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Residential Tenancy Amendment Bill 2018

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Tags: Housing, Tenant Rights, Tenants Union

Ms O'CONNOR (Denison - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on behalf of the Greens to indicate that we too will be supporting this legislation, and recognise it makes a number of significant, but minor, amendments to the principal act in order to better align the act with the Homes Act 1935, which is some of the most robust but antique legislation we administer in this place. To the agency and departmental officers who provided a briefing on this legislation in the last sitting, thank you very much.

I raise with the minister a number of questions about the Residential Tenancy Act, rather than the amending legislation we are dealing with, because there is unfinished business in this legislation.

If you engage with the Tenants' Union of Tasmania they will tell you the Residential Tenancy Act, as it is now, inadequately protects the rights of tenants. Around the country, there are standardised lease forms for tenants but Tasmania and the Northern Territory are the only two jurisdictions that continue to allow ad hoc and varied lease arrangements between landlords and tenants. That is something we should repair in the legislation so that any prospective tenant can expect to see to see the same basic lease form, no matter what home they are applying for. There should be a standardised lease form, whether it is a social housing property or a property in the private rental market. It is unfortunate it has not been introduced into this set of amendments. I ask the minister, why not? Was it considered? This is an issue the Tenants' Union has been lobbying on for a significant period. Is it lobbying from the Real Estate Institute of Tasmania preventing what you would think was a necessary and straightforward improvement to the Residential Tenancy Act?

There is a growing level of concern that, under the act, the expiration of a lease is being used as justification to evict people. A landlord might decide he or she does not like the look, the smell or the sound of a tenant. They can wait until the lease expires and use it as an opportunity to evict that tenant, potentially evicting that person into homelessness, and hike up the rent for the next person who comes along. Can you address the question of fair leases, a standardised lease form, make sure the expiration of a lease is not being used as justification for evictions, potentially into homelessness, and that landlords are not unlawfully evicting people for a range of other reasons and using lease expiration as their excuse? We believe there should be a capacity for an indefinite lease to be negotiated between a landlord and a tenant, and there should be provision for that in the act.

We would like to point the minister to the experience of the ACT. In response to unjustifiable escalating rents, the ACT government introduced a new rental pricing policy that capped rent increases at consumer price index other than under a set of extenuating circumstances, or the landlord could argue they should be given special dispensation to charge a higher rent. What is happening here is that there is so much pressure on Housing Tasmania, social housing providers and the private rental market that it is creating a set of circumstances disadvantaging tenants. We are seeing rents skyrocket in some cases, where landlords or their agents managing the property are saying to their tenants, the rent is going up because we could get triple this amount of money on the short stay market, so we are going to bump your rent up. For those tenants, it creates extraordinary pressure. I spoke to someone in exactly this situation a couple of weeks ago who is on the Disability Support Pension, had a rent of $220 per week on a modest property and their rent was bumped up to $240 per week. For someone living on a Commonwealth payment, that $40 per fortnight coming out of their income means the difference between a nutritious meal or having the heater on in the depths of winter. We need to examine making a provision in the Residential Tenancy Act to stop landlords gouging and to make sure that any rent increase is in line with the raised cost of living and the Consumer Price Index. This policy is in place in the ACT thanks to the Greens minister there, Shane Rattenbury, and we should be examining it here.

In relation to the specific provisions of the legislation, I acknowledge this is aligning the Residential Tenancy Act with the Homes Act but it makes an important change to the Family Violence Act 2004 that enables a court, when making a family violence order, to terminate a residential tenancy agreement without requirement to create a new agreement on varied terms and conditions. There will be circumstances where a victim of domestic and family violence will want to get out of that house as quickly as possible and not be bound by a joint lease and be safe, away from the perpetrator, so that is an important and significant improvement on behalf of the victims of family violence.

