Latest sector briefing
This event was recorded live on 23 March 2021, with presentations from:
- Victorian Consumer Affairs Minister, Melissa Horne
- Tenancy experts, and
- People with lived experience of homelessness.
Full transcript, speaker details and presenters’ slides coming soon.
This website provides general information only. It is not a substitute for specific and formal legal advice.
Deb: Thank you for joining us. My name is Deb Fewster, I’m the Manager of Advocacy and Engagement at the Victorian Council of Social Service, VCOSS. I’d like to begin by acknowledging country, so acknowledge that we are all meeting on our Aboriginal land and pay our respects to elders past and present and to emerging leaders. So welcome to our third renter’s rights rundown event for the year, and would just like to acknowledge that we’re able to put these events on with the support of the Department of Justice and Community Safety. So really thank them for their partnership and collaboration to get all the kind of latest information out and about around renter’s rights during this very challenging year with COVID and the emergency measures that the government has introduced. So a bit of background to this event, as I mentioned a moment ago, the Victorian government has embarked on a really ambitious, great reform agenda and that includes both long awaited market-wide reforms, which are due to commence in 2021, as well as the emergency measures that I just touched on a moment ago, which were introduced as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that this is the time of the year that’s really difficult for many of the people that you support and it might be worse this year because of the pandemic. The right to negotiate rent reductions, which you’ll find out more about today is one of the temporary emergency measures that are in place to provide financial relief to Victorian renters and to keep renters safe at home, which has just been so important this year. Many of you on the webinar support clients with renting issues and we’re running this session and we’ll like it in the future to give you the most up-to-date information about renting laws and supports for you to share with your clients. We are very mindful of the important role that you will play, the relationships, the trust that you have, and the ability to really get those messages heard by people who will benefit from these relief measures. So we’re going to launch into the, the meat or the guts of the conversation shortly. Just a little bit of housekeeping with this webinar before we get started. I’m shortly going to introduce the team from the Department of Justice and Community Safety, who will give a presentation on rent reductions. After that we’ll have guests from Consumer Affairs Victoria, the new Homes Victoria team, and Tenants Victoria, joining the department on a panel to answer all your questions about renting during COVID-19. And I’ll just quickly let you know how the Q&A session will work, just in case a question springs to mind during the presentation and we really do encourage those questions. So we want you to know that the questions will be moderated. That’s only just for the purposes of ensuring that we can get to as many issues as possible. When you are asking a question, just keep in mind that the panel won’t be able to answer questions about a really specific nitty-gritty circumstance of say about a particular client that you might have, so if we can just kind of keep it to, those are probably more generalities, so we can kind of get to the nuts and bolts of how rent reductions work. To ask a question or to make a comment, you’ll see instructions to use Slido in the chat box. And finally, because this is one of many sector briefings that they cost is hosting about our rent reforms we have a couple of survey questions that we’d love you to answer. They’ll pop up on your screen when you leave the webinar. And if you could please take a moment to answer this survey, this will help us to understand what you want to know about the rent reforms and shape future events. So thank you, we’re now through that housekeeping, and it’s my pleasure to introduce our colleagues from state government. I’d like to introduce Rhys Benny, who is the Director of Information and Corporate Services and Gina Ralston, who is the Chief Dispute Resolution Officer at the Department of Justice and Community Safety and Rhys and Gina will give you a rundown on the rent reductions. We’re very grateful to have you join us Rhys and Gina, to be able to get this webinar happening just as we’re approaching the holiday season. So thank you very much, and it’s now my pleasure to hand over to you Rhys and to Gina. Thank you.
Rhys: Good morning, everyone and thanks Deb for the introduction. Before we start, I’d also like to commence by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land in which we’re all meeting today and pay my respects to the elders past, present and emerging, and any Aboriginal people who might be here today. And as Deb said, my name is Rhys and I’m the Director of Information and Corporate Cervices at CAV in the Department of Justice and Community Safety. And I’m pretty excited to be here, not least because it’s my fourth week in the role and at the department, but also because it is great to be a part of a fantastic series of events like this. I know that there have been other presentations at which we haven’t been able to attend, so hopefully we’ll be able to further support the information you may have already got about the scheme and our role, the process, and how we’re tracking with being able to support renters in the rental market who may have experienced financial hardship as a result of COVID-19. And also, as Deb said, particularly as we move into the holiday period. I will take you through a short presentation this morning and then as Deb said, we’ll participate in a panel, and I’m pleased to say that I have my colleagues who some of you may already know, Clare Anderson, who is the General Manager in my team, responsible for the CAV Information and Dispute Resolution Center. Her team take all of the calls and respond to all of the emails to guide people through the RTDRS process at CAV and also Gina Ralston, who is the Chief Dispute Resolution Officer, and is responsible for the Dispute Settlement Center in Victoria and her team assist where an agreement may not be reached an alternative dispute resolution might be required. I’m also glad that we have representatives from DHHS and in the Housing Vic team who managed the rent relief grants, and also panel speaker who have provided tenant support through the period of this game. So hopefully we’ve got all bases covered between us to give you some good information and answer any questions you might have. So we might kick it off with the next slide. Firstly, I thought it might be important to start with a bit of background and forgive me for those people that are already well aware of the measures that came into effect from the 29th of March this year to better support people experiencing financial hardship because of the pandemic. But to summarize a number of temporary legislative measures were introduced to people experiencing financial-
VCOSS event team: Hi everyone so is Amy from VCOSS here I think we might have frozen. And so we’ll just have a, we’ll just bare a second to see if he can come back. Rhys, can you hear us? Oh, Clare I can see that you’ve popped on, are you going to take over?
Clare: Yeah, it’s it’s Clare here.
VCOSS event team : Thank you.
