Australians Are Renting More Than Ever; It’s Time We Had Some Better Rights

Our laws are still reflecting a time where renting was seen as a stepping stone to buying a house. That's clearly not the case for everyone.

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Ever waited a stupidly long time for repairs in a rental? Lost an unreasonable chunk of your bond for ‘not cleaning the oven well enough’? Experienced ridiculous rent increases, weird house rules, or dealt with landlords that have no boundaries?

I’m right there with you, friend. Like so many others in the renting trenches, I’ve dealt with so much landlord drama and house-searching horror that I could be one of the stars of Australia’s 157th real estate reality show: Low-Income Rent Disasters. From low-level drama like property agents completely ignoring repair requests, to landlords that just couldn’t let go of their homes, unannounced inspections, and checking out houses that wouldn’t be out of place in Trainspotting, it’s been a hell of a ride.    

My pals have copped it too. One friend had landlords that would often sit in their car outside her house, just watching. Another was kicked out within a few months of signing a lease because the landlord wanted to sell. Several have simply been priced out of their homes. It’s all too common. The longer you rent, the more problems you are likely to face — and that’s not your fault because you haven’t bought a bloody house yet.

According to the ABS, 26.9% of Australian households were renting in 1995-96, compared to 31% in 2013-14. The same report shows that an equal 31% of people owned properties outright, with the rest holding a mortgage or living in state housing. The number of Australians renting properties is steadily increasing, so why are there so few laws in place to ensure rights for renters? Whether renting is your choice or a necessity, why does signing a new lease often come with a fear of what’s to come?

A Good Old Power Imbalance

The rhetoric around renting in Australia still centres around the idea that you are simply renting on your way to buying a house. Having problems with your landlord? Save up that deposit! Rent gone up for the third time in two years? Stop eating so much avocado and purchase some property! Spending all your money on rent? Get a better job and make that money work for you, duh! Rather than addressing the issues that are rife when it comes to renting, many commentators and ‘experts’ still often turn to an out-dated, unattainable, and often unwanted solution.

There are a different (albeit similar) set of laws around tenancy in each state, and a union or organisation that represents the interests of tenants in each. I recently spoke with Yaelle Caspi from the Tenant’s Union of Victoria, and she outlined the common difficulties in the landlord-tenant relationship across the board. 

“The rules in place in Australia protect the landlord’s interests, their investment and their freedom to access that property when they want to; rather than focusing on the rights of the tenant,” says Caspi. The union constantly sees five key complaints from tenants: repairs that aren’t being completed, issues with bond, dealing with notices to vacate, breaking leases, and privacy.

In Victoria, landlords or agents can inspect a property with just 24 hours notice. In every state, a ‘notice to vacate’ can be served with no reason given to the tenant — a law that a number of advocacy bodies are fighting to change. In the ACT, NT and Tasmania, the landlord can give just 14 days notice if they want a tenant to move out. In NSW, there is no limit when it comes to rent increases on a periodic lease, and in Victoria rent can be increased twice a year.

Fear of Repercussions

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve felt nervous about my wording in an email or phone call, held back from following up a landlord or agent, or been anxious about asking for much-needed repairs. Quite frankly, I’m a little nervous just writing this article. Will my landlord see it? What if they take another four months to respond to our repair requests? Can they just fix our bloody toilet? If they do, will they put our rent up?

Caspi confirms that this is common — and any tenant pushing for change isn’t necessarily covered from potential consequences. “It’s one of the fundamental aspects that really undermines tenants’ rights,” she says. It seems that the power imbalance is at its greatest when tenants need something: repairs, boundaries, a renewed lease, a good rental reference. She says that debates around the need for repairs are the most prevalent.

Though all landlords are required to ‘maintain the premises in reasonable repair’guidelines in each state encourage the tenant to pay for any urgent repairs themselves if they don’t hear back from the landlord. So, if your water tank bursts but your landlord is out for a long lunch, you can sort it out yourself — as long as it costs under $1,000 — and then go through a bunch of paperwork to claim reimbursement. Fun!

Of course, each of these small problems are rooted in broader cultural perceptions. Renting used to be seen as a transitional phase: either a pathway to owning property, or an in-between before being placed in public housing. This kind of thing was usually a temporary inconvenience; not a fact of life (this was also back when you could pick up a two-bedroom home for a cool $90,000). The problem is our rules still reflect that time, with long-term leases rarely on the table, regular reviews looming for most tenants, invasive inspections and rules, and an overall constant reminder: this isn’t your home.

“Internationally, things are a lot different,” says Caspi. “A lot of other countries recognise the importance of the home as the first and foremost aspect, and their laws reflect that.” In many European countries like France and Germany, long leases are the norm, rent is often fixed for the duration of the lease, and if the landlord wants to sell the property the tenants come with it.

So What Can Be Done?

Victoria is in the midst of its first full review of tenancy laws in 20 years, and the Tenants Union are fighting for “security of tenure, property conditions, getting repairs done, and privacy”. NSW has just finished up a review that will be tabled in Parliament early this year, but it isn’t yet clear which — if any — recommendations will be actioned.

So, while the right for stronger laws for tenants is squabbled over, what can those of us currently renting do about it? Basically, look after yourself (and don’t be afraid to share your story!)

Some tips:

  • Read your rental agreement. Look I know, it’s long and filled with jargon and you just want to sign the damn page. But, like your Dad says, don’t sign anything without reading it first.
  • Keep track of everything. If you request a repair or make a complaint, no matter how many times you follow up, keep those emails.
  • Know who is on your side: talk to your local tenant union or get in touch with Consumer Affairs in your state if everything has turned to garbage. There’s a good chance your union are interested in (anonymously) sharing your story to lobby for change.
  • If you’re thinking about making a complaint about a landlord or agent — do it. It’s confidential, and that info is often included when tenancy laws are reviewed.
  • If all else fails, move to Europe.

Feature image via Nick Sarebi/Creative Commons.

Chloe Papas is a journalist and writer based in Victoria. You can find her on Twitter @chloepapas.