Greens support renter's rights reforms


Lidia Thorpe - Speech in Parliament: I rise to speak on the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill 2018. The Greens are passionate about renters rights. For too long many renters have had to put up with living in dwellings that are substandard by anyone’s measure, with little recourse to change it. They could live with mould growing on the walls, with basic facilities such as hot water in bathrooms not working or with inadequate locks on the doors and windows, undermining their safety.

They could live in houses with dysfunctional or no heating or in houses with no window coverings, no insulation and gaps under the doors, and there is nothing they can do about it. They can be refused permission to have their cat or dog in the house, no matter how long they have owned the pet and how much they cherish it. There is also a raft of other shortfalls in the act that mean renters can get a raw deal.

I have lived in many homes that have lacked basic comforts. I still rent today, and when I moved into my property there were no water pipes or gas pipes, so I was not able to live to a minimum standard. Also my sister still lives in a rental property that has no heating, where she uses the oven every day to heat her home.

Unfortunately it is not a renter’s market, with competition for rental properties and rent rates so high that people cannot afford or cannot find better properties. People on low incomes have little choice regarding their homes, as there are few affordable properties. In my electorate of Northcote and indeed across all of Melbourne, Anglicare Victoria research found that in 2018 there are no longer any rental properties affordable to people living on Newstart, Youth Allowance or other government allowances.

The Greens, together with many community organisations, have been calling loudly for something to be done. We believe that everyone deserves a decent home where they can live with basic safety, comfort and affordability. I want to acknowledge that for over a decade organisations and community groups have been calling for reform in this area. These organisations include the Victorian Council of Social Service, Environment Victoria, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Tenants Victoria, Consumer Action Law Centre, the Alternative Technology Association and the Moreland and Yarra energy foundations. They have worked together under the banner of One Million Homes as well as individually.

They have worked very hard to bring us to where we are today, and I congratulate them on their persistence and for never giving up on their fight for the rights of low-income and marginalised people and for our environment. I am sure they will keep on working until the regulations, including for energy and water efficiency, put forward in this bill are locked in at a decent standard.

I also want to acknowledge the leadership and hard work of retired Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber, who in the last two parliaments, as far back as 2009 and 2013, introduced legislation into the Legislative Council to create reforms that would enable minimum standards for rental properties to be set, and that would remove no-ground evictions. At that time these changes were rejected by both major parties. The Greens member for Melbourne again tried to introduce these reforms in 2017, but the government would not even permit this bill to be debated. So at the eleventh hour the government has finally introduced this promised bill into Parliament to make renting fairer.

On the whole the Greens welcome the measures in this bill. We do not welcome it being introduced so late in the Parliament’s schedule that it risks not passing due to there not being enough sitting days left in the year. We are also concerned that there is no time for amendments to be passed, and we would have liked to make a few. This is really poor form, and it shows the priorities of a government that are more about regressive law and order measures than measures that will make a real difference to the lives of the 30 per cent of Victorians who rent.

Now I want to turn to the measures of the bill. I will not outline them all as there are too many, but I will focus on what the Greens see as the key reforms. As I previously mentioned, this bill introduces a power for the minister to create minimum standards for rental homes. The minister in her second-reading speech has indicated a number of areas in which the government intends to set standards, and these are welcome.

Renters should have the right to ensure their home has a functioning heater, a toilet, hot water in the kitchen and bathrooms, functioning stovetops, window coverings and so many other basic facilities. Beyond basic comfort and services, homes should also include some energy-saving measures like weather sealing and window coverings, with the ability to ramp up over time. The Greens believe we must look seriously at measures such as ceiling insulation, basic standards for hot-water systems and heaters, energy-saving lighting and more to ensure the low-hanging fruit in energy efficiency can be taken up to save energy costs for households and help reduce the environmental impact.

The Greens will continue to fight for energy and water minimum standards and affordability in the regulations, which we hope will be consulted on and determined early in the next term of government. While not a minimum standard, the addition of mould and pest infestation to the list of urgent repairs is an important health and safety enhancement of this bill. It will certainly improve conditions for renters, so we are pleased this has been included. The proposed legislation makes it far more likely that animals can be kept in rental properties, as it requires landlords to apply to VCAT to not permit pets in a property once a renter requests a pet. It also allows renters to make minor and prescribed modifications to rental property. These two changes are welcome and supported by the Greens.

With so many of us now renting long-term, it is important that we can be at home in our rental properties, including by keeping a pet and making minor changes such as adding picture hooks or weather sealing. It is also important that renters have greater security. We have been calling for an end to no-fault and no-specified-reason evictions. As I said earlier, former Greens leader Greg Barber included this in his bills in 2009 and 2013. We are pleased to see this change has been made in this legislation. We also welcome that the bill includes a new test that evictions must be reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances. There are a range of legitimate reasons why landlords can evict tenants, including selling, renovating, damage to the rental property, rent being chronically overdue and so on, so landlords are not being put in a difficult position by this change. This change strikes the right balance.

