Imagine having to change your name just to get a rental, or your family being kicked out of a rental house because of your cooking.
This is the reality of rental accommodation for many minority groups in WA, according to equal opportunity advocates who have warned racial discrimination in the private rental market is having a serious impact on the lives of an alarming number of families.
The issue was thrust into the spotlight in 2009 when an Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) report found substantial evidence of discrimination against ethnic minorities and Indigenous people.
Equal Opportunity Commissioner John Byrne said while there had been improvements in the nine years since then, the problem remained widespread.
Dr Byrne said many people with Indigenous or foreign-sounding names found they repeatedly had rental applications rejected, often despite having a steady income, excellent rental records and good references.
He said much of this was the result of unconscious bias or prejudices landlords may not even realise they hold.
“In Australia we say ‘a fair go for everyone’, but many are not getting that fair go,” he said.
“The majority of Australians are not racist, a minority are. But I think even the majority have some unconscious biases they are not acknowledging or recognising, and that basically shows through with how they deal with an application.
“There is clear evidence people are discriminated against on the basis of their names, often barely getting past the first hurdle of having their application looked at.”
Vicious cycle of discrimination
Dr Byrne said this discrimination had led to calls for rental applications to be anonymous, and it was not uncommon for people to use an anglicised name in applications.
He said this often merely delayed the discrimination until a face-to-face meeting could take place or official documents were requested.
Dr Byrne said those from minority groups who did secure private rentals were commonly only offered short-term leases.
“If there are children involved, the impact of having only a number of short-term leases and having to move from one area to another affects their schooling and their socialisation,” he said.
According to the state’s peak body for renters, Tenancy WA, even those ethnic minorities and Indigenous people who could secure longer-term leases remained highly vulnerable.
“We’ve had tenants who paid well above market rent in order to keep a house,” principal solicitor Kate Davis said.
“We’ve had tenants live with really poor maintenance and major problems, including some that have faced safety issues and suffered health consequences with mould and other problems.
“And they’ve just tolerated those things because they’re concerned that if they upset their landlord they might not get other housing.”
‘Too dark’ tenant told he would intimidate potential buyers
Ms Davis said lawyers and advocates at Tenancy WA’s helpline regularly took calls from renters with problems stemming from racism.
This month she said they dealt with the case of an engineer of South Sudanese descent whose landlord had decided to sell the flat he was renting.
The man asked to be present during home opens because there would be strangers visiting his home and he was concerned about his valuables being stolen.
But she said the real estate agent told him he would have to leave during the inspections because he was “too dark” and potential buyers would be intimidated.
Another call came after a family was issued with a breach of their rental agreement following an inspection because the landlord said their cooking made the kitchen smell “Asian”.
A third caller had his landlord refuse to let him break his lease early because the tenants he had found to replace him were Muslim.
Dr Byrne said stories like these were common, but they were just the tip of the iceberg.
He said when discrimination was reported, it was often almost impossible to prove.
“The issue with formalising a complaint is the onus of proof is on the person who has lodged the complaint,” he said.
“Even where the owner deliberately excludes a person of a particular race the estate agent is not going to give that reason to the applicant. They will not want to leave an evidence trail, because with an evidence trail a case of discrimination can be proven.”
He said while progress has been made in recent years, he was concerned equal opportunity legislation could merely ensure discrimination was covered up, rather than prevented.
Dr Byrne urged victims of discrimination to do more in the way of gathering evidence to support their claims.
He said it was common for someone with a foreign-sounding name to feel a landlord has lied and told them the rental they applied for is no longer available.
In such a situation, he suggests having a friend call back later that day and ask about the same rental using a common English name.
“If the owner says ‘Yes, come and have a look,’ and then offers it to them, then bingo, you’ve got a case,” he said.
“I think there was a more natural tendency then to make assumptions about certain people and certain groups of people, particularly around residential tenancies,” he said.
“In markets where there was high demand for properties, property managers and/or landlords could be tempted to choose one tenant over another based on a prejudice.”
Mr Groves said those issues today mainly persisted within the 35 per cent of rentals in WA not managed by a professional agent.
“Professional REIWA agents are very much aware of their obligations, and therefore are acutely aware of [the impact of discrimination],” he said.
“In my experience, [they] will be absolutely certain that, if they’ve got two competing tenancy applications in front of them, that they choose the best one based solely on the merit of the references that the tenant provides, written and verbal, from their previous rental history, and from the instructions from the landlord.
“Where they’re from, what sex they are, that is all really completely irrelevant in the mind of trained REIWA professional.”
“They’re very much focused on just making sure that they get the very best tenant.”
He said it was disappointing when professional agents, himself included, encountered landlords who asked them to discriminate.
“We have to make it very clear we are not able to follow their instructions if it is unlawful or unethical to do so,” Mr Groves said.
“Generally speaking, from my experience, if a landlord does state that then often a REIWA member agent just won’t take the business and won’t actually act on behalf of the client if they’re insistent on those instructions.”
If you feel you are a victim of rental discrimination, contact:
Equal Opportunity Commission: 08 9216 3900
Tenancy WA: 08 9221 0088 (Metro) 1800 621 888 (Country)
If you are dealing with or are at risk of homelessness, contact:
Entrypoint Perth – (08) 6496 0001 or 1800 124 684
Homeless Advisory Service – 1800 065 892
Crisis Care – (08) 9223 1111 or 1800 199 008 (Freecall STD)
Lifeline – 13 11 14 | Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800