Landlords Banning Renters From Cooking With Spices Isn’t Just Illegal, It’s Racist

A NSW landlord recently told their tenants they couldn't season their food - except with salt and pepper.

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In a rural town south of Dubbo, an older couple hates seasoning. Not just in their own food, but in their properties — so much so that this landlord duo loom over their tenants’ kitchens like a culinary ghoul.

“I added a clause in our lease that they are forbidden to cook with any spices that leave smells,” they wrote in a private Facebook group for like-minded individuals. “Me and hubby drive past at random during dinner time for a smell check just to make sure they are complying”.

During these illegal drop-ins, they even claimed to go as far as to personally inspect pantries, rummaging for contraband cayenne, some cheeky turmeric, or god forbid, paprika.

“Additional clauses are allowed so long as they don’t contradict standard residential tenancy agreements”, CEO of Tenants’ Union NSW, Leo Patterson Ross, told Junkee. However, banning spices contradicts the tenants’ rights to reasonable peace, comfort, and privacy in their own homes. He said it also is “potentially a bit dicey around Anti-Discrimination Law”.

Unfortunately, the pair, who have since deactivated their account after copping backlash, aren’t alone.

While it’s easy to brush scenarios like this off as a concern for property maintenance, the range of available cuisines left when spices are banned tend to be as white as they are bland. Cultural intolerance tied to meals has long been established, from lunchbox shame in the playground, to adults being dictated what they can cook in the kitchen they’re paying to use.

Food is political — as divisive as it can be inclusive — and associations of non-Western smells as ‘stench’ has grim undertones. “When those odours that repel us are associated with race, the disgust we instinctively sense undermines our attempts to overcome racial prejudices,” the ABC said.

Loaded Complaints

A 2017 report by consumer group Choice found that half of all renters in the private market had experienced some form of discrimination in searching for a property, with six percent claiming race played a role. But prejudice once a tenant has moved in is far less examined, and tenancy microaggressions aren’t just limited to landlords.

When 35-year-old Anjali moved into a Sydney apartment a few years ago, it was her first time living alone. However, every time she cooked Indian food, her neighbour directly above would continually knock on her door to complain about the smell.

“I’d finished work really late one night, I’d come back and was heating up food I’d already cooked, and [the neighbour] came down with two of her friends,” Anjali recalls.

They told her how bad the smell was in her apartment, and the gang-up rattled her so badly that she stopped making Indian dishes for the next six months. She tried giving her neighbour the benefit of the doubt, but said that because the confrontations happened even when she wasn’t cooking, Anjali knew deep down there was racism masked in the complaints.

When she read about the spices versus landlords debacle online all those years later, she couldn’t help but feel transported back to her old unit.

“That sort of stuff shouldn’t be happening anymore,” she said. “It feels really weird to me that people are still making these rules about not having spices in your pantry, it’s just absurd.”

In The Thick Of It

To find out just how much smells actually linger in a room, we chatted with indoor air quality specialist Omar Ayad. He said that porous materials, paints, and fabrics can absorb particles from food, and when the temperature drops, seals in some odours — but it all comes down to how well a room is ventilated.

“I know some range hoods that are put in kitchens are very cheap, and maybe the suction of it is not well, so the odour will obviously go into the indoor environment,” he explained.

Ayad deals with extreme situations, but said for everyday cooking, long-term odour damage is less of an issue but can still present some challenges from a cleaning perspective.

“This doesn’t mean the tenant has done anything wrong, this is just part of the business costs of being a landlord,” said Patterson Ross. “But that doesn’t mean you can try and restrict people’s cooking when they’re living in a place”.

When push comes to shove, sustained smells are more of a reflection on lazy construction, and the potential clean up is just part of the package when you own property.

What Are Your Options?

Landlords can’t swing by their rented property without notice in NSW unless it’s a justifiable emergency, and dinner checks don’t count, Patterson Ross explained. Plus, they’re only allowed four inspections in total a year.

They are allowed to check cupboards that came with the property, like in-built pantries, but only to look for damage — not to rifle through the spice rack.

If Anjali could give advice for someone in her shoes, she would say: “just do what you have to do and ignore people like that”.

“It seems really petty and absurd to me.”

“We live in a multicultural society now where things shouldn’t happen where people attack someone based on what they’re cooking, it seems really petty and absurd to me,” she said.

If a tenant feels they’ve been targeted by casual racism by a landlord or agent, you can make a complaint to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board or the Australian Human Rights Commission, said Patterson Ross.

As for the landlords who sparked this conversation, they can stick to their meat and three veg — with a dash of salt and pepper if they’re feeling a little bit adventurous.

Millie Roberts is the Social Justice Reporter at Junkee. She tweets at @milianne_r.