Finance Property The ‘ludicrous’ lack of rights for Australian renters

The ‘ludicrous’ lack of rights for Australian renters

rental agreement
"It's a national problem," says one advocate. Photo: Getty
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Advocates are demanding that better protections for renters, currently under consideration in Victoria, be rolled out nationwide.

After almost two years of submissions, the Victorian government has released an options paper that summarises the best, evidence-based reforms raised so far – some of which would push Victoria well ahead of other states.

Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, who led calls for reform at the last election, told The New Daily it is “ludicrous” there is a national standard for plastic chairs, but none for renting.

lee rhiannon
Senator Lee Rhiannon says a “shocking” number of renters are afraid to raise issues with their landlords. Photo: AAP

“Houses and apartments are homes for people. That should always trump laws that benefit those that want to use housing as an investment to realise capital gains or reduce taxes.”

A survey conducted by the Greens in 2016 found that a “shocking” 58 per cent of renters across Australia tolerate faults or maintenance problems because they fear eviction if they complain.

“A national standard should be implemented to prohibit ‘no grounds’ evictions. If that lowers returns for landlords, so be it. Their properties should exist to house people, not just profit,” Senator Rhiannon said.

Tenancy laws vary by state and territory, but there is widespread agreement that change is needed, especially on the ‘no grounds eviction’ referred to by the Senator.

Across the nation, landlords can terminate leases without cause, and tenants are poorly protected against rent hikes, unsafe conditions and poor management, according to a report by charity group St Vincent de Paul.

Dr John Falzon, CEO of St Vincent de Paul, is calling for a national review of the rental market to ensure it is maximising affordability and appropriately protecting renters.

“The insecurity of housing experienced by many Australians is exacerbated by tenancy laws across the states and territories that do not consistently safeguard renters’ rights,” Dr Falzon told The New Daily.

The issue is critical because demographic changes and rising prices are swelling the ranks of ‘Generation Rent’. The last time Australia’s statistics bureau examined the issue, in 2014, the proportion of renters was 31 per cent, up from 28 per cent in the late 1990s.

Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers said the “long queue” for affordable housing, coupled with the fact that landlords in all states and territories can terminate leases early without cause, makes renters “afraid” to challenge rent hikes and ask for repairs or modifications.

“We find that people in rental situations are very much the poor cousin in that relationship,” Ms Chambers told The New Daily. “It’s a really important area long ignored by policy makers.”

The Anglicare spokesperson called for rental reform to be discussed at the national level at COAG, and for landlord tax perks (negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions) to be conditional on fair rent and security of tenure. “It is a national problem, and it is costing us nationally,” she said.

sydney houses
More and more Australians are choosing (or forced by high prices) to rent. Photo: Getty

In Victoria, the state government is asking stakeholders to respond to a range of suggested reforms, most of which focussed on lengthening leases and improving security. New South Wales is also planning to rewrite its tenancy laws in 2017.

Some of the Victorian proposals include removing ‘no fault’ eviction, and allowing tenants more scope to keep pets and make modifications to their rented homes. There are also concerns about the ability of landlords to discriminate against vulnerable groups, such as the disabled.

Easing the rules regarding pets is sure to be popular. The Victorian options paper suggests encouraging pet ownership with a ‘pet bond’ to cover potential damage, as well as making any and all ‘no pets’ clauses unenforceable if they are unreasonable.

Other reform options include: restricting when and how a landlord can access a rental property to take photos and show it to potential buyers; certainty around what is reasonable compensation for breaking a lease; and regulation of rental bidding (offering more than the advertised price).

Clarifying key terms such as “reasonable cleanliness” was suggested. Victorians could also get a new external dispute resolution scheme to settle disagreements over repairs.

Not all the potential reforms under discussion would be in the tenant’s favour. One option is to require tenants to get their landlord’s consent before sub-letting a room on online platforms such as Airbnb.

Victorians can provide feedback on the options paper until February 10, 2017.

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