GREENS BILL: A Fair Go for Renters

Today Mark introduced a Greens' Bill to give people who rent in SA a fair go.  The Residential Tenancies (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill provides more protections and rights so that South Australians who rent will be able to live in a home that is safe, private and comfortable, without fear of being discriminated against if they request urgent repairs or being evicted for no reason.


RESIDENTIAL TENANCIES (MISCELLANEOUS) AMENDMENT BILL 2020

Having a roof over your head and a place to call home is one of the most basic of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…

I note the gender specific language. If we were writing that declaration today, we would not do it the same way, but the principle is sound. Housing that is secure and safe enables people to live with dignity.

According to our own Australian Human Rights Commission, the right to housing is more than simply a right to shelter. Whether the housing provides an adequate standard of living depends on a number of factors such as legal security of tenure; availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure; affordability; accessibility; habitability; location; and cultural adequacy.

For some of us, these basic needs for adequate housing are being met, but for many others this is not the case.

According to the 2009 task force report to the Minister for Human Services, titled 'Towards a housing, homelessness support strategy', housing affordability is a growing problem in South Australia. House prices have increased faster than incomes over the past 20 years, and South Australia has the third worst affordability ratio in Australia. The people most affected are lower income households who are priced out of the homeownership market and are increasingly turning to private rental markets to find a place to live. According to the task force report, in the last eight years, low income rental stress in South Australia has gone from 22 per cent to 39 per cent. We have gone from being a national leader in rental affordability to being around the national average.

According to the 2016 census, 28.5 per cent of South Australians rent and this figure is growing. Twenty-five years ago there was around one private rental for every social housing property; today, however, there are more than three private rentals for every social housing property. Private rental has grown nearly four times as fast as the population, reflecting higher population, higher house prices and less social housing.

In addition to the South Australian task force report there are a number of other reports that have looked at the experience of people who rent, both in the private rental sector and in social housing. What we know from these reports, and also from the lived experiences of South Australians who have told me their rental stories—in some cases their rental nightmares—is that there are a number of issues that need to be addressed. Addressing these commonly experienced issues would vastly improve the lives of people who rent in South Australia, and this is what the Greens plan to do, including in this bill.

Before outlining what this bill will achieve I would like to share some of the stories that South Australian renters have shared with me. The first is from Christine, who shared a long list of bad experiences and in one of the houses that she rented she recounted:

For the first 3 months, I had no oven for cooking as the ignition in the oven did not work. I called several times and wrote an email but did not receive any response. I had my first Xmas in that house with no oven and had to have all the oven cooked food cooked at my family's house.

Amongst other issues there was also a leaking roof, and Christine stated:

The roof was leaking in the back room for 3 years and the water was running down the roof and into the window frames and onto the floors. I had to put towels down and put garage mats on top of that to stop the water spreading all over the rumpus room felt outdoor carpets. On that same wall with the windows, there was a back door that was rickety and leaked water in fountains during the rain. The carpet became wet there too so the entire wall line is covered in garage mats and towels under it to stop the rain from going across floors. I told the Real Estate Agent but they never told the property owner and they eventually replaced the door after 4 years recently.

The roof became mouldy after the first year as the leaking roof made the ceiling mouldy in 3 places. This was also fixed after 3 years by the property owner recently. The owner did not know about the mould or the leaking roof.

Robert was another renter who tells us:

In one place I lived, the toilet needed replacing and the landlord took forever to act on this. We had to run down the street to the local pub just to use the bathroom!

In another place, mould spores were literally growing out of the ceiling. Again, the landlord refused to fix it. We didn't want to make a big deal out of it because we wanted our lease renewed.

In another place I lived, the airconditioner broke down. It was so poorly insulated that the house was like a sauna during summer. We had to keep pushing the real estate agent to fix it, it took 12 months before the problem was remedied. All the while, we were paying rent for a property that had been advertised as airconditioned.

Megan was another South Australian who gave us her story. She stated:

We have just this week moved from a rental we had been in for 3 years. They had asked us to sign on for another year but told us we had to pay our bond again. The landlord had not lodged our initial bond from 3 years earlier. We were given 7 days to come up with $2,500. I was told unless I paid the bond again I would have to vacate and also they would not fix any of the issues in the house. We had completely blocked plumbing in the bathroom sink, the oven did not work properly as the door wasn't attached correctly. A retaining wall had fallen out the back and the yard was sliding down the hill and the rear glass sliding door had completely broken and fell to the ground constantly. Even falling on one of my children at one stage. I was then given 28 days to leave.

