Shifts in the balance of power
12th May 2022
There used to be more face-to-face assistance for tenants – that has been changing for a number of years, but the problem has accelerated dramatically with the COVID-19 pandemic.
For both tenants and tenant advocates, the situation has become more complex and challenging. Advocates need more legal knowledge and have to deal with varied pieces of legislation. It can be complicated to understand how tenancy issues are impacted by other areas, such as domestic violence, consumer rights, criminal law, and local government legislation, to name a few.
I think the balance of power has shifted due to the lack of appropriate housing. There is a bigger gap now between landlords and tenants. There used to be a more cooperative relationship – more landlords would do repairs promptly, and appreciated that they got the benefit of tenants’ rent. The status of renters has been greatly diminished. Being a tenant is often detrimental to your wellbeing – in terms of your ability to work, study, or do whatever it is you are trying to do in life.
I remember assisting a client to overcome multiple termination notices that were clearly discriminatory and driven by the landlord’s prejudice. We saved the tenancy of another client who had been in a situation of domestic violence and had received a notice of termination because of issues relating to the violence. We helped her avoid eviction and stay in her home, which was now safe – the perpetrator had left.
A renter who was terminally ill with cancer was living in a social housing home which was badly infected with mould. The repair works weren’t getting done – only superficial efforts were made. The situation was not conducive to her wellbeing or to being as healthy as possible. She moved out to a private rental with family and was accused of abandoning the tenancy, and pursued for costs. We were able to turn things around and she recovered a portion of the rent which she had overpaid while the repairs weren’t being done.
We assisted an Aboriginal tenant to get significant repairs to his home, including new roofing and mould remediation. He also received a rent reduction and compensation, and rent was paid to the Tribunal until the repairs were carried out. That was around the time of the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which I think was a contributory factor to the tribunal member making the decision that they did.
We need change
We need two kinds of change: legislative change and a cultural shift. We need all of the community to recognise that housing should be available and accessible for everyone. This needs to start at the application process – the questions on some rental applications go well beyond what’s needed to show that a tenant can pay the rent. The landlord doesn’t need to know the make and model of the applicant’s car! From the get go, the rental system creates a division between the ‘desirable’ and the ineligible. To get a place you’ve got to show that you are a ‘desirable’ tenant, that you fit the mould. Not everyone can do that, and if you can’t, you end up without a voice and in the most marginal housing.
In terms of the law, ‘no grounds’ evictions [also called 'no reason' evictions, where you can be evicted and the landlord doesn't have to provide a reason] have to go. How can you make use of the rights you have under the legislation with the threat of a ‘no grounds’ eviction hanging over you? That threat has to be removed.
An easy legislative change that I’d like to see is an extension of the notice period when a landlord ends a tenancy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we had extended notice periods, and that worked well – people were calmer and more able to find alternative accommodation, storage, etc. There was less animosity and conflict thanks to the extra time. The notice period of 30 days at end of fixed term, or sale, is not enough.
Culturally, landlords and agents need to accept that they have a role in making a better community. They need to recognise that when they say no to pets they’re contributing to abandonment of animals; when they say no to people on statutory incomes they’re marginalising those people; when they don’t offer support to a person experiencing or coming from a situation of domestic violence, they’re putting women and children at risk.
There is also a clear imbalance in the legislation in relation to operator and landlord conduct. The Residential Land Lease Communities Act 2013 and the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 address issues around resident/tenant behaviour towards operators/landlords. However, these Acts are indirect and have no equivalent remedies where operators/landlords harass, threaten or intimidate residents/tenants. Residents and tenants are often told that it’s a police matter, yet operators and landlords can take such matters through the Tribunal.
Your home should be your foundation, and give you the safety and security to live your life autonomously. For tenants, there are many additional restrictions – such as a higher expectation of cleanliness. Home owners can let more things slide – live how they want, not mow the lawn if they don’t want to, pay a bill a bit late – and not worry that it will lead to homelessness.
This is an edited version of an interview first published by The Tenants Union of NSW.
The ALA would like to thank Amanda El Gazzar for this contribution.
Amanda El Gazzar was a Tenant Advocate at the Northern Rivers Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service for 15 years. She is now taking a well-earned break and looking at other possibilities.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).