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Rental reform is an opportunity for fairer, safer housing Analysis

Rental reform is an opportunity for fairer, safer housing

Safe, secure and affordable housing is the bedrock of a good life. A home is the basis from which people build stability in their lives, and should provide the shelter, security, safety and privacy that people need to reach their potential. The private rental market is an essential component of the housing supply for low-income Victorians, with more than a third of low-income Victorians living in privately rented properties – more than in public or community housing.

The Victorian Government has commenced a review of the laws governing the private rental market in this State. VCOSS warmly welcomes this review, as it provides an important opportunity to change our rental laws so they provide more protection for vulnerable renters so their homes are safer and less precarious. By establishing a clear policy goal for tenancy reform to support the well-being of Victorian renters, the review can analyse the detailed legal changes necessary to support vulnerable Victorians in privately rented properties.

Over the past decade, rents have increased by more than 40 per cent in Melbourne, with only a tiny proportion affordable for people living on low incomes. There is an estimated shortfall of more than 80,000 affordable rental properties across Victoria. The deteriorating affordability of renting privately increases the urgency of rental market reform, as the potential for exploitation of low-income households increases as their alternative options decline.

Insecure housing can affect people’s wellbeing in a myriad of ways. At worst, it can lead to homelessness, which profoundly affects people’s health, social status and wellbeing, but also increases the need for public services, including healthcare, justice and community services. Insecure tenure can also lead to anxiety and uncertainty for tenants, affecting their employment choices and capabilities, their educational engagement and their access to services. If people are forced to move against their wishes, they may bear significant unplanned financial costs, and be unable to afford other essential goods and services.

Housing is also an important determinant of health. Good quality, well-located housing protects against the extremes of heat and cold, and other weather events including fire, flood and storms. It enables people to maintain good hygiene, prepare and cook nutritious food, access essential services such as energy, water and telecommunications, and protects from exposure to germs and moulds that cause ill health. Housing is also important for mental health, including people’s ability to experience stability, security and privacy.

So low-income Victorian renters can have safe, secure and affordable tenancies, the VCOSS submission to the review identifies six priority areas for reform and to guide the second stage of consultation on the review of rental laws.

  1. Security of tenure

Australia has relatively low levels of tenure security compared with other developed nations. In particular, it is relatively easy to evict a tenant, and VCOSS believes that eviction should only be used as a last resort. The review should consider options to protect tenants against unnecessary evictions, not only to avoid its cost, anxiety and poor social outcomes, but also to give tenants a more equal relationship with their landlord to negotiate and enforce their rights, without fearing the loss of their home.

  1. Housing quality

VCOSS has a long history of advocating for minimum rental housing standards. Current regulations do not ensure rental properties meet community standards for basic liveability. The current market requires tenants to ‘shop around’ to find properties of an adequate standard, but low-income tenants often have limited choice, and may be forced to choose between sub-standard housing or none at all. VCOSS advocates that rental housing should provide a healthy environment, including being weatherproof, have hot and cold running water, be free of germs, mould and vermin, and have decent facilities for food preparation and maintaining personal hygiene. It should also be safe and secure to live in, including having structural integrity, safe electricity and gas connections, and locks on external doors. Rental housing should be affordable to live in, including meeting a basic standard of energy efficiency, such as having insulation and efficient heating and hot water services.

  1. Rental affordability

While rental regulation has limited ability to affect market rents, it can help reduce unexpected costs for renters. VCOSS has stated that the review should consider options to reduce rental costs, such as protections against excessive bond requirements, preventing excessive rent increases, outlawing ‘rental auctions’, and protections against excessive costs at the end of a tenancy.

  1. Discrimination and privacy

VCOSS has regularly reported on the difficulty low-income households’ ability to secure a home in the private rental market, even where they can find properties that are affordable and meet their needs. At the same time, there are concerns about the extent that people can peacefully enjoy their homes without unnecessary interference from landlords. VCOSS has requested that these issues are considered in the review, including enhanced protection against discrimination or unfair treatment in selecting tenants, and improving tenants’ ability to maintain their privacy.

  1. Social housing and marginal tenancies

There are differences in both law and practice in the provision of housing by public and community housing agencies, as well as in marginal rental services, such as caravan parks and boarding houses. There is the opportunity for this review to examine these issues in detail, and take a fresh look at whether these distinctions remain, including the best means of implementing the Victorian Government’s welcome commitments to strengthen the regulation of boarding houses.

  1. Dispute resolution and tenant services

While VCAT was initially designed to provide an easy and approachable means for consumers to access dispute resolution services, VCOSS members report that VCAT has become increasingly difficult for tenants to use. VCOSS has requested that the review consider alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, such as other options for redress, or creating a body other than VCAT to address residential tenancy matters. We also have asked that tenant services be considered in the review, including resources for services such as the Social Housing Advocacy and Support Program (SHASP), tenant advisory services, and community legal services.

The full VCOSS submission to the Residential Tenancies Act Review is available on our website. The review will have two further rounds of consultation before being finalised.