Mandatory safety-related obligations such as electrical and gas appliance servicing and compliance with smoke alarm and pool fence regulations are essential changes that really should have been made many years ago. This bill creates the power for such regulations, but we still have to wait for the detail to be set to ensure they are adequate. In 2010 young boys Chase and Tyler Robinson, who lived in a property where the gas heater had a blocked flue, very tragically died from gas poisoning. Their mother survived, but I cannot imagine her grief. Their deaths resulted in a public awareness campaign but no legislative change. Back in 2013 Greg Barber highlighted this story to explain why we desperately needed minimum standards and reform to the act to ensure basic safety standards are met. It is quite appalling that it has taken so long to introduce these changes, and we still have to wait and see if they get a chance to pass this Parliament and whether the next government sets decent regulations. I hope that this can happen so that parents Vanessa and Scott Robinson and all their family and friends can get some peace from it. Many of the current laws with respect to rental properties have failed to ensure decent behaviour, including that protecting the residents’ health and safety. They have been balanced too far in favour of landlords. This and other minimum standard measures are starting to change this, which is desperately needed.

Now moving to other measures in this bill, there are affordability measures in this bill which are important. These include automatic bond repayment in 14 days unless parties are in dispute, faster reimbursement where tenants have paid for urgent repair, stopping rental bidding and yearly instead of six-monthly rent increases. These are measures that may not be good for affordability. Removing the bond cap of $350 per week and replacing it with a figure to be set in regulation leaves question marks there. Also, allowing a second bond to be negotiated if the resident wants to make any modifications together with requirements to return the house to original condition may not improve affordability, but it does increase flexibility, which may be a priority for some renters.

We welcome the non-compliance register for landlords and agents that fail to meet their obligations and other measures to protect from dodgy landlords, such as prohibiting misleading or deceptive conduct inducing a person into renting a property. Mandatory precontractual disclosure of material facts such as an intention to sell the rental property or other things are to be set in regulation. The government has indicated the known presence of asbestos could be one of these required disclosures and we would very much welcome that. Also they have specified mandatory condition reporting to ensure the state of rented premises is accurately recorded at the beginning and end of a rental relationship. This could benefit both renters and landlords and lead to less disputes.

Finally, the bill implements a raft of changes recommended by the Royal Commission into Family Violence. These changes include that a lease can be quickly ended and the victim and their children be given a new lease where appropriate and be protected from debts caused by the violent perpetrator. We are pleased to see these measures implemented in a timely way after the royal commission.

Now moving to our concerns with the bill, while on the whole we see this proposed legislation as a step forward in a raft of areas, what it fails to do is think outside the box. One of the major issues in our current rental system is that renters are too afraid to complain about an issue, let alone take it to VCAT, which is an intimidating prospect. They are concerned that asking for repairs or calling landlords out on problems will result in rent rises, a bad relationship or other consequences. This bill fails to address this. It works within the existing VCAT system for managing disputes or problems in the relationships between the renter and the rental property provider. It continues with the adversarial approach, which we know full well does not favour renters. I note that in the minister’s second-reading speech she acknowledged the need for further reforms to make the system less adversarial. The Greens will continue to push for this. Whether it be via an ombudsman or within a different arm of VCAT, we need a better way to manage this.

This legislation also does not deal with the fundamental affordability challenge, which is rising rents. Every few months a new report seems to come out that indicates just how unaffordable renting is. Just this week, a Compass Housing Services report indicated that a household needs to earn $130 000 to afford a three-bedroom rental property in inner Melbourne and not be in housing stress. That is $50 000 above the average wages of most families living in a rental property. The government needs to seriously examine capping rent increases to inflation if we are going to have any impact on rent blowouts for lower and middle-income families and have any hope of reducing the cost of living. Such a measure will not deal with rental poverty, which now clearly can only be dealt with by a massive upscale in social housing, something which successive Victorian governments have deprioritised, despite the desperate need.

Moving now to caravan parks, we welcome measures to compensate residents if the caravan park is sold. Having said that, we are concerned that the sector, including the Consumer Action Law Centre, has identified a number of gaps and loopholes in relation to these parks. Many part 4A residential parks are now charging residents a deferred management fee, which is an exit fee traditionally charged to retirement village residents. There is no regulation of these fees and they can be applied very unfairly. We need regulatory powers in relation to this to protect tenants. Further, despite part 4A residential parks often being home to older and vulnerable people, unlike retirement village operators these owners are not required to register with Consumer Affairs Victoria. This means we do not know how many residential parks there are in Victoria, nor can potential residents search to see if a part 4A park is properly registered. Unlike retirement villages, there are also no minimum standards relating to who can operate a part 4A park. This means that previous bankrupts or people convicted of fraud or dishonesty offences can manage a part 4A park. Also compensation is not required to be paid to residents if the caravan park owner or part 4A site owner is not the owner of the land and the closure of the park is due to the expiry of a head lease of that land. While this might feel reasonable for the site owner, it leaves residents high and dry. It is also peculiar given site owners are not allowed to enter into a site agreement with a site tenant that is for a period of occupancy which exceeds the expiry date of the head lease.

We are disappointed that we are not in a position to amend this bill, due to the government’s late introduction of it and the lack of time if we want to see this pass. The Greens will continue to stand up for renters and ensure the regulations associated with this bill are of a high standard, and if further legislative changes are made in the next term, we will do what we can to address problems with the act.