26 September 2018
(Bills - Second Reading Debate, Legislative Assembly, Parliament House)
More than 60 per cent of households in my electorate rent their accommodation, which is about 20 per cent more than a decade ago. More people are renting and for longer, coinciding with a massive escalation in property prices. For many, renting is the only affordable option, but its affordability is declining with rents now so high that only 1 per cent of Sydney rental homes are within the means of the lowest income households. More than one-quarter of renting householders in my electorate are in housing stress; that is, they are paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. Other renters may choose to rent for the flexibility it affords. Regardless, all renters should be treated with dignity and have strong protections.
I support the Residential Tenancies Amendment (Review) Bill, which largely introduces important new protections for people who are renting. However, there are some missed opportunities to involve some much needed reform and a few concerning changes. While many reforms represent great wins for tenants, the bill's failure to exclude no-grounds evictions undermines much of the progress. No matter how much tenants' rights are expanded, they can still be evicted for pursuing these rights under a system that permits eviction for no reason. There is always a reason a landlord wants to evict a tenant, such as to sell the property, a breach of agreement, failure to pay rent, or landlord hardship. Providing for no-grounds evictions gives landlords an option to evict someone on what would otherwise be unlawful grounds, including as retribution for seeking maintenance and repairs to make a home fit for habitation. Landlords will always have unchecked power over tenants if they can evict for no reason. It would be fairer to ban no-grounds evictions and to provide a comprehensive list of potential grounds for eviction, while also giving the tribunal power to approve other reasons.
It is disappointing that residents in share houses who have not signed a written lease will continue to be excluded from the protections of the Act. Share housing makes up around 13 per cent of dwellings in my electorate. It is an important housing option because it enables people to share costs and to live in areas or homes they could not afford on their own. It can be the only option for tenants who have no rental history. However, the Act provides no protection for people in share houses who are not covered by a lease and who do not have a written agreement with a lessee. They are not covered by the Boarding Houses Act either, which applies to properties with beds for five or more residents. They have no access to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal to resolve disputes and are vulnerable to eviction, loss of bond and belongings, and unfair rent situations. There is no oversight and disputes must be heard in the local courts where the cost, time and need for representation are a disincentive for getting bond and belongings back. The system is unfair and it benefits only unscrupulous head tenants. The bill should have extended tenancy protections to share houses.
Keeping a pet remains a challenge for renters despite high pet ownership in Australia and the vital role pets play in their owners' health and welfare. Blanket bans remain the norm and many tenants have to give up their pet when they rent a new home. The bill could have introduced incentives for landlords offering pet-friendly homes, such as a pet bond like that in Western Australia, as recommended by the Companion Animals Taskforce. I will support amendments to make rental homes more pet friendly that will be moved by The Greens.
The most important reforms in the bill are new protections to help victims of domestic violence to get out of a tenancy and to leave their perpetrator. Victims will be able to terminate their tenancy immediately. Landlords and real estate agents will be prohibited from blacklisting them as a result. For this to work, we will need new enforcement of agent registers, as I understand there is little oversight of these internal lists. The requirement to get written evidence from a general practitioner to prove experience of domestic violence if there are no orders, convictions or injunctions is unnecessarily restrictive. I agree with community concerns that social and welfare officers helping women to flee domestic violence are well placed and sometimes more appropriate to take on this role.
While rents have been increasing, this has not corresponded with better quality homes. Indeed, tenants continue to report substandard living conditions as the only option they can afford. I congratulate the Government on trying to raise the standard of homes for rent by requiring them to be "fit for habitation" with basic standards such as ventilation, light, power outlets, plumbing, drainage, hot and cold water and private bathroom facilities, and to be structurally sound. There are some omissions from the list provided in the bill, including cooking and laundry facilities, being free of infestation and, most importantly, being safe. However, the list is a good start and it provides tenants with options to get their homes improved through Fair Trading investigations and rectification orders. Fair Trading will need additional resources to conduct investigations so that they can be done quickly and thoroughly and without charge to tenants. The next tenancy review will need to look at any correlation between rectification orders and no-grounds evictions.
I share community concern that the bill extends provisions with regard to a tenant being evicted for owing money to their landlord even when they have repaid their debt or entered into a payment plan. Currently, a termination can be made when a tenant pays or attempts to pay their debt only for repeated non-payment of rent, but the bill will add repeated non-payment of other utilities, including water and electricity, making termination more likely. I understand the difficulties for landlords when a tenant is frequently in arrears, but the people most likely to be subject to such terminations are the most vulnerable renters, including social housing tenants. The tenants who will typically fall behind in their rent or utility payments from time to time are those on low wages, including pensions, or who experience an event like an illness that causes them to get behind. Such tenants will be at serious risk of homelessness if they are evicted.
Tenants will not be able to access early assistance to prevent homelessness, such as brokerage, because they will have already been evicted. This whole process benefits no-one. A landlord will lose rent and pay fees to readvertise a property if the tenant is evicted. Most debts will be small and manageable under a payment plan. The best outcome for the landlord is to get reimbursed for money owed, and the best outcome for the tenant is not to lose their tenancy. It would be better for everyone to let a tenant remain in their home if they repay or work to repay their debt. I do not support provisions that allow landlords and agents to access a property without a tenant's consent to take photos and recordings for sale or lease advertisements. Protections to stop tenants' belongings being published may not be enough, including for domestic violence victims, and time will tell if they will need to go to the tribunal to prevent publication.
I welcome the fairer and more transparent process for charging tenants for breaking their lease. However, simpler transition arrangements are needed so that all leases are covered by the new provisions. Excluding existing leases will create a complex tiered system with different leases subject to different break fees. This is unnecessary and all leases should move to the new system. I strongly welcome new requirements to provide tenants with a copy of by-laws before a lease is signed. It is essential that tenants see the by-laws they agree to obey in their lease before they sign it. The new situation will benefit tenants, landlords and owners corporations. Declining rental affordability is a serious problem and I welcome changes that will limit rent increases to one per year per tenancy. While this is an improvement, large increases each year are still possible and I have heard from tenants whose rents have nearly doubled in the space of one or two years.
I am concerned that the bill will allow the secretary to make a grant or loan from the Rental Bond Interest Account for any consumer protection purpose. Funding to tenants' advice services has not increased in real terms in years, while the number of tenants and the proportion of renters has grown. Tenants are often unaware of their rights or the options available to exercise them, while the great majority of landlords have access to real estate agent expertise. Taking action in the tribunal often requires advice from someone who knows the law, and I often refer constituents to tenants' advice services when their cases are complex.
The Act can only properly function if those it covers know how to exercise their rights, and this requires a strong tenancy advocacy sector. The rental bond interest account should be used solely for the purpose of tenant protection. Funding to tenants' advice services including the Tenants' Union of NSW and the Inner Sydney Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Service should be increased. While my contribution has largely focused on limitations in the bill, I believe that it is generally a good bill. If we can remove no-grounds evictions, cover share houses, let tenants paying their debts stay in their homes, and do more for pet ownership in rentals, we will have strong tenancy protections in New South Wales.