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Select Committee - Private Rental Market

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Tags: Housing Crisis, Tenant Rights

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank my colleague, Ms Johnston, for bringing on this motion. We will be supporting this inquiry because we do not think action to enable more people to have a home, let alone an affordable one, and a parliamentary inquiry that examines why rents are soaring and what we can do about it, are mutually exclusive. It should be possible for parliament to do both.

I was reminded, when the Attorney-General was talking about striking the right balance, of the notorious Cabinet minute we had in this place back in late 2020 where it was revealed that the Government, in response to the Gregory Parsons case which came before the Supreme Court, had a secret plan to remove the need for evictions from rental properties to be genuine or just. This is a government that not more than two years ago was prepared to weaken tenancy protections, and we had a minister in this place prepared to mislead the House, even though a Cabinet minute made it really clear that that was the plan.

Ms Johnston laid out the rationale for moving for this inquiry, but every member in this place has had constituents contact their office in stress or in tears because their rent increases are unjustifiable and financially unsustainable.

I listened with great interest to the numbers put forward by the Attorney-General - 36 applications from tenants to the Residential Tenancy Commissioner seeking an examination of their rent increase. Just 36 people.

Why is it that so few tenants are approaching the Residential Tenancy Commissioner to seek some justice or relief? Fundamentally, it is because they are afraid of losing their tenancy. If they go to the commissioner, having been notified of a rent increase, and whichever way the commissioner finds, their landlord will know they have done that. Because you can evict people in this state simply because their lease has expired, that makes tenants fearful.

The balance is not right. The balance is weighted towards landlords and against tenants. We have tried in this place a number of times to get parliament to take the issue of soaring, unjustifiable rent increases seriously. I am convinced we have a housing and homelessness crisis as a result of Government policy and inaction.

Last year, we brought forward the Residential Tenancy (Rent Control) Amendment Bill 2021. It was not some novel idea. It sought to put in place a similar system here to what they have in the Australian Capital Territory, which is that landlords have to make the case for a rent increase that goes up more than the consumer price index plus 10 per cent. It is a fair system. It has placed some downward pressure on rents in the Australian Capital Territory. It works. Yet, in this place, both the Liberal and Labor parties voted against our legislation and then proceeded to do absolutely nothing to rein in rents.

We know that rents right now in Tasmania, whether it is in a capital city, a major centre or a regional centre, are soaring and are crushing tenants. Rents are crushing individuals and families in the private rental market. I remember Dr Broad laying out some information late last year about people who are leaving the island. We have net migration now. Some of that will be because Tasmanians cannot afford to rent on their own island. Tasmanians are being priced out of their own paradise. The Government is actively working against reining in rents. The Government is actively supressing wages while inflation inexorably creeps up.

We want to see reform in this area. I remind the Attorney-General of an example that was written in the Mercury newspaper in March last year by Ben Bartl from the Tenants' Union where we retells the story that was in the Mercury of a 63-year-old woman who had lived in her West Hobart home for 15 years and received a 70 per cent rent increase notice. The Residential Tenancy Commissioner found it was a reasonable increase in rent. Remember that the Residential Tenancy Commissioner will look at market rents. What is the rest of the market doing? The rest of the market is overheating and rents are increasing. When a landlord goes to a tenant and says you are going to pay an extra $100 a week on your rent a month from now, because that pressure is happening across that region, the Residential Tenancy Commissioner in all likelihood will say, look at what the market is doing and that rent increase is reasonable.

The Residential Tenancy Commissioner has stated to tenants:

The Act does not require or enable me to regulate the market simply to assess rents in line with what the market is currently achieving.

It is an ineffective system. It does not encourage tenants to come forward because tenants are so fearful of losing their tenancy.

We tried with our Residential Tenancy (Rent Control) Amendment Bill 2021 to get this parliament to take seriously the need to place some downward pressure on rents. We tried it in the previous parliament with a notice of motion in support of a fairer rent-setting system and more rights for tenants. Again, voted down. Liberal, Labor parties and your predecessor in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, the current Glenorchy alderman, Sue Hickey.

