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In-Depth: Unfair evictions

Renting in the private market has traditionally been considered a transitional stage in life, one moved through relatively quickly on the way to home ownership.  It’s a different story nowadays.

The vision of the young couple saving up for their first home is no longer the reality for a large portion of the population.  The number of renters in Australia has increased over the years, and so too has the diversity of those within the rental market.

While the many groups that rent in Australia all face different challenges, they share one thing in common: Their comfort and security is put at risk when evicting tenants is quick and easy.

MODERN AUSTRALIAN RENTERS

According to the 2016 Census, families rent almost 40% of households in Australia.  More of the country’s elderly are also renting: The number of renters aged 55-64 increased by 130% between 1996 and 2011 alone.  Data indicates that these groups also rent for longer, valuing the ties they’ve built within their local communities in addition to proximity to jobs, schools, medical care and other amenities.

Many people living with low or unstable incomes also rent.  76% of these tenants are in housing stress (i.e. paying in excess of 30% of their income on rent).  Those receiving Government benefits fall into this category: A single person on the Newstart allowance receiving maximum rent assistance has less than the median rent in Victoria to live on – just $38 per day to spend on housing, food, transportation, etc.  These renters are often considered ‘unsuitable tenants’ by landlords and struggle to find housing as a result, putting them at significant risk of homelessness.

Another group at significant risk of homelessness are those suffering from a mental illness.  Not only is a safe and secure living environment critical help these tenants avoid homelessness, it also provides stability for their ongoing health and wellbeing: A study by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) found that “stable housing improved health and wellbeing, increased independence, enhanced social relationships and led to better mental health” for those affected by a mental illness.

The ‘modern Australian renter’ has also become more culturally and linguistically diverse: Only 67% of the Australian population was born in Australia.  45.5% of Victorians identified one or both of their parents as having been born overseas.  There are also over 24,000 Victorian renters who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI).  People from CALD and ATSI backgrounds already face certain risks within the rental market and elsewhere due to discrimination.  Access to secure housing is an important safety net for these tenants.

UNFAIR EVICTIONS PUT VULNERABLE TENANTS AT RISK

In 2015, the Victorian Government launched its ‘Fairer Safer Housing’ review of the State’s tenancy law.  One could assume from this that the Government intended to improve protections for renters – to make things fairer and safer.  However, some of the proposed options would do the opposite.

Whilst the Government has proposed removing ‘no reason’ notices to vacate, it has also put forward a number of options that would greatly weaken tenant protections from eviction in other areas.  Removing no reason notices should only be done if it will genuinely improve security of tenure for renters.  Not only would these changes make evicting people quicker and easier, they would undo any potential benefit that abolishing ‘no reason’ evictions would create.

The Make Renting Fair campaign is calling on the Victorian Government to reject a number of proposed changes that would make evicting people quicker and easier, including:

Eviction for one or more breaches of duty.
Proposed changes to the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) would allow tenants to be evicted after a single minor breach of duty or a combination of any three separate minor breaches.  Current legislation by way of the ‘three strikes’ rule already provides sufficient protections to landlords if a tenant breaches their duty, giving the tenant a fair opportunity to remedy breaches and landlords sufficient powers to evict where absolutely necessary.  Allowing tenants to be evicted for one or more unrelated minor breaches of duty opens the door to more evictions for unfair or petty reasons.  This would result in less opportunities to fix problems, and less recourse against unfair claims by landlords.  These proposed changes are unnecessary, disproportionate and give more power to landlords when tenants are already in the weaker position.

More powers to evict for rent arrears.
Under current legislation, tenants cannot be punished if the rent owing is paid in full within 14 days of the due date.  Proposed changes would allow tenants who are late paying rent by less than 14 days to be evicted if they do so more than once.  That means that if a tenant is occasionally just one day late paying their rent, their landlord would have the power to evict them even if they had already repaid the rent that they owed within the current timeframe.  This proposed change would put longer-term tenancies in jeopardy, as minor discrepancies in rental payments are more likely to occur the longer a tenancy lasts.  Moreover, it would directly disadvantage those with low or unstable incomes as well as those who have a temporary reduction of income due to illness or other factors.  After all – who hasn’t experienced a banking error, memory lapse, or cash flow issue resulting in the slight late payment of a bill or invoice?

