Renting reforms welcome, but don’t go far enough

October 13, 2017

Changes to Victoria’s rental laws have been described by campaign group Make Renting Fair as “a significant step in the right direction”. However, spokesperson Mark O’Brien said more changes are needed because the state still “lacks adequate safeguards against eviction”.

More than 50 community services, local governments and others have been working for nearly a year, under the Make Renting Fair banner, to push the government to change the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA).

Following an extensive review, the changes will be introduced into parliament in 2018. The changes include: a ban on people offering higher-than-advertised weekly rents; establishing the right for tenants to have pets; the abolition of “no specified reason” notices to vacate; bonds to be capped at a month’s rent; removing a landlord’s right to end a tenancy in fixed-term and periodic agreements; and landlords restricted to only being able to increase rents every 12 months instead of every 6 months.

“The Residential Tenancies Act is 20 years old … It was made for a time when renting was only temporary, not a long-term or life-long proposition,” said O’Brien. “This first round of reforms to the RTA is long overdue and very welcome,” he said, adding that there is more work to do before the government can claim that “renting is fair” in Victoria.

“Renters need greater safety, stability and privacy and, even after these reforms, Victoria will still lack minimum property standards and adequate safeguards against eviction for people experiencing family violence and/or at risk of homelessness.”

A report on Australian’s rental market, released earlier this year by the National Association of Tenant Organisations, National Shelter and Choice, found that one in seven renters fear rent hikes, eviction or being blacklisted by real estate agents for something as simple as asking for repairs.

The report found 83% of renters either have a no-fixed-term lease or a lease of less than 12 months. It also found that 62% feel they are not in a position to ask for longer leases. Half say they have faced discrimination from landlords, with an equal percentage saying they are anxious about being blacklisted.

Jeanee told Green Left Weekly that over 25 years of renting she had seen tenants’ rights deteriorate to “just a little better than squatting”.

“We have had agents refuse to undertake repairs and threaten eviction after we have requested the repairs”, she said. “Landlords and their agents have lied to us, refused to do repairs, entered our property illegally to question us, used notices to vacate as retaliation for asserting our rights, falsely advertised properties, bullied us over a few cobwebs, left us with cleaning to do after we moved in and generally treated us with contempt.”

The research shows renters experience a lack of housing security. The power imbalance between landlords and tenants is consistently exploited by the former through threats of eviction and outright intimidation towards tenants.

A welcome change to the laws will be a landlord and estate agent blacklist that will be made available to renters. False, misleading and deceptive claims by landlords will be outlawed.

However, how the changes will address the power imbalance between landlords and renters remains to be seen. Landlords will still have the power to evict tenants and, despite the enshrined right to be allowed pets in rental properties, landlords will still have the power to refuse.

A report released by Anglicare in April found less than 1% of rentals in Melbourne are affordable for people on Newstart or Austudy. The median rental for Melbourne is $400 a week according to the Department of Housing.

The Real Estate Institute of Victoria claimed the changes will result in higher rents and greater competition for renters, a claim the Grattan Institute has slammed as “economically illiterate”. It has also vowed to campaign against the proposed reforms.

Victoria is facing a housing crisis. More than 50,000 people are on the waiting list for public housing and about 20,000 people are homeless across the state.

The same government introducing changes to the RTA is also presiding over the sell-offs of 12 public housing estates in a euphemistically titled “public housing renewal project”.

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