In addition to the usual social justice aspects of evictions, there are now compelling public health reasons to stop them.
By Kate Davis
We are at home in a state of emergency, in solidarity, to save lives. We need policies to support people remaining in private and public housing to ensure that people are able to physically distance themselves.
Increased financial stress, family violence and unemployment inevitably lead to rental and mortgage stress. According to CHOICE, 88% of Australian tenancies are for 12 months or less, many will expire in the next few months. We will see people fall into rent arrears due to salary losses, evictions as fixed term agreements end, living arrangements strained in households experiencing family violence.
All these tenants need to have a secure home to stay in, as directed by our governments. Some tenants will have options, including reaching reasonable arrangements with landlords. But for those who cannot reach agreement we need a temporary moratorium on forced eviction. This is crucial to the success of Australia's strategy to stay at home to flatten the curve. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing has recently said “Housing has become the front line defence against the coronavirus.”
The Prime Minister has announced the national cabinet decision for a moratorium on evictions, but it is looking very different across the country. Tasmania and Western Australia have introduced a broad moratorium on evictions, while SA, NSW, Victoria and Queensland have brought in different forms of moratorium protecting tenants who are in financial hardship due to COVID-19. Some states are allowing landlords to still issue termination notices, risking a later avalanche of evictions.
A broad moratorium on evictions
Housing evictions must be suspended to defend us against coronavirus. A moratorium on evictions is about more than fairness for tenants who have lost jobs through no fault of their own. A moratorium is necessary to ensure that tenants can stay at home, to prevent community transmission of coronavirus. As such, it needs to apply to all evictions (not just those for rent arrears). Importantly, the moratoriums must include the powerful “without grounds” notices. If not, the protection for tenants who have lost their job is meaningless.
A moratorium requires limited clear exceptions, balancing landlord rights with broader considerations of public interest having regard to the public health emergency.
Termination on the basis that tenants are causing serious damage or injury is one exception. These powers already exist. Now, special legislation should require Courts or Tribunals to consider whether termination is in the public interest, having regard to the public health emergency and the need to prevent homelessness.
In limited cases of undue hardship such as a landlord needing to live in a rented property, landlords may need to terminate a lease for hardship. These cases require clarity about the basis on which a Court should order a tenant to leave. Adequate time must be given to tenants to secure another place to live.
Financial hardship for landlords should not be a ground for terminating the tenancy during the moratorium period. Landlords relying on rental income to pay the mortgage should be able to seek hardship variations from the bank, and government should ensure this is offered on fair terms. Landlords who rely on rents for income may be able to access either income support or low interest loans, if they are asset rich, but cash poor.
Public and community housing
Social housing providers are central to ensuring that people facing disadvantage have a home. Public housing tenants often have chronic physical or mental health issues which place them at greater risk to COVID-19 than the general community. Alarmingly, there have been cases of public housing authorities evicting families to homelessness in the past month.
Evictions leading to homelessness is a public health disaster. Governments have ordered the closure of public toilets and facilities. Support services and charities are already under strain and are having difficulties coping with a rapid increase of demand for their services.
A homeless family cannot isolate safely, follow hand washing hygiene guidelines, shop once a fortnight and cook at home. They will have to access a range of services in crisis, and will put extended family and friends at risk as they seek crowded interim housing options.
Evictions to homelessness from public housing must stop. Government housing authorities concerned about disruptive or criminal conduct need to work collectively with other government services, community organisations, police and health workers to ensure tenants and their neighbours all receive the support they need to stay home safely.
International moratoriums are coming into place
A range of states in the USA have implemented broad bans on evictions, with Delaware implementing a comprehensive ban on evictions, foreclosures and utility disconnections. Other states in the US without moratoriums are facing mounting rent strike campaigns. European tenancy laws already provide far greater protections to tenants. In Scotland, all eviction notices now have a 6 month notice period, except where there is criminal behaviour by the tenant, or where the landlord or their family need to move into the property, where the notice period is 3 months. In the rest of the UK, the decision to extend eviction notices to three months, has been met with much criticism that this isn’t sufficient protections for renters.
Housing and future economic instability
Public health experts have warned economic downturn and austerity will exacerbate existing inequality, leading to more death than coronavirus. Governments must ensure our responses don’t entrench inequality. A temporary moratorium on evictions prevents a dangerous spike in homelessness.
Moratoriums on temporary evictions should protect tenants from forced evictions in this public health emergency, and should have limited exceptions. These moratoriums need to be accompanied by rent relief, otherwise we’ll leave tenants to carry the financial pain, rather than landlords and banks. There are good options for rent relief policies, looking at the costs of providing housing , and looking at how our housing market functions. If we don’t see rent relief in place, many tenants will leave and seek out housing they can afford, rather than rack up unaffordable debt. And here’s the rub ‒ there isn’t enough affordable housing available. We need to have a broad moratorium and rent relief in place.
Otherwise, we’re breaking down our front line of defence against coronavirus.
Kate Davis is a long-term Greens member, former principal solicitor of Tenancy WA (community legal centre for tenants) and is currently undertaking her PhD in housing and human rights.
A version of this article first appeared in Green Issue.
Hero image: Ketut Subiyanto via Pexels.