Increased access to immediate notices to vacate.
It has been proposed that landlords be given the power to evict tenants for past conduct even if the situation has already been resolved.  The RTA already provides clear and swift pathways for landlords where there has been a severe breach of duty on the tenants’ part.  The proposed changes exists solely to punish rather than resolve, and it is those most vulnerable who will suffer the consequences if these changes are brought into effect.  Homelessness is ultimately the end result of serving immediate notices to vacate since there is not enough time to arrange alternative housing.  It is unfair and inhumane to force tenants into homelessness for past incidents when they have already paid for their mistakes.

Introduce a new reason for eviction for ‘anti-social behaviour’.
A new reason for eviction has been proposed that would allow a landlord to evict their tenants for ‘anti-social’ behaviour.  This type of eviction would directly target the most vulnerable populations.  There are a number of concerns with this proposal:

  • The definition is too broad and has the potential to include any behaviour that is ‘reasonably likely to cause a person to be alarmed’.  This proposed definition would give landlords and neighbours an unfair advantage over tenants.  As the Council for Homeless Persons (CHP) mentioned in a recent article, by this definition tenants could be evicted for petty reasons such as ‘being in the backyard at night’ or having a loud argument inside their own home.
  • There are already adequate pathways to deal with situations where tenants are displaying problematic behaviour that effects the quiet enjoyment or safety of people around them.  Tenants are obligated to not cause a nuisance, interference or disruption to their neighbours.  These provisions provide tenants with the opportunity to remedy any issues that arise and avoid eviction in the first instance.
  • The proposed change would greatly disadvantage tenants with mental illness or disability, creating instability for these already vulnerable groups instead of allowing for support or treatment tenants would be swiftly made homeless.  This won’t fix the problem, but will only exacerbate it and shift it elsewhere.
  • The housing and homelessness system is already at breaking point.  If this proposed change is accepted, it will only put further pressure and drain on these limited resources.


Restrictions on stays by guests.
Another proposed change would provide grounds for eviction if a tenant has a guest stay in their home if the guest contributes to the household in some way.  Whist this is an attempt to stop tenants from using online platforms such as Airbnb, the proposed provisions are so broad that they could capture almost any guest.  This would have a large impact on many tenants, particularly Aboriginal tenants and those from CALD backgrounds who often have cultural reasons to have family or friends to stay in their homes.  In several cultures, it is common for elder members of the family to help their children who have recently given birth adjust for the first few months of parenthood.  These traditions are an integral part of these tenants’ lives and should be considered part of the tenants’ exclusive enjoyment of the premises.  This proposed change would not address any potential loss by the landlord because there is none – it is simply unfair and overly restrictive to tenants’ freedom and quiet enjoyment of their home.

A move in this direction ignores the needs of 1.5 million Victorians who rely on the rental market for their safety and stability, their wellbeing, and their home.

The basic human right to a secure home must be safeguarded for all of the Victoria’s residents, whether they pay a lender or a landlord to live there.  Acknowledging the diversity of the modern Australian rental market and ensuring that the Victoria’s tenancy laws move towards greater consumer protection and security for renters would be a great stride toward creating a positive and more socially-conscious state.

 

MAKE AN IMPACT.  Help us call on the Victorian Government to improve security of tenure by signing the petition and emailing your local MP in support of the Make Renting Fair campaign.

 

References:

  1. 2016 Census, Australian Bureau of Statistics, July 2017
  2. Heading for Home: Residential Tenancies Act Review Options Discussion Paper, Consumer Affairs Victoria, January 2017
  3. Unsettled: Life in Australia’s private rental market, Choice, National Shelter and NATO, February 2017
  4. Long term rental in a changing Australian private sector, AHURI, July 2013
  5. Stable housing for people living with a mental illness, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), Issue 16, February 2003
  6. Five proposed changes to rental laws that will lead to more homelessness, Council to Homeless Persons (CHP), http://chp.org.au/five-proposed-changes-to-rental-laws-that-will-lead-to-more-homelessness/#.WYKTNVUjGUk