Clare: Sorry we have lost Rhys so I might take over until he gets back. So I’ll just jump in, in terms of the, the backgrounds that Rhys was explaining, I’m sure most people in this webinar are aware of the changes that the Victorian government has made over the last nine months but the most important things that have come to pass are that landlords cannot serve a notice to vacate to tenants during this period, they cannot increase the rent during this period, and landlords and tenants are able to negotiate and agree on temporary rent reductions, which of course will be the major focus of our discussion today. Brittany, from DHHS, we’ll talk to you about the rent relief grants. They are available for tenants who are suffering financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, up to the value of $3,000. The other important thing to note is, and it was a huge concern for a lot of tenants early on in the pandemic, was that if you are unable to pay your rent because of financial hardship induced by pandemic, you cannot be put on a blacklist, so you can’t be put on one of the residential tenancy databases. So they’re the most important features of the changes that came through as part of that, the renting law changes in late March. Okay folks, so I won’t read all of the information on this particular page, but essentially what it says is that you can’t be evicted unless there are a set of very specific and very limited circumstances and VCAT must make that decision. So if your landlord wants to apply for a possession of the property, so in other words, if they want to get an eviction notice, they actually still need to come to CAV and CAV will need to make a referral to VCAT. VCAT most then determine that it’s reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances that an eviction order be issued. You do have some options, so if VCAT makes a decision that it is reasonable and proportionate that an eviction order be issued, then you can give notice of intention to vacate with only 14 days notice and you can’t be charged any phase for ending a tenancy in that way. So there that the key thing to remember about evictions though is essentially they can’t happen unless they are a set of very limited circumstances at play. So this is the important stuff, this is the work that my team has been doing in conjunction with Gina’s team before the rundown in the process. So steps to reach a temporary rent reduction. First of all, if you have identified that your income has been impacted negatively by the pandemic, the first thing that you need to do is understand how much rent is actually affordable for you now. So as a general guide, and I want to be really clear that this is not specific advice that I’m offering to any individual, as a general guide, we would suggest that you shouldn’t be paying more than between 25 and 30% of your income. So have a bit of a think about what your income looks like now and what 25 to 30% of that is, and that should give you a reasonable guide to what you think is affordable in terms of rent. What you need to do then is request a reduction from your landlord or your property manager, your agent, whoever it is that represents your landlord in writing. It’s really important that you do that in writing for a lot of people, their communications with their agents have probably primarily been over the phone for a long time. It’s important that you keep a record of that request and it’s important that you keep a record of any subsequent agreements. So what we hope and what we have seen in many, many cases around the state, which is really good, is that people have been able to come to those agreements on their own. They’ve contacted their landlord or their agent, they’ve let them know that their circumstances have changed, they’ve let them know how much I can then pay and the two parties have come to an agreement. If you do come to an agreement, you should do that in writing, I can’t stress that enough. And the other thing that you should do is lodge your agreed rent reduction. So CAV has a really easy to use web form on our website, where you can put all of the details in. And so literally that form is as simple as give us your details, give us the property details, give us your landlord’s details, tell us what you rent was before, tell us what your rent is now and tell us why duration of your new agreement is, so you’re from date and year to date. Now it really is that simple, it’s a really, really easy to use process. If in, in the case that you’ve been to your agent or to your landlord, and you haven’t been able to come to an agreement, we can help you. So again, we have a different web form. It’s in a similar location to the agreement’s web form, but it is a disputes web form. And it asks you again for your information, for your landlord’s information, for any steps that you’ve taken to try and reach agreement up until now and any other information that you think is relevant that comes through to my team. And so what happened there is that a conciliator from my team will get in touch with both parties and we will work with you to try and achieve an agreed outcome. And that happens most of the time. So at the moment that’s happening in about 60 to 70% of cases we’re able to resolve disputes on that frontline basis and that’s happening in about a four day turnaround time. So what we’re saying is across the board, and I’ll throw to Gina in a second to talk about what the fantastic work her team has been doing, but between those two teams, the rent reduction agreements that are being launched with the assistance of those two teams and that people have negotiated just themselves with their landlord we’re seeing an average of about a 23% reduction in rent across all of the people who’ve managed to achieve agreements. So it’s been a really meaningful process in terms of helping people with the financial difficulties that they’re experiencing as a part of the pandemic. So one of the important things I’ll just touch on before we move on is that we thought a lot of people who negotiated rent reduction agreements, particularly in the early days of the pandemic and are, I don’t know about everybody else, but I remember when my team moved out of the office, me foolishly saying to them, I’ll see you all after Easter, back when we thought we would all be back in a couple of months, that clearly hasn’t been the case and for people who are achieving rent reduction agreements, that’s no different. So a lot of people thought that they would be back to work in a couple of months or that their circumstances would go back to normal in a couple of months where that hasn’t been the case and where you need to, where you need to extend your rent reduction agreement, you can do that. So by mutual consent of yourself and your landlord, you can extend that agreement and you can simply lodge that agreed rent reduction online with CAV, so it’s just as simple as the initial process. Again, if you’re asking for an extension and you not able to range your agreement with your landlord, getting in touch with us and we can help you with that process. I’m going to hand over now to Gina to talk about the fantastic work of the Dispute Settlement Center. So where we’re unable to resolve disputes through frontline conciliation, It is Gina’s team of highly skilled mediators that we hand off to. So Gina, are you with us?
