Politics

Renters Are Being Screwed Over During Coronavirus – So What Are Your Rights?

"It’s shameful that renters are treated as a bank account ... rather than being treated in a social sense as a human being who needs a place to live throughout a health crisis."

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This week Australia saw how quickly a health crisis can turn into an economic crisis.

Thousands of people have lost their jobs — and therefore their ability to pay rent — putting many at risk of homelessness in the midst of a highly contagious pandemic.

Scott Morrison has been meeting with all state and territory leaders in the National Cabinet, and they’re expected to announce new protections for renters today.

Two states have already moved to protect tenants from being evicted due to coronavirus, but people are calling for nationwide action to guarantee that no Australian will face homelessness due to the pandemic.

In the meantime, the anxiety and uncertainty has given an extra layer of stress to vulnerable people, many of whom have a fraught relationship with their landlords at the best of times.

What Laws Have Already Been Passed?

If you’re in Tasmania, good news — the government has already passed emergency legislation to prevent renters from being evicted for the next three months.

NSW has also taken the first steps by passing the COVID-19 Emergency Measures Bill, which includes amendments from the Greens regarding renters’ rights.

These amendments gives the relevant government minister the power to bring in new housing legislation without having to run it by parliament first.

That means that right now they have the power to enforce a moratorium on rent if they so choose — a power they haven’t used yet.

Greens MP Jenny Leong, who wrote the amendments, said the extraordinary power means they can act fast, rather than having to debate any changes in Parliament (which isn’t scheduled to sit again until September).

“New South Wales, in terms of the number of renters we have, in terms of the existing housing crisis before we were even dealing with this health crisis, should be acting quicker,” Ms Leong said.

“I appreciate these are complex things but the Premier could be saying loud and clear, or minister responsible for resident and commercial properties, could be saying we do not want to see anyone evicted.

“If they put that message out people would be so much more reassured and respect that it will take longer for the actual provisions.”

No other changes have been made in any other states, so right now unless you’re able to come to an agreement with your landlord, the normal penalties for not paying rent apply despite the extraordinary circumstances.

What Are Renters Saying?

Yesterday Junkee spoke to Sydney renter Dan Hogan, a casual primary school teacher (and Junkee contributor) who is facing the prospect of a long period of unemployment.

This week they also received an email from their rental agency outlining what steps they will take against tenants who don’t pay rent.

While Dan initially felt rage at receiving the “clinical” email from their rental agency, that’s since turned to hope — not from the hope that their landlord will be more understanding, but that the government will introduce some measures to give renters peace of mind.

“It was quite clinical, the way they outlined what happens after you miss your first rent payment,” they said.

“Before this I was already trying to get things repaired and they kept knocking it back and delaying it. Then this came along.”

Dan’s not the only one who’s had to deal with an inflexible rental agency in such an uncertain time — this week, ‘landlords’  temporarily trended on Twitter as people shared their negative experiences.

“The rage and anxiety in the community is palpable. I’m hopeful that it’s enough to tell the people in power to do the right thing,” Dan said.

“It’s a disgrace, and it’s shameful that renters are treated as a bank account, a source of income for those that already have immense privilege, rather than being treated in a social sense as a human being who needs a place to live throughout a health crisis and economic crisis.”

Dan is currently living with their partner who is still able to work. Even though her pay packet won’t be enough for them both to live on, they’re worried her income will make Dan ineligible for Centrelink.

“Until the end of the school term I was completely booked out, and then it all got cancelled,” they said.

“I’ve got one more pay cheque coming in after today, which will be for work I’ve done in the last two weeks, after that I’ve got no bookings, no work, and then it’s school holidays.”

They hope to see the government introduce a ban on evictions, freeze mortgage repayments, and legislate a mandate for landlords to pass that relief onto their tenant.

“Now that the rage has subsided I feel more hopeful than before, just because that precursor legislation has gone through,” they said, referring to NSW’s emergency bill.

“I’m holding out with a bit of optimism and hope they’re going to do what is best for everyone in this situation, and not rely on the goodwill of landlords.

“Renters don’t owe landlords a living. We are not their employer. Nobody forced them to be a landlord. Landlords are now learning the hard way that capitalism only works in theory — something the poor and working class have known since forever.”

Has Anything Been Promised To Landlords?

So far the big four banks have announced their customers will be able to pause mortgage payments — each bank has slightly different rules around this, which you can find out about here.

However, the banks will also capitalise all interest, which means the interest you don’t pay during that deferral period is added to your outstanding loan balance.

That does mean that when you do have to start repaying your mortgage again, landlords will have more to pay off.

Additional protections for renters — and new measures for landlords — will hopefully be announced today by the national cabinet.