I also note with interest the review of the definition of 'social housing' and 'social housing provider'. Does the minister have any insights on why, although the legislation is relatively specific about a social housing provider in its descriptors, it was necessary to put this in? Is it simply to mirror what is in the Homes Act? Are there any other groups outside this cohort that may be captured by subparagraph (c) in terms of the definition of a social housing provider? Is it possible that a for-profit housing provider could be captured within this definition? If that were the case, it would be a concern because on areas of public policy when you are dealing with marginalised and vulnerable people, having a for-profit motive rather than a for-people motive is not something governments should support with public funding.

I was interested in the provision made within the Residential Tenancy Act for the full rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme on 1 July next year and note for the record the continuing, substantial and worrying underfunding of specialist housing or housing that has universal design principles embedded in it under the NDIS. It is creating enormous uncertainty amongst participants in the NDIS and their families and carers about the lack of clarity on the capital funding that will be available to increase the supply of affordable housing for people living with a disability and are participants in the National Disability Insurance Scheme and indeed, those people who are not necessarily participants in the NDIS.

This legislation will enable a person who is a participant in the NDIS to enter a subleasing arrangement so that it is specific that the person, the tenant, is responsible and has domain over a particular area within a tenancy agreement. It might be their bedroom but the bill acknowledges that there are other shared spaces within specialist disability accommodation or more accessible accommodation. It provides for exclusive access, for example, to a person's bedroom but they are not held responsible for damage in the other areas.

In relation to the provision in the legislation that allows a tenant to pay off their bond in instalments and have those instalments effectively banked with a social housing provider, can the minister explain if it will be by way of regulation or are we simply taking it on trust that the money being paid in instalments and held by the social housing provider will be administered in a way that ensures there is no risk? I cannot find anything in the legislation that does not say, for example - and we are talking in purely hypothetical terms here - that a community housing provider could take the pot of its bond instalments to the casino to see if they can capitalise on that money. What is there in law, or will there be regulations, to ensure that the bond and security money that is paid in instalments are retained in a place that can give public confidence about that money? I say that casting no aspersions on any social housing provider in Tasmania. I have worked with many providers and am amazed every day by the incredible work they do.

Another area of reform that is required, and it would be the Residential Tenancy Act where this would need to go, is the provision for pets. This is an area of real concern within the wider community but especially amongst tenants. There have been harrowing stories of people who have had to make the choice between having a secure place to call home and keeping their best friend, their dog. In some of the bigger cities I have seen evidence with my own eyes of people who have made the choice rather than have to give away their beloved pet to become homeless in order to stay with their best friends. We are very strongly of the view that tenants' rights to have a companion animal is one of the most common joys of life.

Minister, I point you to peer-reviewed evidence to support the positive mental and physical health benefits of pet ownership. My understanding from the briefing material I have before me is that more than 62 per cent of Tasmanians have a dog or a cat, the highest rate of pet ownership in the country. This contributes positively to Tasmania's social wellbeing, yet the rights of pet owners under the Residential Tenancy Act are not protected. Prospective tenants are being refused homes because they have a companion animal and homelessness workers report people sleeping rough rather than part with their pet, while those who do make the hard choice place pressure on overburdened animal shelters.

We believe a further strengthening of the Residential Tenancy Act is required, particularly in the context of the chronic shortage of affordable social housing in Tasmania and the squeeze that is placing on the rights of tenants and the insecurity it is creating in the minds of tenants, because right now having a secure affordable place to call home for many people seems like a miracle. I urge the minister to update the House on what plans there might be to further strengthen the Residential Tenancy Act to reset the balance more in favour of tenants than landlords and the Real Institute of Tasmania.

To have an update on any further strengthening of the bill would be greatly appreciated, Mr Barnett. I hope you will take the opportunity to ask the Tenants' Union of Tasmania in for a briefing to talk about some of the particular circumstances tenants can face and how the act, as it currently stands, does too little to protect the rights of tenants. It is currently weighted too heavily in favour of landlords. We have an obligation in this place to make sure we are enacting legislation or improving legislation that is in the greater public good rather than a narrow monetary good.