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By Emma O'Neill.
Published on the VCOSS Voice on 8 September 2016.
Melbourne mum Jen* would love to raise her daughter Mia in a healthy home. Their rented home is completely uninsulated. The old heater in the lounge room is expensive to run, so heating had to be rationed over winter. Jen’s glad spring is finally here.
Mia’s only three years old, so she really feels the cold. Her chest played up a lot during the colder months. Jen would love some curtains for Mia’s room, but she’s not game to ask her landlord.
What if he puts the rent up? Or kicks us out? It was hard enough to find this place.
After getting Mia ready for the day, Jen often heads to her mum’s house. There she can make food for Mia—the landlord said he’d install a stove (at the moment there’s just an old microwave), but that was six months ago.
It’s legal for Jen’s home to be rented out like this because Victoria doesn’t have minimum standards for rentals. Tenants aren’t even entitled to a toilet or basic cooking facilities. Sounds Dickensian? It is.
Shoddy rentals hit poor and disadvantaged people the hardest, because they have little or no choice when it comes to housing quality. Most rentals in Victoria aren’t affordable to people on low incomes. Discrimination is a problem for people on income support, single parents, and people with disability.
When you’re pushed to the edge, you’re forced to make awful compromises on housing quality.
But make no mistake: slum rentals are no bargain. Poor-quality housing leads to poor health. Problems set in when you and your children can’t stay warm in winter, and cool in summer. Sky-high energy bills are a fact of life when there’s no insulation and the old heater gobbles up gas. Big energy bills mean trade-offs between paying the rent, buying food, or sending your child on a school excursion. Tenants pay the price in so many ways.
Luckily, there is a workable solution to this problem: Victoria could introduce mandatory minimum standards for rental housing.
These standards would cover basic things necessary for a healthy, safe and secure home like bathing and cooking facilities, safe and affordable heating, and working, unbroken windows. Landlords would have to meet these standards before renting out a home. Tenants could point to these standards when asserting repair rights.
This week’s Supreme Court win for tenants (ruling all properties must be in “good repair”) was a promising start, but we really need rental standards spelt out in legislation. That way, tenants and landlords can be in no doubt about their rights and responsibilities.
Victoria is becoming an outlier by not having minimum standards. Tasmania, South Australia, the UK, Ireland and New Zealand have all acted. They recognised tenants have suffered for far too long—particularly through cold winters.
|This article is based on the research and findings contained in the VCOSS policy report ‘Regulation of property conditions in the rental market’.|
Costs aren’t a barrier. Most Victorian rentals are in good condition. Only a small amount of properties would require significant repairs and improvements to bring them up to scratch. And by improving rental housing, governments would save money on healthcare and concession payments for excessively high energy bills.
There’s also no need for minimum standards to be implemented all at once. In fact, it would be best for standards to be phased-in over time. That way, landlords will have enough time to make improvements, and the costs can be spread over several years.
Affordable financing schemes can also help smooth this process. Minimal or zero interest loans could be made available to struggling landlords or those who rent to low-income earners, to help cover any up-front costs of improvements.
Laws are only as strong as their enforcement. A Housing Ombudsman would really help here, by providing a no-cost, accessible form of dispute resolution, and taking action against dodgy landlords who don’t meet minimum standards (much like the Fair Work Ombudsman, which takes action against dodgy employers).
No-one wants to live in a freezing, damp home. Everyone wants to be able to pay their energy bills. We all need facilities for bathing, washing our clothes and preparing healthy meals.
We all deserve to live in a home that is decent, not dodgy.
— ABC News Melbourne (@abcnewsMelb) September 2, 2016
Banner Image: FlickrCC (Brighter than sunshine.)
*-Jen is fictional. Her story is a composite of the experiences of people in low incomes renting in Victoria.
Emma O'Neill is a VCOSS Policy Advisor