I had to borrow money and move with my ex husband just to get a roof over our head. We are now awaiting the final outgoing inspection from the previous agent who we predict will be making it difficult when we hand the keys back. We have been informed that the previous landlord can be charged $7500 for not lodging our bond nor supplying us with a receipt. But I am now down thousands and getting more in debt because of moving costs and now extra bills.

Kai is another renter who has had to live with mould in their rental home. Kai states:

My partner and I lived in a unit with black mould growing through our bedroom wall for almost a year and a half. It became a serious issue during our second winter there, when it sprouted across the whole outer wall due to the landlord painting over wallpaper and the moisture getting trapped in between.

At the time the issue became severe, my partner and I were subtenants, and the main tenant was the only person in touch with the agent. The agent continuously told her to instruct us to 'crack the window open' and 'spray it with bleach', ignoring the fact that we had been cleaning the mould daily, running a dehumidifier, and avoiding using our heater to no avail.

Due to our low income we could not find a suitable place to move for many months, and eventually moved in temporarily with friends to get a reprieve from the health issues the mould was causing us. To this day I have a mould sensitivity and my partner's asthma was made worse by the experience.

We also lost practically all of our belongings, as our soft furnishings, wood furniture, plastics, and much of our clothing was growing mould and beyond saving. Between moving twice in a few months and replacing our belongings, I would estimate that this experience cost us at least $1,000 not to mention the cost to our health, wellbeing, and trust in the current private rental system.

Julianne also shared her horror rental stories, which went for many pages. Just one part read:

The property had an issue with water leaking in the shower. Fungus (the size of a dinner plate) grew from the wall—it was underneath the table so it wasn't seen initially. The baby suffered breathing issues and was put on asthmatic medication.

Julianne also recounted:

…the sliding door didn't shut for months on end. Real Estate Agent refused to fix it, therefore the property was not secure. One inspection they let the pet rabbit out—took 3 days to find it. The bathroom door locked itself and the agent refused to come and open it—even though the youngest was having febrile seizures and her medication was in the bathroom.

Rebecca is another renter who also experienced issues with appliances not working and not being able to physically secure the property. She told us the following about one house:

…the oven did not work, the heating didn't work, there was a massive gap in the kitchen bench where cockroaches came in through the wall, and the doors/screendoors didn't lock properly. The landlord took 9 months to fix the oven (by that time it was summer), and none of the other issues got sorted. In addition, since the property wasn't properly secured, I spent that year in ongoing fear of someone breaking into the house. Added up, it all spelt stressful—on top of working 3 jobs just to cover the rent!

One idea that might be helpful is that before tenants are signed up, a rental property should have some kind of standard list/guarantee of maintenance and safety features certified by an independent property assessor (not a rental property agent since there's an obvious conflict of interest). It could include all utilities in safe working order, all doors/windows locks functioning properly, smoke alarms tested, all gutters/drains cleared, instructions provided for fixtures (oven/stove/dishwasher etc), exhaust fans working, zero mould issues et cetera.

A requirement for minimum standards is a great idea, and it is one of the proposals in this bill. Rebecca also raised the issue of rental insecurity, saying:

I've rented for 7 years in 6 different houses, usually in share house situations. Despite landlords saying that they want long-term tenants, after a year they change their mind, or they suddenly 'have friends that need a place to stay' or they've decided to sell the house…and so the upheaval begins anew. It's exhausting. I/we have always paid the rent on time, maintained the property (including the gardens), forgone having pets, not had ridiculous neighbour-disturbing parties and passed all inspections—but why bother, if in 12 months I need to look for a new place?

She went on to say:

It would also be brilliant if there was the possibility of some long-term rental agreements/contracts. Even a 5-year rental terms would bring a sense of certainty, stability and connection to place. It is incredibly stressful and disruptive to have to move house every year or so, not to mention the time/energy it takes to work out a new bond/finding a new rental property in a very limited time/transferring or switching utilities/cleaning for the final inspection/moving costs & time/redirecting and updating post etc.

Finally, Sofia shared her brother's story with us. She said:

My brother who has autism and couldn't afford private rental so went into an apartment through community housing. This apartment did not have air conditioning and he did not cope well through the heat waves. So he went into a townhouse with air conditioning. He went to use the air conditioner for the first time to find that it was not working. I contacted the community house provider and was told it was not the landlords responsibility. I looked into his lease and he did in fact signed a lease with it stating that the landlord was not responsible for the maintenance of the air conditioner. I wasn't there at the signing and trusted his support worker would have been thorough. He is now in a townhouse with the idea that he would have an air conditioner and now can't afford to have it repaired himself with his disability pension. The unit of the air conditioner is also on the roof, which will need a scissor lift to access. I am incredibly annoyed as now my brother is stuck in this town house.