Gina: Yeah, thank you, Clare. Thank you for your kind words. Good morning, everyone. So I’m Gina Ralston, I’m the Chief Dispute Resolution Officer. I have an umbrella of dispute services, one of which includes the Dispute Settlement Center Victoria, as well as the Domestic Building Dispute Resolution Victoria and the new residential tenancies. So we set this up in a heartbeat, in May their service, borrowing stuff from across dispute services and engaging some new staff as well. And I think we had a regulation the day before we opened, So Clare’s team were a little ahead of us when we started. as Clare said, the DSCV is dealing with the disputes that I guess are a bit more entrenched and a bit more difficult that, you know, the CAV staff have made a fantastic effort to resolve, but they just need a bit more of a service in that conciliation space. So we’ve had about 5,000 matters that could have come across from consumer affairs. And the way that that happens is the information that people provide to consumer affairs, we have a portal that it comes straight through to our case management system. So that’s really good for our clients because they don’t have to go through details again, we have a baseline understanding of the dispute, so it’s a really seamless, warm referral between both agencies. Once a matter comes in, it’s allocated to a Dispute Assessment Officer or a conciliator, they’re one and the same, who will work with both parties to understand the dispute. So they will make contact with each party, we complete an intake and assessment, we will work with people to understand whether they need some support in the process, whether they’ve had legal advice, whether they have specific needs in order to be able to participate in conciliation. So we will do that with both parties and make sure that we really understand what’s at the heart of the dispute and what people’s positions are and then we will also work with parties to prepare them for the conciliation. So I think it’s really important for the group to understand that we don’t simply put people in a room together and get them to nut it out, it’s a very managed, tailored, and quite bespoke approach to each dispute. So then we will work with parties to prepare them, to make sure that they’re adequately equipped to make a decision and to negotiate. So then we’re doing obviously all of our conciliations by telephone. We also have a panel of conciliators that have supplemented the staff so that we can get the conciliations keep them flowing through, at the moment it’s taking about, from the start to the completion of a case, it’s around 20 days. So earlier on that, that ballooned out a bit, but we’ve managed to run that right back in. So from the time you went to the time you finished with your agreement it’s 20 days. The telephone conciliations, depending on the case last about an hour and a half, some are a little longer, some are shorter. And at the end of the conciliation, each of the parties have a written agreement and that forms the basis of the rent reduction agreement. Once that process is finished, we also have our portal straight back to consumer affairs so that document can be loaded up and the agreement can be registered with Consumer Affairs, who are the repository of those agreements. So again, that’s a seamless service, clients don’t need to actually move that information across to Consumer Affairs. We have about an 80% settlement rate, which is pretty extraordinary given that people have come through a number of services, you know, opportunities to resolve their dispute. If the dispute is not resolved in conciliation, then there are two options. So one is that we issue a certificate saying that it’s not resolved and then that’s the passport to VCAT to be able to proceed through the VCAT process. The other option is that as the Chief Dispute Resolution Officer, I’m able to issue binding orders, which, you know, have a range of conditions in them, again, they bespoke to people’s circumstances. We base it on information that we collect from clients, we’re not collecting any information that we don’t need, but we do have some broad brush information about people’s circumstances, it’s certainly not an, we’re not requiring, you know, absolute evidence, but, you know, clearly I’m not going to make an order without having some understanding of people’s circumstances. And typically those orders around rent reduction, very few of our cases at all, have any rent deferral. There’s the odd one for a raise that existed prior to the service that have a payment plan but the vast majority of our agreements and orders are purely around rent reduction and to date, I’ve made 146 orders. As Clare said, we’re starting to see some people coming back who want to extend their agreement or renegotiate their agreement, and those matters of resolving and resolving quickly. And I might leave it there.
Rhys: Thanks very much Gina, it’s Rhys here, I’m back. Apologies for the tech issues, everyone, I guess it wouldn’t be a lot of event or 2020 or something didn’t go wrong. Thanks very much Clare for stepping in. So that’s the process, I thought it might be worth us just highlighting a few of the statistics that we’ve, I guess, gathered over our time with the scheme so far. So since it started, CAV has finalized or fielded, fielded nearly 175,000 contacts about the scheme. And that includes an average of about 400 calls per day to our information center. So it’s keeping Clare’s team very busy along with the many other contacts we receive from consumers and other outlines that we support. Of those contacts, nearly 17,000 have been closed, disputes closed through our frontline team with an average of only four days to close them, which is a super effort by the team. I think around about 4,500 matters have gone to Gina’s team at the Dispute Settlement Center with most of those being closed now, and as Gina said we’ve just done, just about 146 binding orders being made. And I think with the, with the nature of the complexity of those matters, the average time to settle them is around about 21 days, if I’m right, Gina, which I think in mediation terms is very good. Only about 10% of the cases so far have gone over to VCAT or being referred to VCAT, which I think that means the parties are able to generally find a mutual agreement via the process and means that the tribunal is not being necessarily overwhelmed with large amounts of cases. And we have registered nearly 65,000 rental agreements, which includes, I think just under half of those or about 36,000 of those being single instances of agreements between parties. And those agreements are on average, I think as Clare mentioned, represent a reduction of rent of around about 23% over the life of this game so far, which I think is a fantastic achievement. So turning to the next slide to wrap up the formal part of the session, how can people get in contact with us for assistance? Well, we understand that many people in this space would probably generally prefer to speak to someone to obtain information and advice, so the best way you can contact us is via phone and the details are on the screen there. And of course we have translation services available for people who speak languages other than English. And obviously we are also available to accept written inquiries via our website. So I might stop there. That’s the end of the formal presentation and Gina, Clare and I will obviously be sticking around to participate in the panel to answer any of your questions that you might have along with our colleagues from Homes Vic and Tenants Vic. So I’ll hand back to Deb.
Deb: Thank you to the team for that great presentation and Rhys, I really felt for you when you had your internet issues there and I think that there’s probably not a person on this call that hasn’t had a similar experience. It’s just a bit unfortunate when you’re in the midst of speaking, but I’ve certainly been there and had that experience, so well done to the team for seamlessly continuing with that presentation. So we’re now as we flagged, we’re moving into the Q&A segment of our session today, we do have a really great panel assembled. So please get ready to ask any questions that you have about renting during COVID-19. We’re grateful that Rhys and Gina are staying on to answer any questions on rent reductions and the dispute resolution process as they both mentioned but I’m also going to welcome a few more people to our panel, we’ve got great depth of expertise here. So you’ve already had the, the fortunate to meet Clare Anderson, who’s the General Manager of the Information and Dispute Services Center at Consumer Affairs Victoria. So Clare’s in a position to answer questions about the service that you just heard about. We also have Brittany Clark from Homes Victoria, and Brittany’s going to be able to answer any questions about the rent relief grant, which is a $3,000 payment available to Victorians struggling to pay their rent. So we have previously had a renter’s rights rundown event on that grant, but we know that, I think we just, were bombarded with questions, it was a great conversation, and I think people still had some, some fuel in the tank in terms of more questions to ask. So we’re really fortunate to have Brittany here to be able to answer any kind of outstanding questions about the rent relief grant, which is a really key measure. We’ve also got our friends, Georga Wootton who’s a lawyer from the Specialist Tendency Legal Center, Tenants Victoria. Georga was the star of our first renter’s rights rundown event and with some colleagues, so really pleased to have Georga back with us today, and Georga will be available to answer any questions that you have about navigating the emergency measures. And just a reminder from our events team here to pop your questions into Slido, the link is in the chat box and we’ll do our best to get to as many as possible. Now I’m going to multiple, juggle some multiple screens here, so bear with me if I’m looking down, it’s not that I’m not engaged, it’s just that I’m looking at my various screens to start asking some questions. So I might actually, before I throw to the audience questions, I just had one question actually for Gina about one of the points on your slide, Gina, when you were describing the free mediation service, you mentioned that legal or official representatives are not required. And I was just wondering if a tenant wants to have a support person present or a representative present, is that actually permitted?
