Calls mount for residential rent assistance

April 8, 2020
A large section of the population has been left to fend for themselves in the coronavirus crisis.

As jobs and livelihoods disappear during the COVID-19 pandemic, renters have been left to fend for themselves.

The proportion of Australian households living in rental accommodation is rising. In 2017–18, 32% of households were renting.

The federal government has legislated to stop evictions and is helping subsidise commercial renters, but it has not helped residential renters, saying it is a state issue.

Along with others, the NSW Tenants' Union has been pushing the state government to pass a law supporting a temporary eviction moratorium. This is both a health and social justice measure: it will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by ensuring people do not have to resort to unsafe accommodation, such as crowding in with friends, living in their cars or sleeping rough on the streets.

The NSW Tenants Union said the moratorium should stay until the Gladys Berejeklian government puts in place “a plan to ensure the whole community can recover and not leave some burdened with debt”.

The prospect of being left with a huge rent debt after the virus has been brought under control, and real estate agents sucking up bond or taking them to court, are major concerns for any renter who has lost their hours at work.

University of New South Wales City Futures Research Centre researcher Chris Martin said about 2.5 million households rent privately.

Of these, just over half are in the bottom 40% of households by income. About one-third are low-income households in rental stress even before the COVID-19 crisis began: they pay more than 30% of their income in rent.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions estimates that up to 2 million people have or are likely to lose their jobs (or take a cut in hours) because they are employed casually and mostly in industries that have been closed: hospitality, retail, tourism and education.

A significant proportion of these people will not be able to pay their full rent, or will agree to building up a rent debt — especially in cities where rents are already very inflated.

The NSW government has been hinting it will look after residential tenancies, but has yet to say anything.

Threatening letters

Meanwhile, real estate agents have been sending threatening emails to tenants, including those who have not requested rent reductions or waiver.

One such letter seen by Green Left reads in part: “It has come to my attention that there are people who think the current economic crisis is an opportunity to take advantage of vulnerable people...

“Let it be heard loud and clear, that if I become aware of anyone trying to take advantage of this situation and requesting rent reductions with the intent to deceive the owner or any other persons, I will be reporting you to the police for fraud, extortion and any other law you may be breaking.

“This is an extremely serious issue and an extremely stressful time in many peoples lives.

“Do not think that just because someone owns a property they can afford to give you a hand out.

“This is not the way to treat your community through a time of crisis, we all need to be pulling together...”

This may have been a form letter, and some real estates have since sent quasi apologies, along with unhelpful suggestions that the tenant negotiate directly with the landlord and suggestions about dipping into their superannuation or reserves.

Many renters do not have savings to draw upon.

Martin’s research, published in The Conversation on April 8, found landlords are in a much better position than tenants to offer relief in the COVID-19 driven downturn.

A recent analysis of renter and landlord household finances “shows the latter group are much better placed to take a financial hit from this pandemic,” Martin said.

State and territory governments could “sort this mess out”, he continued, by legislating to “reduce rents to some fraction of current rents or to zero — a complete suspension of rent liabilities for the declared duration of the pandemic”.

Given the drop in household incomes, it makes sense to also reduce household outflows.

Anglicare Australia has joined the push for the states and territory governments to act. Director Kasy Chambers said on April 7 that since the crisis was declared some public housing tenants have been evicted.

States and territories must provide “fair and clear assurances”, Chambers said. “Mounting debt for residential renters would be a recipe for disaster,” she added.

So far, only Tasmania has committed to stopping all evictions during the pandemic. Anglicare wants every other government to follow its lead.

Protections needed

NSW Greens MLA Jenny Leong told Green Left “renters need protection from dodgy landlords”.

She criticised the NSW government for its delay, saying it “has the power to act to put a moratorium on evictions now”.

“At the time the [NSW government] said it was waiting for a national cabinet decision — which has now also been made. So what's holding them back? Why aren't they acting?”

She said if guidelines need to be put in place for commercial tenants to support them in negotiations with their landlords, “surely as a minimum the same needs to be done for residential tenants in NSW”.

The NSW Tenants' Union's Jemima Mowbray said on April 7 that the NSW government must ensure its eviction moratorium guidelines do not allow dodgy landlords to use the opportunity to evict people for reasons other than rental arrears.

The organisation has heard from people who had already received an eviction notice and have to face a move with their family in the middle of a health crisis. How do people find and secure a new place during a lockdown and with all the restrictions in place?

Mowbray’s blog on the NSW Tenants' Union website recounts some distressing news from people who have been in touch.

When Amrita lost all her casual shifts and her husband could no longer drive an Uber they asked their landlord to reduce their rent. They also mentioned some repairs the house needed, given the recent heavy rain. The landlord immediately sent then a “no grounds” notice of termination.

Aida said she received her “no grounds” termination notice via registered post, just three days after the prime minister’s announcement on the moratorium. “My partner and I are still able to pay rent ... but my landlord told me he wants his son to move in which I dearly understand.

“But in the context of pandemic, we must all just stop and shelter in place ... This situation is broader than the individual — we must stop where we are. We can’t afford to move, either financially or for the health risk it poses.”

[Get in touch with the NSW Tenants' Union or similar organisations in your state for help with rent inquiries.]

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