Is there any single word more geared to make your skin prickle with disgust? In human evolutionary terms it’s a rational skin-prickling reaction: mould – especially ‘black mould’ – can cause a range of health problems from sniffles to acute asthma, vomiting and even depression.
Mouldy food and mouldy socks are bad enough (sorry), but a mould problem in your home can be the real nightmare.
Especially, it turns out, if you’re a renter.
Just ask Ebony Rehannon, who got debilitating health problems from chronic mould in her Melbourne rental home (see below) but couldn’t convince her landlord to do anything about it, and was threatened with a financial penalty equivalent to six-weeks’ rent when she tried to move out.
Ebony’s story is from the bad old days of 2018, before Victoria’s new rental rules took effect in March 2021.
According to the new rules, mould and damp issues are now classified as urgent repairs that must be fixed immediately. Renters can make expedited applications to VCAT for urgent repairs, with the matter to be heard in a mandated two-day period.
ii Happy birthday.
March 29 was the one-year anniversary of the amended Residential Tenancies Act which, along with the provisions for urgent repairs, provides a broad sweep of protections for Victorian renters. These include:
- minimum standards like cooking facilities, lockable external doors and a toilet in working order
- the right to make simple changes to rental homes without permission
- security of tenure so renters can’t be evicted without due process and cause.
So, a year after these protections were introduced, how are they playing out in the real lives of Victorian renters?
VCOSS has consulted with community service workers who provide emergency relief, financial counselling, family violence response, homelessness prevention, disability advocacy, tenancy advocacy, legal assistance and many other forms of social assistance, to get a sense of how renters are faring.
These workers are often in a ‘first to know’ position – the first to get wind of emerging issues and challenges, especially among the most vulnerable renters.
Their insights reveal a mixed bag.
Some of the new rental provisions appear to be working well. For instance:
- new modification rights are allowing victim-survivors of family violence to install safety infrastructure like cameras and security systems, and lease breaking provisions provide an easier process for victim-survivors to escape unsafe situations
- new eviction protections mean rental providers can’t evict tenants for no reason, and renters facing eviction for late payment have a 14-day grace period to pay rental arrears
- urgent repair matters that are heard by VCAT in the mandated two-day period are commonly being resolved in renters’ favour.
But despite the potential to improve the security, safety and livability of renters’ homes, in many cases there’s a gap between intent and operation of the new rules.
And often it’s the people most in need of support who are falling through the gap.
- While the new modification rights are working well for family violence victim-survivors, workers report that renters with disability face a range of barriers if they want to make reasonable modifications to their home. These barriers include the prohibitive costs of providing the evidence that they need to make the modification, installing the modification, and restoring the property to its original condition when they leave.
- The provision to make sure that an eviction is reasonable and proportionate is not always applied consistently by VCAT, and it’s limited when it comes to evictions for COVID-related late payments, which might involve large sums of money accrued over weeks or months of illness or unemployment.
- The new laws include lease-breaking provisions that are intended to strengthen protections for victim-survivors of family violence. However, workers tell us the promise of these provisions isn’t being fully realised because, when the new rules are tested in the real world, they don’t provide sufficient clarity about who’s liable for rental arrears and any other debts and liabilities.
- Renters with complex needs including mental illness are given scant protection, with no specific requirements in the new rules that would make the private rental market more accessible and sustainable for them.
- Even those urgent repair rules that are supposed to protect people from the scourge of mould are not always operating as they should. Renters who don’t use the urgent repairs process at VCAT are often burdened with the stress of raising a mould issue to the property manager and providing enough evidence for the issue to be acknowledged. When it is acknowledged, the problem is not always dealt with in a timely or adequate manner, with landlords dragging their feet and/or getting shoddy repairs.
More broadly, while the new rules have a clear focus on addressing power imbalances between renters and landlords, workers have identified that some groups of renters continue to face specific barriers to actualising their rights and realising their power in the market. This includes:
- large families
- newly arrived migrants and people with English as a second language
- young people
- people with disability
- people with pets
- people on low incomes or who receive income support
- people who are supported by a worker.
Many are unaware of the new rules and unfamiliar with their rights.
One factor is that the introduction of these new rights coincided with a period when there were many pandemic-related distractions and stresses. Another factor is that there is a significant gap in rights education in our community and this translates to low levels of rights awareness amongst some groups of Victorian renters.
Another factor is the over-heated rental market. Many people in these groups are struggling to access a suitable home, with additional pressures caused by Melburnian ‘tree-changers’ entering and reducing the affordability of the regional market.
In this environment, even renters who are well-informed about their rights and well-equipped to access those rights struggle to assert them. In a situation where dozens of hopeful applicants are turning up for each rental inspection, who’s going to stick their hand up to demand that the property meets minimum rental standards or needs modifications for renters’ safety or security?
iii The future.
Part of what needs to happen to change this situation is to continue to educate renters – and people who support them – about their new rights and where to go for help. Information about renting rights needs to be targeted to different audiences, in a range of formats that empower renters to take steps to assert their rights. Consumer Affairs Victoria has an important role to play here.
However, community sector organisations, who have a direct connection to and trusted relationship with renters, can deliver the greatest impact. It’s vital that the Victorian Government continues to support the sector to do this important work.
It’s what’s needed to bridge gaps between the intent and operation of the new rules.
Community sector organisations, who have a direct connection to and trusted relationship with renters, can deliver the greatest impact. It’s vital that the Victorian Government continues to support the sector to do this important work.
Landlords should also continue to be educated, and there’s a need to improve the standard of conduct for their agents, particularly property managers. The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, who can hear disputes that arise in tenancies, is facing a massive backlog that needs to be addressed for renters to be able to access this important protection.
There’s also an opportunity for the Victorian Government to strengthen mechanisms for compliance. For example, Consumer Affairs Victoria could play a stronger, more active role in monitoring and enforcing compliance with the rules in the rental market – so that it’s not up to individual renters to identify problems and assert their rights.
There are also whole groups of renters who are just not covered by the new rules and need more targeted support. This includes people living in rooming houses – some of the most vulnerable renters, facing some of the worst living conditions in Victoria.
They’re nominally covered by a separate set of minimum standards established in 2012, but community workers tell us that rooming house standards are often not complied with and rarely enforced.
People renting public housing also largely miss out on the benefits of the reforms, as the vast majority are on long-term rental agreements from before the new rules kicked in.
There are also whole groups of renters who are just not covered by the new rules and need more targeted support.
The new rental rules were an incredibly welcome reform that promise to improve the lives of the one-in-three Victorians who rent their homes. But all renters – including private, public and community housing tenants, those with complex needs, and those without the capacity to demand their rights – need the benefit of rental protections.
Our message, one year on, is that the Victorian Government has introduced nation-leading, best-in-class rental fairness laws, but there is more work to do to make the promise of safe, secure and livable homes a reality for all Victorian renters.