, extreme temperatures, fire risk, etc.). Describe how the hazards arise, by primarily citing academic literature. (Reputable newspaper/media articles may be used in support of your argument.)

  2. Hazard and exposure assessment: Assess the likely health impacts of the identified hazards, citing academic literature and official statistical resources (Australian Bureau of Statistics, World Health Organization, etc.) as appropriate. Discuss the mechanisms through which those hazards impact health, and whether particular sub-populations are particularly exposed to the hazards (e.g., low socio-economic groups, youth, older adults, migrants, etc.).

  3. Risk characterisation: Make an overall assessment of the level of health risk from environmental hazards, considering the likelihoodand severity of health impacts at the population level. (For ideas, see p. 28 and pp. 33-35 of the ‘Environmental Health Standing Committee 2012’ reference listed below).

  4. Risk management planOutline recommendations for intervention by the Department of Health and/or other stakeholders (e.g., state government, building inspectors, property developers, apartment residents, landlords), and how your findings and recommendations will be communicated to the public and/or stakeholders.

You should give their report a title that reflects its content, and include an introduction that briefly describes the issue of poor living conditions in certain dwellings, and outlines the main findings. Finish with a conclusion or summary. You are encouraged to include images, figures and tables, where these will support the explanation and analysis.


(1) In your report, you are welcome to cite literature from other countries/cities about inadequate housing, but remember to relate this information to Australia, as this is the focus of this assessment task.

(2) Use the marking rubric to help shape your assessment.

1. I have had some queries from your peers about whether places outside of Melbourne can be the focus of the assessment task.

2. I have also had some queries if buildings other than poorly constructed inner-city apartments can be the topic of discussion.

The answer to both: 100% YES

Feel free to discuss issues associated with cities/regions/towns and buildings outside of the Melbourne/inner-city apartments if you so wish.

The key underpinnings of discussion for Assessment Task 3 are (1) Health; (2) Australia-based; and (3) Poor living conditions.

Useful resources

These references are where you might want to start your reading:

Clay, C. (2016, August 29). High-rise apartments are bad to live in and bad for society, says respected architect. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/highrise-apartments-are-bad-to-live-in-and-bad-for-society-says-respected-architect-20160828-gr39nf.html

Clay, C. (2017, September 7). ‘Someone will be burnt to death’: Senate demands ban on flammable cladding. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/someone-will-be-burnt-to-death-senate-demands-ban-on-flammable-cladding-20170906-gyc7oi.html

Cunningham, M., & Fox Koob, S. (2019, February 5). Ten beds found crammed inside some apartments in fire-ravaged tower. The Age. Retrieved from https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/residents-of-spencer-street-tower-that-caught-fire-will-be-locked-out-for-days-20190205-p50vtf.html

Dow, A. (2015, May 21). Slum squeeze: overseas students taking turns to sleep in overcrowded Melbourne high rises. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/slum-squeeze-overseas-students-taking-turns-to-sleep-in-overcrowded-melbourne-high-rises-20150519-gh5hzs.html

Environmental Health Standing Committee. (2012). Risky business – a resource to help local governments manage environmental health risks. Canberra, ACT: Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.

Krieger, J., & Higgins, D. L. (2002). Housing and health: time again for public health action. American Journal of Public Health92(5), 758-768.

Rauh, V. A., Landrigan, P. J., & Luz, C. (2008). Housing and health. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1136, 276-288.

Vedelago, C. & Houston, C. (2015). No stop to slums in the sky, The Age, 3 May, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/no-stop-to-slums-in-the-sky-20150502-1myf98.html.

Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. (2016). Better Apartment Design Standards. Retrieved from  https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/policy-and-strategy/better-apartments

Western Australian Department of Health. (2006). Health risk assessment in Western Australia. Perth, WA: Department of Health.

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