Australia Must Cancel Rent Debt To Save 1 Million Renters Facing ‘COVID Evictions’

That's a lot of people at risk, and the best way to help them is to cancel their rent debt.


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Remember the beginning of the pandemic when a lot of renters suddenly became scared they’d lose their homes? Yeah, well, that problem never really went away.

Advocacy group Better Renting’s new research shows that as many as 973,000 renters could be soon be kicked out of their homes because of rent debt or because they couldn’t get their landlord to agree to a decrease.

Director Joel Dignam said between 5 percent and 15 percent of renters are at risk, which is between 324,000 to 973,000 people.

He said to save these renters from financial ruin or homelessness when eviction moratoriums start expiring in December, state and territory governments should cancel all rent debt.

Queensland is the only state that doesn’t have a moratorium in place currently.

So, once renters are allowed to be evicted for the non-payment of rent again, we might start to see thousands of renters kicked out onto the streets.

“The state governments should buy the debt from landlords and write it off,” he said. “It will be a big weight off the shoulders off these people and it will let them stay in their homes.

“This is a big idea but we’ve seen in 2020 is governments doing things that are not on the table at all. There is a lot of value in acting in a way to look after people in our society.”

Mr Dignam said it would help renters like Lilly, who’d been unable to get her landlord to give her a decrease, and struggled with her rent debt.

She lost her job as soon as the pandemic began and developed back pain from a tumour soon after.

“I was offered a $10 per week decrease which I would have to pay back. I was offered that and I tried to keep up with that as much as I could, I even took my super out,” she said. “I developed severe back pain. I couldn’t even get water for myself, my partner was looking out for me. I was on endone, one step down from morphine.

“I told my landlord about that. That impacted my ability to look for a job or move, even.”

Lilly even had a property manager call her asking for rent when she was in her hospital bed waiting to undergo surgery. Which seems like just a little bit of an overreach.

“I told them I was in a hospital bed waiting for surgery and they still pushed me to pay rent.”

After leaving the Sydney studio apartment she lost her bond and was forced to pay $1600. Lilly said it’s set her life back.

“It was a stress then going through the tribunal while going through tests and trying to get back on track,” she said. “I’m still very much behind. Having to pay for the rent, I had to take a hit with my car which was on finance.

“The whole experience has brought me to breaking point. I was really upset and distraught.”

If that’s what a landlord and agent will do over $1600, imagine what they’d do if tenants couldn’t pay rent for the duration of the pandemic.

Mr Dignam said the intention of cancelling rent debt would be to prevent others from going through what Lilly did.

Having to pay a debt and moving costs could prove too onerous for renters to manage, especially when so many lost their jobs during the pandemic. It also doesn’t help that renters also were more likely to be in lower paid positions and insecure work before this pandemic thing even kicked off.

Housing academic Chris Martin said he agreed rent debts should be cancelled, not just because it was inequitable and could lead to homelessness, but also because it was an economic drag.

“The proposal that rent liabilities should be cancelled or settled in that way is a sound proposal,” he said. “People lost incomes and those hours of work aren’t coming back. If they’re households like so many others who are renting, they have less resources than landlord households, the idea they should bear that loss and landlords shouldn’t is inequitable.

“Even if they’re not having their tenancies terminated, it also affects their participation in an economic recovery, it will also reduce the recovery. It’s just money flowing through to landlords.”