This shows how important it is for landlords to disclose all relevant information to prospective tenants before they sign the residential tenancy agreement.

I am pleased today to be introducing the Residential Tenancies (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill that will seek to address some of the key issues that I have outlined as explained to me by tenants and remedy these issues in the long run.

In particular, the bill will require landlords to disclose certain matters to a prospective tenant prior to entering into a residential tenancy agreement, such as whether there is any known asbestos in or on the premises or whether the premises are intended to be sold.

Where a landlord contravenes this new section by not disclosing that they intend to enter a contract to sell the home within two months of the tenancy agreement commencing, the bill provides that the tenant has the right to terminate the tenancy. Also, if the rental home has been rated under the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme, which has been a requirement for all new houses built since 2003, the landlord will be required to disclose the energy rating of the house.

The bill prohibits landlords and their agents from inducing someone to enter a residential rental agreement by misleading or deceptive conduct or omission of information. A real-life example of where this provision will be relevant is the situation where a tenant rented a property that had been used as a meth lab by a previous tenant and this was not disclosed to the tenant who became ill as a result of the chemical residue left in the walls of the property. Another example could be failure to disclose a persistent mould issue.

A different example, but a live one, is where a property is advertised as being in the catchment zone for a particular school but in fact is outside that zone. A similar offence is created for persons who engage in misleading or deceptive conduct in order to induce a landlord into entering a residential tenancy agreement. Both these offences under the bill carry a maximum penalty of $5,000.

The bill prevents rental bidding by requiring premises to be offered for rent at a fixed price and prohibits landlords or their agents from soliciting or inviting offers of a higher amount; however, the new provision does not prevent a prospective tenant from offering a higher amount.

A new section is created to ensure that rental homes meet minimum standards, including security, window coverings for privacy in certain rooms, a functioning toilet, hot and cold water connections, vermin-proof rubbish bins and cooking facilities. It enables the minister to prescribe additional items in the regulations.

To improve the confidence that renters have about how long they can remain in their rental home, the bill does a couple of things. It creates a new offence where a landlord who has recovered possession of the rental premises uses the premises for a purpose other than either the purpose stated in the notice of termination or another purpose that is allowed as a ground of termination under the Residential Tenancies Act within six months after recovering possession; however, the landlord is allowed to grant a fresh tenancy to a tenant whose periodic lease was terminated under this new section within that six-month period.

Where a tenant has been wrongfully terminated they can apply to the tribunal, which may then make orders, including reinstatement of the tenant's rights under the tenancy agreement, compensation or anything else the tribunal considers appropriate.

The bill also prevents no-fault evictions for people on periodic leases by repealing section 83. Section 83 enables a landlord to terminate the tenancy without specifying any ground of termination. The government will be pleased to know that the feedback I had from the Real Estate Institute of South Australia, the Landlords' Association and property managers when I met them last year was that they had no concerns with this proposal. Finally, the bill requires the commissioner to create a register of landlords, rooming house proprietors and agents who have been found in breach of rental laws by the tribunal.

During the development of this bill last year, we consulted with Shelter SA, the South Australian Council of Social Service, the South Australian Tenants' Information and Advisory Service, consumer advocacy organisation CHOICE, renting advocacy organisation Better Renting and the Community Housing Council of South Australia. I would like to place on the record my thanks to all these organisations, each of whom have had input into the bill.

We also consulted and met with representatives from the Real Estate Institute of South Australia, the Landlords' Association and representatives of various property management businesses. I also thank these organisations and individuals for their input, which resulted in a number of changes to the draft bill to reflect their feedback.

I would also like to acknowledge the hard work of my chief of staff, Cate Mussared, who has put a lot of effort over the last 18 months into consulting with stakeholders and getting this bill right. I would also like to thank the staff at the Office of Parliamentary Counsel for their time and effort working with Cate and I through the various iterations of this bill over the last year.

The Greens are calling on the Parliament to address the current imbalance in our rental laws by supporting this bill. Private rental properties are not just investment properties for the owner, they are homes for the tenant. South Australians who rent should be able to live in a home that is safe, private and comfortable without fear of being discriminated against if they request urgent repairs or fear of being evicted for no reason. We believe that this bill is a positive step towards providing better rights and protections for people who rent.

I commend the bill to the chamber.