Gina: Thanks, Deb. Absolutely. So where we can, we encourage people to be able to resolve disputes between themselves, but absolutely if someone needs some representation or some support as part of our intake and assessment of the matter, the Dispute Assessment Officer will work with the client to understand what support they need. And clearly, you know, our starting point is always do no harm in the room, and only, you know, achieve good things for people. So it’s really important to us that people feel secure and in the process and that that, you know, there’s no parent balance is, you know, that’s a fundamental building block of what we do. So absolutely we do on a case-by-case basis.
Deb: Fantastic, thanks Gina. So first question from the audience, and this is perhaps one that we might direct to our colleagues at the department, what avenues are open to international students and temporary protection visa holders who have no entitlements for support with rental assistance if student relief isn’t an option?
Clare: Hi, it’s Clare. I might this one because I have in the last couple of weeks been giving a number of presentations to international students on precisely these options. So, not a lot in terms of, in terms of other funding options, but certainly international students are able to contact us to engage in the dispute resolution process if they are unable to achieve a rent reduction with their landlord. So there is nothing that precludes them from contacting CAV for assistance.
Deb: Thank you, Clare. Another one for the department, in regards to the rental laws that commenced on the 29th of March, 2020, can you tell us when this period finishes, please?
Clare: I’ll take this one as well saying as my videos on channel, that that finishes on the 29th of March in 2021. So it’ll run for precisely a year.
Deb: Fantastic. And I guess this, you know, that period was extended so we do have until the end of March, and just thinking about, you know, the picture keeps changing in terms of emerging, emerging hardship and so even though these measures have been in place for some time throughout this year, that extension that we secured was really important and it’s not too late to engage in this process and to access the supports available. So thank you, Clare for clarifying that date. A question for Homes Victoria for the DHHS crew, what happens if a tenancy ends while there is rent relief credit and the landlord refuses to return the credit to DHHS? Referring to Consumer Affairs Victoria seems undue pressure on the tenant. Brittany, are you able to answer that one?
Brittany: Hi, Deb. Yes, sorry, I’m just getting myself off mute, so I’m putting my video on-
Deb: Thank you.
Brittany: So Brittany here. Hello, I’m a Senior Policy Advisor in the Strategic Housing Policy branch within Homes Vic. This is a very good question and I will take on notice and provide some further information. We recently updated our operational guidelines on this matter because we received quite a few queries and concerns for people who’ve had to go through this process. We have confirmed a process and it depends on when the tenancy ends, whether the person has received the grant and I believe it’s dependent on the landlord and tenant. I mean, to an agreement of what is remaining of the grant and then that being returned, however, I will confirm that and send through the section in our operational guidelines that really states what the process is for tenants.
Deb: Thanks for that, Brittany. And just to let everyone who is listening to this session today, the presentation and the Q&A that there will be resources that we send, material that we send to you after this event and so we’ll be able to include any material from Homes Victoria with that. So thank you, Brittany for following that up and thanks for the bit of information that you were able to provide right now. So thank you. So moving on to the next question, again, this is another one for the Department of Justice and Community Safety, is there an equivalent of the rent reduction scheme for property owners, landlords, what support is there for them if they are receiving lower rent for their homes?
Clare: Hi, Deb, it’s Clare again. So lent, sorry, property owners can get in touch with the State Revenue Office there is a scheme of land tax credit reduction that is available for them to access. I don’t have a lot of information about exactly how those applications are processed, but I do know that it has been designed to be a very simple and straightforward process for landlords to become involved in.
Deb: Thanks for that Clare. Another question, Clare, I’m not sure whether you want to take this one or Rhys, do temporary measures apply to those who are previously unemployed prior to COVID, but are unable to find employment due to the COVID period? So people experiencing financial hardship.
Clare: I can take this one, Deb. I know that this has been a question that both Homes Vic, I’m sure Brittany’s had it a few times and we certainly have, unfortunately, no, it doesn’t apply to those people. So to engage in these particular scheme and certainly to be eligible for the rent relief grant, you need to be able to demonstrate that your income has been impacted directly by the pandemic. So if you were unemployed prior to the pandemic and that status hasn’t changed, then you’re not actually eligible to participate.
Deb: Thanks, Clare. And I think that probably another piece of important kind of policy and program context theories is that this scheme or this package of measures have been really carefully designed thinking about how they interact with other measures, both at the state level and at the Commonwealth level. So thinking about some of the kinds of improvements that we saw at the Commonwealth level, in terms of income support being lifted for people experiencing unemployment, unfortunately there’s some more advocacy to do there about, you know, the sustaining, the kind of their fair rates of income support, but it is thinking about that bigger picture, isn’t it Clare, about the different types of supports that people can access?
Clare: It absolutely is in it, and it was clearly introduced to respond to a specific and fairly narrowly defined need.
Deb: Yeah, great. Thank you so much. This is one for Homes Victoria, so if a rent reduction is agreed with the landlord or property manager and it’s launched with Consumer Affairs Victoria, how do you apply for the rent relief grant with whom and where? Could you please step us through that process, Brittany?
