A Fair Go for Tenants

 

The Greens’ plan will deliver a fair go for Tasmanian tenants through evidence-based reform that recognises having a secure, affordable place to call home is a human right.

Background

Access to secure, affordable housing is a fundamental human right.  In a healthy economy, no one should be left out in the cold.  In a global pandemic, even more so.

Yet in Tasmania, the severe undersupply of affordable housing and underinvestment in public housing over the past seven years has driven people into housing insecurity, homelessness and poverty.

The housing crisis shows no sign of abating.  For tenants, soaring rents and the threat of eviction are causing deep housing insecurity and driving more people towards poverty.

In Parliament in 2020, the Tasmanian Greens made sure the COVID-19 emergency legislation was amended to prevent rent increases and evictions during the pandemic emergency.

In March this year, we moved an amendment to the Residential Tenancy Act 1997 to institute rent control provisions like those in place in the Australian Capital Territory.  Labor and the Liberals voted down our legislation, abandoning tenants to a dog eat dog rental market.

We can do much better by Tasmanian tenants.  The Tasmanian Greens’ plan gives a fair go to tenants, strengthening their rights and bringing down their cost of living.

The Data Tells the Story

The weighted, median rent per week in Tasmania has increased from $266 to $357 – a 34% increase over 4 years.[1] Between March 2017 and March 2021, weekly rents for houses have increased by 42% in Launceston, 41% in Hobart and 29% in Burnie. Rental costs for units have increased be 43% Launceston, 32% in Hobart and 20% in Burnie over the same period.[2]

The average rental household in Greater Hobart pays 31% of its total income for a median rate dwelling. [3] 30% is the commonly used threshold for housing stress.[4] High and increasing rents, due to the supply shortage and failure to regulate short stay accommodation, are driving Tasmanians into poverty.

Rental listings per week have reduced by two-thirds in Hobart since 2012 and the proportion of homes on the market for more than 30 days has drastically reduced.[5] As of February 2021, vacancy rates in Hobart have reached a shocking 0.6%.[6]

All of this creates a climate where renters have few options, no bargaining power and are often too afraid of a lease not being renewed to exercise their legal rights.

Rent Controls

Tasmania’s Residential Tenancy Act 1997 currently allows for the challenging of rent increases on the grounds of unreasonableness, commonly known as a form of rent control.[7]

The current arrangements have significant limitations. The burden is on a tenant to establish that a rent increase is unreasonable, and the question of reasonableness applies to the rent increase only - not whether the resulting rent is unreasonable.[8]

The Australian Capital Territory’s rent control provisions, in contrast, set a threshold (CPI + CPI/10) over which the onus is on the landlord to establish the rent is reasonable. They also contain a range of factors that can be considered (see figure 3.4.1).

Figure 3.4.1: Comparison of Tasmanian and ACT Rent Control Provisions

Tasmanian Law [9]

ACT Law [10]

No formal benchmark for rent increases.

Rent increase limit benchmark of Housing CPI + 10% since last increase.

Onus on tenant to demonstrate a rent increase is unreasonable.

Onus on tenant to demonstrate a rent increase below CPI + 10% is unreasonable, onus on landlord to demonstrate a rent increase above CPI + 10% is not unreasonable.

Tenant may apply for a rejection of an unreasonable rent increase.

Tenant may apply for a rejection of an unreasonable rent increase, or for an order to reduce rent.

Rents are not frozen while assessment underway.

Rents are frozen while assessment underway.

The following are considered in assessing whether a rent increase is unreasonable:

·        rents for comparable premises; and

·        any other relevant matter.

The following are considered in assessing whether a rent increase is unreasonable:

·        current rent and past rent increases;

·        costs, services, goods and repairs provided by the owner;

·        works carried out by the tenant;

·        the general state of the property;

·        rental rates for comparable premises;

·        any other matter the Commissioner considers relevant.

The ACT model has operated in some form since 1997.

Between August 2009 and March 2021, rental prices for houses in Canberra have increased from $501 to $660 – a 32% increase over 11 and a half years. Rental prices from units have increased from $372 to $494 – a 33% increase over 11 and a half years.[11]

This is compared to a 42% increase in Launceston, and 41% increase in Hobart over four years. [12]

Evidence suggests the ACT’s rent controls have successfully contributed to a reduction in overall rent levels. Aside from broader market affordability issues, rent controls empower individuals to ensure their rents are reasonable.

Better Rent Controls

 

We will establish rent control laws modelled on provisions in the ACT’s Residential Tenancy Act 1997.

Tenant Security

No cause evictions

Under current laws, tenants can be evicted solely on the grounds that their lease has expired.[13] Not only does this fail to provide natural justice to tenants, it also provides landlords with cover to evict tenants for exercising their legal rights or to discriminate against tenants based on protected attributes under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998.