We have tried. We have also tried to get this Government to take seriously the need to rein in short stay accommodation. Information provided to us by the Tenants' Union states that in June 2022 a major report was released titled 'Monitoring the Impact of Short Term Rentals on Tasmanian Housing Markets'. The report found 47 per cent of short term rental properties also had a rental history from the long term rental market and that the density of Air BNB in greater Hobart is, 'almost seven times greater than Sydney and about four-and-a-half times greater than Melbourne'. The report states -

In greater Hobart with a private rental market of about 19 500 dwellings, to move from a vacancy rate of two per cent where rent rises are manageable to one per cent, where rent rises are likely to be double digit, would only need the withdrawal of 195 properties from the private rental market.

So that is 0.2 per cent of the total dwellings in greater Hobart. In other words there is a very strong correlation between the more than 480 whole properties now listed with Hobart City Council as short stay visitor accommodation and significant rental increases.

Last year in July, the deputy mayor of Launceston City Council told the Sunday Examiner:

We are calling on the state Government to help us out in this space. There is not enough regulation. There is simply not enough control and we find ourselves in these situations time and time again.

The Bicheno Community Development Association president, Tony McLeod, said -

We see every other week a house gets sold where a family used to live and straight away an investor has bought it and it goes onto the short term market.

Every time that happens, a Tasmanian family misses out on a home. The Government refuses to take on private enterprise - absolutely refuses - and then pretends through changes to land tax that their gift to the property class will somehow bring downward pressure on rents, which as we know is demonstrably bollocks. The state Government announced in February 2022 that it was taking:

Further action to ease the cost of living for Tasmania families and put downward pressure on rents.

They did this by reducing land tax for 70 000 Tasmanians who saved, on average, $800 each year up to a maximum of $1625.

As far as the Tenants' Union is aware, no tenant has contacted the Tenants' Union to say that the cut to land tax led to lower rents, because it has not and it will not. That was a lie. It is one thing to come into this place with legislation and mislead about its intent and effect but it is quite another to give false hope to the tenants of Tasmania who are struggling with rents that they simply cannot afford.

In closing, because I am sure Labor's Ms Haddad wants to speak on this, and I hope Labor gives its support, we now have a bill on the table, the Residential Tenancy (Rental Market Reform) Amendment Bill 2021. It sets an ACT modelled system of fairer rents. It establishes energy efficiency standards for rental properties, with replacement of white goods and the like. It ends no cause evictions which cause such stress and trauma, and do contribute towards housing insecurity and homelessness. It allows for pets. It creates a system where the landlord will have to give cause for not allowing a pet into a home.

I know that the Attorney General has a very weighty legislative responsibility; I get that, but it is not acceptable - Ms Johnston laid out the data. We know the scale of the rent increases. We know how scared tenants are. The minister's data on the Residential Tenancy Commissioner of just 36 people coming to get some relief from their rents should tell her that we know that the system is under enormous stress. We know that it is possible to make these reforms without further delay. You do not need to extensively consult on simply making life fairer and less stressful for tenants.

I might just note in passing, after I was on ABC Radio the other morning talking about our proposed Residential Tenancy Act reforms, I got a most peculiar - I can only describe it as a rant - from Mr Mark Berry at the Real Estate Institute of Tasmania, who accused us of being childish and uninformed because we are simply trying to reset the balance a bit in favour of tenants. I do not think that the Real Estate Institute of Tasmania, through that sort of action, is effectively representing landlords. I know people who are landlords, and overwhelmingly they are fair-minded people. I think most landlords would rather have a happy tenant who has their pet there, who is paying their rent on time and looking after the place. I encourage Mr Berry to get a grip and spend less time talking to the propertied class and more time out in the community, talking to everyday Tasmanians, not just low-income earners, as Ms Johnston said, low to modest income earners who are stressed in this private rental market. They know the system is stacked against them. It does the Real Estate Institute of Tasmania no credit at all to so overtly want to move against the interests of tenants, knowing that some of them are the most marginalised and vulnerable Tasmanians.

I do encourage members to support this inquiry. It is one step we can take to start dealing with the rental affordability crisis.