Brittany: Of course. So on our Housing Vic website, there’ll be information about the rent relief grants and then there’s an actual upper link that will take you to checking your eligibility, so it’ll ask you a series of questions and you can either take yes or no. And then from there on you’ll have access to apply for the grant. So the rent reduction agreement is one area of the criteria to be eligible for the grant, but you will also need to prove your other eligibility, which will be that you have lost income, and excuse me, I’ve been losing my voice over the last couple of days, you’ve lost income as a result of COVID and you are experiencing rental hardships, so paying more than 30% of your income on rent you’ll need to have your rent reduction lodged, you’ll also have to be earning less than $1,903 per week, so 99,000 per annum, and have less than $10,000 in sightings. And just to kind of return to one of the earlier points around international students, but rent relief grants do not have any permanent residency or citizenship requirements. So these are open for international students and people who are seeking asylum. We wanted to make sure that they were accessible for as many people as possible, and also not to say subject to made and there’s eligibility criteria that I just stated. So if you had to just Google and typing rent relief grants, it should come up as one of the first options.
Deb: Thanks for that, Brittany. So moving onto the next question, this is one for Georga at Tenants Victoria, Georga, what’s your advice, what does the department do or Homes Victoria do if a landlord refuses to engage with the tenants requests? So tents either seeking a rent reduction or a rent relief grant.
Georga: Thanks Deb, Georga here. So one of the things I wanted to say is that my faith of the process, and once a tenant gets into the CAV system and to the Dispute Resolution Scheme is unwavering and it’s actually the barriers of getting the clients or the tenants into it that sometimes is the most difficult. And that can be many forms, that can be a unresponsive real estate agent or a flat note, and what I’m seeing from the responses, from particularly real estate agents is when they send, when a tenant sends their request in writing to the agents they’re getting responses back that don’t state links to the grants or links to CAV, but put it more to say whether or not that, they use words such as eligibility or rent relief grant and not the words as we would say, which has a right to a rent reduction. So from the outset, the tenants main contact is the real estate agent and they’re reliant on the information. So if they’re not showing all of the options for the tenant, often the tenant is left in the dark about that next step. So I think one of the main important things is that through avenues like this or our attempt to advertise the rent relief grant and the residential tenant to these dispute resolution, so getting the word out there is number one, because we’re still getting lots of questions that the tenants don’t know what the next step is. And also, which is the first step, the rent reduction or the rent relief grant, because if it’s from a real estate agent or the landlord, they care about the rent relief grant first, but as we know, providing this seminar, it’s actually the rent reduction that comes first. And so there is still a little bit of misconception and misunderstanding about what the government has provided for tenants for this relief. So certainly if a landlord says no, and if a landlord delays, our advice is to enter the Consumer Affairs Victoria Scheme, it is that online form that was discussed earlier and put, start that system, don’t wait any longer, don’t take no for an answer. And that’s a really hard step for a tenant to do is saying I’ve got to the landlord and the agent’s saying no, and sometimes they stall and they don’t make that next step. So we must as advocates and lawyers and helpers of the renters, push to say make this next step, this is the right process despite what you’re being told.
Deb: Thanks for that, Georga. And just thinking Georga the advice from Clare and Rhys earlier was just about making sure that you’re putting your request for a rent reduction in writing, but just reflecting on the points that you’ve just made now, I’m imagining that in your seeing instances where landlords are kind of coming back and to conveying that flat out rejection or the no, or discouraging tenants, and that’s verbally, that’s not necessarily done in writing, and so just thinking about, is there any kind of advice that you would give or insights in terms of not only having that rent, request for a rent reduction put in writing, but keeping a record of any of those phone calls or what what’s the tips or advice that you might give? Georga and Clare, you might want to jump in as well with that.
Georga: Certainly. And we have been asking our clients to make notes of conversations, save all your texts if it’s by text, certainly keep all your emails, don’t delete any of the emails that have been sent and that will be helpful to show you that the request was there to see whether people are negotiating in good faith, and what if that does go through Consumer Affairs because they can’t reach agreements amicably, then that will all go to evidence to, for the Consumer Affairs team or the Dispute Resolution team to help untie some of maybe the mess that’s created and get an agreement put in place that’s reasonable and fair for both parties.
Clare: Yeah, can I add Georga that, that is absolutely our experience that we are all seeing a really significant proportion of people who’ve attempted to engage in the process and are either getting fobbed off or are just getting no response at all. So if you are somebody who’s trying to engage in the process and you’re just not getting any response by phone or by email, then absolutely you should engage in the dispute resolution process without delay. We would absolutely support that 100% and sometimes all it takes is a representative from Consumer Affairs bringing an agent for them to get these guides on again. So, yeah, I couldn’t echo that more strongly, don’t delay in getting in touch with us.
Deb: Thanks. That’s Deb speaking, thanks for that great advice, Georga and Clare. So moving onto the next question, and this is one again for the department, could you please tell us what is the new process on seeking possession of a property if it is to be sold or renovated? Are the usual notice timeframes of 60 days still enforced?
Clare: Yes, they are at the moment. But at the moment, if your landlord is seeking a position order that will need to come to CAV first and CAV will need to provide them with a referral to vacate. I don’t have offhand the turnaround times that Vic had at the moment, but they are reasonably lengthy. So you can expect, you can expect to a pretty lengthy wait time before you get any kind of outcome.
Georga: Can I add to that Clare? Georga here, I just wanted to speak from experience some of the recent applications for landlords that have been going through, the VCAT termination and possession scenario. It really does depend on each situation and it’s not a tick box, yes or no, the tenants being kicked out, VCAT are looking at very important, reasonable and proportionate tests, particularly where the homes that have been rented out for the year and they’re just wanting to be exited the tenant for, you know, the holiday period. You know, Vic had a finding that in these serious circumstances of COVID, that that isn’t reasonable and proportionate in some particular circumstances. So it’s really important if that is a tenant in that situation and they are at risk of homelessness or because have they been impacted by COVID it’s not easy for them to find another house, certainly do seek legal advice and advocacy for that tenant, because there are ways to elongate this day and to make sure that they aren’t put in that precarious situation.
Deb: Thank you, Georga, thank you, Clare. The next question is one for Brittany again at Homes Victoria, Brittany, does the grant cover rent raise or the reduced rent? Did you want me to repeat that one Brittany?