Removing the ability to evict tenants solely on the grounds of lease expiration would not prevent the non-renewal of the lease for legitimate reasons, including but not limited to, intent to sell the property or use it for another purpose, or for non-compliance with lease conditions.

End No-Cause Evictions

 

We will remove provisions allowing tenants to be evicted solely on grounds of lease expiration.

Standardised Tenancy Agreements

The Tenants Union of Tasmania has identified that current leases and application forms contain a range of provisions that are unlawful or unreasonable (Figure 3.4.2).

Figure 3.4.2: Issues with Lease Agreements and Application Conditions[14]

Unlawful Lease Agreements

Unlawful or Unreasonable Application Conditions

·        That the tenant is responsible for the repair or replacement of whitegoods that came with the property.

·        That the tenant accepts the property in its current condition.

·        That the tenant must allow access to the property to carry out a valuation or appraisal.

·        That the tenant not cause a disturbance or annoyance to anyone else.

·        That the tenant has the carpets cleaned by a professional cleaning company approved by the landlord.

·        That the tenant is responsible for all costs associated with lodging a debt with a debt collection agency including the debt collectors’ costs.

·        The requirement that prospective tenants provide a criminal history check; and/or a credit check.

·        The refusal of tenants who require Colony 47 financial assistance to pay the bond.

·        The refusal of any prospective tenant who has an outstanding debt.

·        The requirement that prospective tenants list their financial commitments.

·        The requirement that prospective tenants provide a minimum of four referees.

Despite being unlawful and unenforceable, tenants too often comply with these conditions because they aren’t informed of their rights, or they fear being evicted and not finding a home.

Other than the Northern Territory, Tasmania is currently the only Australian jurisdiction without a standard tenancy agreement.[15] Implementing standard forms and agreements will increase the likelihood of agreements being legally compliant and provide a valuable reference point for tenants.

Standard Forms and Tenancy Agreements

 

We will develop standard forms and tenancy agreements.

 

Right to own pets

Animal welfare organisations confirm people will feel forced to give up their much-loved pets in order to secure a tenancy.  Current laws allow for the automatic exclusion of pets in tenancy agreements.[16]

The only exemption to this is guide dogs,[17] which has forced tenants with other assistance animals to pursue their rights under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 in the courts.[18]

In 2017, Victoria passed laws to remove clauses that automatically exclude pets from leases.[19] These laws require a tenant to lodge a request for a pet with a landlord, who then must apply to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal for an order to refuse permission – this can only be done if the landlord has a good reason.[20]

Protecting Tenants Right to Own Pets

 

We make it unlawful to prohibit assistance animals in rental properties, and institute the Victorian model for refusing a request for pets, which requires a Tribunal order in circumstances where the landlord has a reasonable reason.

 

Funding for law changes

Reforms to tenancy laws will require additional resourcing for communication to the public and for compliance. Rent control changes will require communication, and likely result in additional applications to the Residential Tenancy Commissioner.

Resourcing Tenancy Changes

 

We will resource the Residential Tenancy Commission to deal with a higher volume of applications and provide further public information.

We will also fund the Tenants’ Union of Tasmania to establish a dedicated office Northern Tasmania, increase their base funding levels, and extend the duration of funding contracts.

 

 



[1] Tenants’ Union of Tasmania, Tasmanian Rents, 2021.

[2] SQM Research, Weekly Rents, 2021.

[3] SGS Economics and Planning Pty Ltd, Rental Affordability Index, 2020, p. 40.

[4] Ibid, p. 5.

[5] SQM Research, Weekly Rent Listings, 2021.

[6] SQM Research, Residential Vacancy Rates, 2021.

[7] Tasmanian Government, Residential Tenancy Act 1997, section 23.

[8] Magistrates Court of Tasmania, Muddyman v Nest Property, 2021.

[9] Tasmanian Government, Residential Tenancy Act 1997.

[10] Australian Capital Territory Government, Residential Tenancy Act 1997.

[11] SQM Research, Weekly Rents - Canberra, 2021.

[12] SQM Research, Weekly Rents, 2021.

[13] Tasmanian Government, Residential Tenancy Act 1997, Section 11.

[14] Tenants Union of Tasmania, Our 7 Asks for the 2018 Tasmanian State Election, 2018.

[15] Tenants Union of Tasmania, Our 7 Asks for the 2018 Tasmanian State Election, 2018.

[16] Tasmanian Government, Residential Tenancy Act 1997, Section 64B.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Tenants Union of Tasmania, Our 7 Asks for the 2018 Tasmanian State Election, 2018.

[19] Hair, J, Victorian tenants given right to have a pet under sweeping changes to rental laws, ABC News, 2017.

[20] Consumer Affairs Victoria, Pets in rental properties, n.d.