“We’re all in this together” is the new refrain from governments as they target financial assistance to landlords. Trouble is, the rhetoric doesn't match reality and renters’ rights are being trampled.
The unequal relationship between those who can bargain and those who cannot remains as true today during the COVID-19 pandemic as it did before.
About one-third of Australian households are renters, a significant number of people. While the federal and now some state governments have legislated to stop evictions, that is only for a period (in New South Wales, for 60 days) it appears that the new laws are weighted towards landlords.
To be protected by the 60-day stop on evictions, your household needs to be able to demonstrate that one, or more, of you have lost employment or income due to the coronavirus shutdowns and, as a result, your household income is reduced by 25% or more, assessed on income after tax and inclusive of any government assistance such as JobKeeper.
The NSW Tenant’s Union reports that tenants are being contacted by their landlord or real estate agents to suggest that they apply for early release of their superannuation. They have also been asked “to provide documentation of their reduced income before their request for a rent reduction or early release from their lease is considered”.
This may be in breach of the Corporations Act, but it shows that landlords and real estate agents feel they have the law on their side. They certainly have the upper hand in the bargaining process.
The NSW Tenant’s Union is also urging people to not agree to offers to defer rent, because this will mean that renters are agreeing to pay rent back later.
Some real estate agents are “negotiating” with tenants to pay half their rent for the next month, with the understanding that that rent will be repaid when “things get back to normal”.
Renters have told the NSW Tenant’s Union that the landlord or real estate agents are demanding lots of personal and detailed financial information. Their advice to renters is this: “There is no legal obligation to provide these details, however, refusing outright may lead to failed negotiations”.
In other words, the playing field is hardly equal.
It makes the NSW government’s announcement on April 13 that it was helping tenants even more laughable.
Treasurer Dominic Perrottet said its $440 million relief package was aimed at renters and landlords. But the money goes in the form of relief to landlords and half of this amount will go to commercial rentals, such as shops, gyms, hairdressers and businesses, which are already receiving help from the federal government.
Perrottet explained the government would be giving rent relief “in the form of land tax waivers or rebates” — with the expectation that residential landlords (and businesses) pass this on.
Residential landlords are eligible for a land tax waiver, or rebate of up to 25%, if they pass the saving on to tenants in financial distress. What sort of regulations there are to make this happen, if any, is not clear.
The NSW government has announced a two-month moratorium on forced evictions for those suffering financial hardship due to the coronavirus shutdown. But, after that, landlords and real estate agents can evict residential renters who they believe are taking advantage of the situation.
It is an expectation, too, that rent arrears will have to be paid, eventually. This is hardly fair given that one quarter of Australians have less than $1000 in cash savings in the bank and half have less than $10,000.
The NSW Tenant’s Union is calling on the NSW government to expand the time frame in which evictions are prevented and to provide “a comprehensive moratorium and rent relief package” that has no loopholes.