COVID-19 Commercial and Residential Tenancies Legislation Amendment (Extension) Bill 2020 Second Reading

4 Sep 2020

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I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak to the COVID-19 Commercial and Residential Tenancies Legislation Amendment (Extension) Bill 2020. We welcome this bill to extend the protections in place for residential tenancies until the end of March 2021—I believe with an option then to extend to April if required—and to extend the protections for commercial tenancies until the end of April 2021. This should mean that nobody should have their rent increased and nobody should be evicted from their home or their business if they are unable to pay the rent as a result of losing income during this pandemic.

Originally when the government announced this bill they were only going to extend the protections that were put in place in March this year and which were due to expire in September to 31 December this year, which was simply not sufficient, and we welcome the government recognising that. We know that the economic impact of this pandemic is going to go well beyond the easing of restrictions, and that original date set would have meant a really uncertain Christmas and a nervous New Year’s for many renters. So we are really pleased to see that the government has listened to renters and their advocates, listened to small business and commercial tenants, and is recognising that the support measures currently in place really do need to be extended well into next year.

The Greens have been really strong advocates from the start of this pandemic for a moratorium to be placed on evictions for both commercial and residential renters. It is something we wrote to the government about very early on in the piece. It is certainly important in my electorate of Prahran where around 60 per cent of all residents actually rent their homes. And of course with such vibrant retail shopping strips like Chapel Street and Toorak Village and others, it is really important that these protections are put in place. I want to thank everyone who spoke out and joined in those campaigns as well. Ensuring housing stability at this time and making sure that the COVID crisis does not result in a homelessness crisis is a huge priority, so I certainly welcome this bill extending those protections.

We have heard there are landlords who have done the right thing. There are plenty of renters who have been able to successfully negotiate rent reductions from their landlords and agents, and there are lots of landlords who are doing the right thing. I am both a rental tenant and a landlord and I think some of the inferences from the opposition are misplaced. When this extension was first announced I did say that it needed to be longer and it needed to be stronger because multiple surveys and reports undertaken by a range of groups and a range of advocates, including our own survey, have shown that despite the government’s rental support scheme, which includes the ban, a dispute resolution scheme, rent relief payments and land tax rebates for landlords, despite these measures renters in need, particularly those that have become unemployed or have had significant hours reductions at work, were simply not getting the help that they need. Many of them were not getting the rent reductions they need, they were not getting the rent relief payments they need and they are not getting the results at mediation.

The results of our survey are really stark. They highlight the now huge cohort of people that have become unemployed, that have lost hours—very much young people in this situation. They are the ones that need support, and they are not getting it. Over half of them were unable to reach rent reduction agreements with their landlords. Under 10 per cent who needed rent relief payments actually got them, 80 per cent of them did not actually apply for the scheme because it was too difficult, with the remainder having their applications rejected, and a number of respondents did not even realise there was a rent relief scheme.

From the report Rent Due: Renting and Stress during COVID-19 from the Better Renting advocacy group, from their survey of a thousand renters from across Australia, including Victoria, only one in two—half, 50 per cent—asked for a rent reduction, and this was because, firstly, they were concerned about retaliation from their landlord; and, secondly, they felt powerless and sensed that asking for a rent reduction would be futile. Of those who did lose income, only one in 10 actually got a satisfactory rent reduction. From cases that the renters’ union have heard and assisted with we have seen landlords refuse and delay negotiation, demands of excessive and unreasonable personal and financial information and demands for renters to withdraw or access superannuation funds. You have got reductions that are too small and did not give enough relief, and again renters are hesitant to pursue formal mediation for fear of retaliation by landlords or agents at the end of the moratorium.

What this really does highlight, whilst it does highlight deficiencies in the existing scheme, are those systemic issues within the entire housing market, and so whilst the government has stressed the importance of landlords and tenants negotiating in good faith, we know in reality that it can be impossible at times to negotiate fairly when there is that uneven playing field. So whilst we welcome the protections, the latest round of improvements to the Residential Tenancies Act 1997 that came through in the last Parliament—that was something that the Greens certainly supported and campaigned for, getting rid of those no-grounds evictions; that was previously passed in a private members bill—there do need to be even more improvements in the tenancies act to really level that playing field between landlord and renter, including in forms like minimum standards for properties for what actually represents a genuine quality dwelling as well as the ability for rental controls to be put in place when rental stress is high.

But in keeping with the existing scheme there do need to be further changes to make sure that those renters who have become unemployed or have lost significant wages do get the support they need. It does need to be strengthened so that there are penalties if a landlord really does unreasonably refuse to negotiate in good faith or unreasonably delay negotiation. The rent relief scheme does need to be made easier to access, and I was really pleased to see the Treasurer announce that the requirements around savings have been doubled from $5000 to $10 000 to be able to access those payments. We cannot have people dipping into their savings so much. We cannot see it occurring to that level. Really the rent relief scheme does need to change from the requirements that it has now to a money-out-the-door scheme. The money has got to get out the door and be subsidising those payments from renters to landlords to give them some financial relief.

The dispute resolution service—in the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee we heard evidence that 60 per cent of cases that came to mediation managed to secure a rent reduction. Well, the question is: what about the other 40 per cent? And I was really concerned to hear cases where tenants were unable to actually have an advocate within that dispute resolution process, given the power imbalance, whilst landlords were able to have an agent represent them. So that scheme needs to be improved so renters can have confidence that they will actually be there on a level playing field.

We welcome the extension as well to the commercial tenants. Our local traders, our local shopping strips have really been struggling through this crisis. Enabling them to survive will help the economy recover all that much better, and it will be all the more difficult if these businesses close up shop whilst the pandemic is ongoing. A big part of that for them is those overhead costs that they are having to pay while their income is significantly reduced. Rent is just a massive part of that. So we welcome the extension and then the improvements as well for the Victorian Small Business Commission to make binding orders requiring rent relief.

We are pleased to see this bill before the house today. We will keep speaking with renters and advocates and advocating for renters. Nobody should have to choose between paying their rent and putting food on the table. The effects of this crisis are going to be felt for a very long time. There are going to be difficult months ahead. Many are going to be out of work and businesses are going to be closed. We are pleased that these protections are being extended, but we certainly need to do much more to make sure that no renters—no-one—are falling through the cracks.

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