– I was just thinking in my head rent raise or the reduced rent.
Brittany: Yep. Well, I am just, it shouldn’t, because if the rent reduction is lodged, then it will cover whatever the individual is paying over 30% of their income of a value up to 3,000. So it can be negotiated between the landlord and tenant to be either put as a credit towards future rent, or it could also pay off any debt that’s sitting there. So I understand yes, rental arrears, but in terms of covering the rent that should be negotiated between the tenant and the landlord and that should just be an agreement in general and then whatever they’re paying on top of that is calculated up to a maximum of $3,000 for the grant.
Deb: Thanks, Brittany. And really appreciate it, I’m glad that you were answering these questions and not me. It’s far easier to be in my chair going through the Slido questions that’s for sure so I think the audience will all be in agreement. I know this is your day job, you’re all experts in this stuff, but everyone is thinking on their feet really quickly. So it really speaks to the depth of expertise in each of these, in each of these organizations. So thank you so much. Moving on to the next question, another one for the department again, Department of Justice and Community Safety, what avenue is available to tenants who do not have a lease agreement? They have a verbal agreement only they might be house sharing.
– They are absolutely able to access this process. So in many cases they will have some kind of evidence of some sort of agreement, whether that are, those are the things like text messages, emails between people that acknowledge those agreements, if they can provide them to us, we will work with them.
– Thank you. Now, a lot of these Christians have been anonymous, but we’ve actually got a name for this one, So I thank you to Dorian at Salvation Army, And so we finally got to your question Dorian, so listen in, what we’ve got, the question is, is if clients have an order to pay rent rates by May 21, can the landlord still take the tenants to VCAT to terminate the lease?
– So I think-
– That one you’re able to take, did you want me to repeat that one?
– No, that’s okay. I think I actually saw Dorian’s original question and it was addressed to Gina because was this just to clarify, was this an order that had been imposed by their Chief Dispute Resolution Officer? I suspect so, Gina, can you shed some light on this one for us?
Gina: I can. It’s an interesting question, ’cause I’m not sure that we’ve tested this at all, but what I am aware of is that VCAT in general is upholding the orders that we’ve made. So I would have to take that one on notice and I’m happy to come back to your Dorian because as I said, we haven’t really had a test of orders in that way. So I’m happy to follow that up with you individually.
Deb: Thank you for that, Gina. And thanks for that question Dorian, and we’ll just make sure that we facilitate that connection outside of the, of the meeting. So thank you. Next question is one perhaps for Georga at Tenants Victoria, Georga, the question is, are there any time limits in the rent relief grant process, for example, for a property owner to respond to requests for information?
Georga: Thanks Deb, Georga here. So I think I might split that question into two. So in respects to the rent relief reduction per first, one of our main pushes is to say, ask for that rent reduction and if you haven’t received a response within a week, which I think is a reasonable and fair amount of time, and certainly start the process of lodging your rent reduction dispute through Consumer Affaires Victoria. And then the second part of the question that was asked is, was there a timeframe for the rent relief grant? So first once you have that rent reduction agreement lodged with Consumer Affairs and signed by both parties, then our recommendation is to make the application for the grant, which is a $3,000. Make that as soon as possible, if not the same day that you’ve lodged it, then next day, don’t delay in that process and that will be a process of the tenant or at the other side, but most I suggest the tenant lodging through the website for the grant and then there will be another stage for the other side to agree upon, but do it as soon as possible.
Deb: Thank you, Georga. A question that any number of the panelists might want to respond to, so I’ll see who responds first because it could be responded to by either the Homes Victoria team or Department of Justice and Community Safety, and the question is, do COVID eviction relief measures apply to all renters or only renters with measurable income loss? That question makes sense? I’m just reading that. Yeah, who would like to have a go at that one?
– I will probably take that one on notice if I can, certainly are part of the process people are only able to engage in that part of the process when they have measurable pandemic related income loss. But my understanding is that the eviction prohibition applies as a blanket measure.
– Thank you.
– Georga, if you got any light, you can shed on that.
Georga: I do, from our experience, particularly when we have real estate agents and landlords that are really acting in good faith and want to keep their tenants, we are finding that such things such as particularly single parents and women who were working part time prior to the pandemic, but then had to cease work because their children are staying home. Now, a lot of people might say that their income didn’t reduce because their supplement that with Centrelink, however, they increase in costs for homeschooling their two kids, the cost of computers that they never had before, and just the cost of having two children at home is skyrocketed and so they’ve been falling into rent raise as well because of those difficulties. So there is a gray area where are they fully impacted by job loss or is it a choice that they’ve had to made to respond to the current Corona virus emergency, which is homeschooling the kids. And so I think that depending on what the situation is, putting out a tenant’s circumstances is in the best good faith and asking for good faith negotiations is certainly the way to go, whether or not it’s what the rent relief grant was there for, they might not be eligible for the grant, but they may still be able to apply for and get a rent reduction with their landlord.
Deb: Thank you so much. Next question is if a community worker hasn’t got the capacity or the ability to take the client through the rental dispute journey, which organization can they refer the client to? So what’s the best kind of pathway there?
Georga: I would be able to speak to this.
Deb: Thank you, Georga. And I’ve actually got my answer from already what Clare has said and also what Gina has said, because this process is designed to be a tenant and landlord process. There definitely doesn’t need to be lawyers and advocates involved, unless of course the tenant is extremely vulnerable and has some, English may not be their first language or they have a disability that makes it a bit unfair for them to go through this process alone. But otherwise I think the best thing we can do as advocates and lawyers is to really prepare the tenant to what to expect. And one of the beautiful parts of the Residential Tenancies Dispute Resolution Scheme is that an officer will be in touch with the tenant and they will prepare the tenant for the conciliation. So as long as we can get the tenant there to apply, in my view, they are really looked after and only limited negotiate, sorry, any limited assistance and advocacy outside that is really necessary.
Clare: I would agree with that Georga and particularly in the first instance in conciliation before we move on to the formal mediation process, there’s often no direct contact during that process between the tenant and the landlord, the conciliator will actually do that for them. So it is designed specifically so that vulnerable people don’t have to have an advocate to engage.
Deb: Thank you so much. Next question is one for home Victoria from Aids The Good Shepherd, question is, is there a backlog for the rental grant being processed, what is the process if applicants haven’t heard back about the rental grant outcome? Brittany, can you shed some light on that please?
Brittany: Me here, yes I can shed some light on that and I will acknowledge that we do have backlog at the moment unfortunately with our grants, we had a big spike in application stray in October, which we think is mostly due to a reduction in job Seiko and Commonwealth payments and most about applicants that are coming through are young people who have been significantly impacted by COVID and a loss of income. So we do have a backlog, which is extending that to several weeks for those to be processed. In regards to what we are doing to address the backlog, we’ve just employed, understand close to 30, 40 extra staff to address that backlog and we’re hoping to eliminate the backlog by the end of December, that’s our plans with remediation plan. I would suggest having spoken to a young woman just the other day who experienced this herself, is to follow up via email, and there’s also the number to contact. I understand that once people get a hold of somebody and I imagine this is in most systems, not just government, it seems to fasten the process, so quicken up the process. So I would suggest that, I know that’s not the answer, that’s definitely not, not the situation that we wanted for people, but unfortunately it’s just because of that spot, however, I can say that we are definitely on top of it and addressing that at the moment.
Deb: Thanks, Brittany. And it’s good to just get a bit of insight into that and a bit of context. I think, you know, the one silver lining in that is that it’s actually really positive to hear that there has been an increase in engagement, the message is getting out there and so thanks to everything that the team there is doing to move through those as quickly as possible. We can only imagine the stress that renters are experiencing. So thank you. Next question is another one perhaps for you Clare, and the context is is that perhaps the renter is not actually affected by COVID directly, but the owner of the property that they’re renting wants to sell urgently, can they serve an eviction notice?
Clare: Again, that would be reliant on an order from VCAT. So the owner would have to come, would to be referred from CAV to VCAT to seek that order. There would have to be some very specific circumstances at play for that to happen.
Deb: Thank you, Clare. And we’re in the final moments of the, of this session. It’s been really great conversation, thank you everyone. I’ve got another two questions on my screen that we’ll move through fairly quickly. This is one again, that could be answered by you Clare, Georga, it’s a question, related question around eligibility, is there any criteria for the scheme, for example, can clients in rent risk still apply?
Clare: They absolutely can. So you are, you are not disbarred from entry to this game based on whether you were in arrears prior to the commencement of the pandemic. Essentially, if your income has been impacted by the pandemic, that is the only eligibility criteria for this scheme. So it’s a pretty broad church.
Deb: Thank you, Clare. And the last question is probably written with a bit more kind of colloquial language, so good one to end on, any advice, so one for you, Georga, heads up, any advice for subtenants of a dodgy property management tenant via international students in skyscrapers where the tenant is evicting, where it’s, sorry, where the landlord is evicting the dodgy tenant?
Georga: I have a feeling that I know where these circumstances that this question has come from. There’s certainly tenancy rights for subletting as well. This is something that the, the subletter or the tenant certainly should be seeking advice about to make sure that that not put in a position of homelessness or of trying being locked out of their home, please refer this tenant to seek legal advice. But again, remembering that that reasonable and proportionate test will be looked at by VCAT. If there’s an illegal entry, illegal evictions, please contact your nearest community legal service so somebody can give you advice and respect that, we want tenants to be safe and housed during this Christmas period. We don’t want to see people on the streets, we’re here to help you and the renter’s rights have increased this year for this benefit. So please seek help.
Deb: Thank you, Georga. Great, great kind of closing message. So we’re just almost at 11 o’clock, it’s been fantastic. I hope everyone has really enjoyed, I know as the host I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, I think we’ve gotten a lot of really great information out to the community sector workers who just, as I said the audience plays such a vital role in connecting people to their rights and providing fantastic support. So can I thank you all our panelists today, so I’m just going to look in across my screen, Georga from Tenants Victoria, Clare from Department of Justice and Community Safety, Brittany from Homes Victoria, Gina who just does an amazing job at the Dispute Resolution Center of Victoria, Rhys thank you, it’s been great to have you involved today as well from the department, and also just want to thank our two interpreters who’ve made this a really accessible and inclusive event today. Thank you to all the people behind the scenes in pulling this event together, in particular, I’d like to give the VCOSS team a shout out, so Karen Taranto and Amy Houston, but I know that each of the people, our panelists who’ve been involved in this call have had their colleagues supporting their participation today as well. So thank you to everyone for bringing this together, And again, just really want to acknowledge and thank the Department of Justice and Community Safety for providing some support for us to run this event today as well, it’s really valuable. I think it has been a really challenging year, what I think, I know it’s been a really challenging year, but I believe that the silver lining has been that we’ve really had this kind of unified purpose around a lot of different things during COVID and rental fairness is one of those things that we’ve really worked strongly together around, and we will continue to do that into the new year. So thank you, we’ll send some resources post this event. Just a reminder prompt from my team, there’ll be a survey that pops up shortly as you leave this webinar, please complete it so that we can keep bringing you really great events that are responsive to your needs. Thank you again, and have a great day and all the best for the holiday season if I don’t speak with you before then. Thank you everyone, bye.
Deb Fewster: Okay I think we’re all good to go. Good morning everyone. My name is Deb Fewster, contrary to the typo in my little box in the Zoom chat there, or the Zoom box there. So Deb Fewster, I’m the manager of advocacy and engagement at the Victorian Council of Social Service. I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we all meet on Aboriginal land, that sovereignty was never ceded, and pay our respects to elders past, present, and emerging, and I’d also like to acknowledge any Aboriginal people how are on the call today as well. So thanks for joining us this morning, I think we’ve actually got an incredibly high attendance which is fantastic.
Essentially just a little bit of background to this event, the Renter’s Rights Rundown, as many of you know, the Victorian government has embarked on an ambitious rent reform agenda, and that includes both long-awaited market-wide reforms which are due to commence in 2021, as well as the emergency measures that were implemented as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. So the Rent Relief Grant, which you’ll find out more about today, is one of the temporary emergency measures in place to provide financial support to Victorian renters. Many people in this webinar support clients with renting issues, and so we’re running this session and more like it to give you the most up-to-date information about renting laws and support so that you can share that with your clients.
A little bit of webinar housekeeping, I’ll soon introduce one of the teams from the newly established Homes Victoria, that team is going to give a presentation on the Rent Relief Grant, but a big part of our session today is time for question and answers. So before we begin I’ll let you know how the Q&A will work, just in case some questions come up during the presentation and you want to ask them as they come to mind. So a few points, comments and questions will be moderated, and that’s only to ensure that we can get to as many issues as possible. It’s also important to note that the DHHS team from Homes Victoria won’t be able to answer questions about specific circumstances or grant applications.
We’ll keep it fairly high level around the implementation of the grant and any questions you have about that. To ask a question or to make a comment you have two options, you can click the Q&A little chat box there, the Q&A button at the bottom of the Zoom window and type your question into that box, and you can select whether to send your question to panelists only or to everyone in the webinar. The other option is that you can click, “Ask question live,” and our host will get your mic and camera working so you can ask your question as close to face-to-face as it gets in this virtual environment.
So you have two options, and finally, because this is one of the many sector briefings that VCOSS is hosting about the rent reforms, we’ve got a couple of survey questions that we’d love to ask you that we’d love you to answer, they will pop up on your screen when you leave the webinar, and if you could please take a moment to answer this survey that information will really help us know what the community sector wants to know about the rent reforms and it will help shape really targeted future events that you’ll derive a lot of value from. So please take a moment if you can to answer those survey questions when they pop up on your screen at the end.
So that’s probably enough from me for now. I’m going to hand over to our colleagues at DHHS, so I’d like to introduce a few people to you, firstly may I introduce Maya Ramakrishnan, also Alex Dordevic, and Brittany Clark from Strategic Housing Policy, they are now at the newly established Homes Victoria, and the team is going to take us through the Rent Relief Grant. Over to you Maya and team. Thank you.
Maya Ramakrishnan: Great, thank you Deb, and good morning everyone. Before we start I’d also like to commence by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we’re meeting today and pay my respects to their elders past, present, and emerging, and any Aboriginal people who might be here today. I’d like to acknowledge and respect the ongoing culture of the Aboriginal peoples which is the longest living in human history, and acknowledge that these lands have never been ceded. As Deb said, we’re really excited to be here today to take you through the COVID Rent Relief Grants scheme, and we’ve got a presentation to go through, but I will … I’ll spend some time on it, but not too much, so we’ve got enough time for really a discussion, question and answer and also feedback that people might have around the program and how it’s running.
Before I jump into our slides, I think it would be remiss of me to not mention the government’s investment announcement from Sunday, the big housing bill which was a $5.3 billion investment into social and affordable housing, and also as part of that announcement of our new entity Homes Victoria. We’re pretty excited about that investment into the social and affordable housing system as a key plank of Victoria’s housing response, and if people are interested in more information I direct them to vic.gov.au and there’s a link there to Homes Victoria and you can find out more about the package and there’s a contact sort of line there that if people have got questions they can submit them formally through that channel. So I thought it was worth just calling that out because I think there’s a range of supports in the system at the moment and obviously the government announcement from the weekend is a big step for generational change really in the housing system.
But today is about another program that the Victorian government has got live at the moment which is the COVID Rent Relief Grants, and if we flick to the first slide, I thought it might be helpful to give people a bit of an overview about the sort of journey to get us to this point, and a bit of a sense of the objectives of the program, and also some information about the criteria by which we assess applications to access the scheme. So really discussion about the Rent Relief Grants kind of goes back to you know, the start of 2020 in our first wave of COVID amidst a lot of national cabinet discussions around a range of matters in the context of COVID, and the social and economic impacts of the pandemic.
One of the things that people would be aware of that was discussed at that level was action by states territories and the Commonwealth on commercial tenancies and residential tenancies, and there were some principles put in place around residential tenancies but it was really around states and territories to establish what the appropriate housing response would be in the context of their state. So back in April there were a range of measures that the Victorian government announced in the context of residential tenancies to better support people that are in the market, there were legislative changes that were introduced, notably an evictions moratorium and a rent freeze which continues at the moment. There was introduction of a new dispute resolution scheme through Consumer Affairs Victoria.
We were hoping that someone from CAV would be able to join us but unfortunately they weren’t able to make it, but I know that people might have questions there so we’re happy to take some questions on notice on that aspect and come back to people, and then of course there were the COVID Rent Relief Grants which were announced on the 15th of April, which was really around supporting renters in the rental market who are experiencing hardship as a result of COVID and to give them direct financial assistance to maintain their tenancies during this pandemic time. Really three key objectives as it’s laid out on the slide, so to provide financial assistance in response to the state of emergency, really encourage landlords and tenants to come together to get to a rent reduction agreement, and I’ll go to this when we get to the next slide.
And from the renter’s perspective, really avoid accumulation of rent related debts, which you know, compound financial hardship or debt issues that particular renters might already be experiencing. Back in April when the scheme was announced it was put out with a maximum grant amount of $2000, that has subsequently been increased to $3000 in recognition of the circumstances of renters in the current Victorian market, but also it was increased when Victoria went into the next stage of restrictions and recognition that the pandemic and its response was continuing for longer than originally anticipated when the scheme was first introduced.
That’s a bit of an overview of the history and the objectives of the scheme. So if we go to the next slide, this details a little bit more about the eligibility criteria. So again there’s been a few changes along the way as the pandemic has unfolded in our state. Originally I think the program was due to be rolled up in September, obviously that didn’t happen because of the situation for COVID so the grant scheme is open until the end of March, which coincides with when the emergency measures in the RTA legislation are likely to come to end, and when the RTAA comes into effect. In terms of our targeting of the grant scheme, you know, everyone can read it on the slide but just to step that through, the main eligibility criteria was that there was a financial impact as a result of COVID, that applicants are in financial hardship or rental hardship and that’s really assessed based on the calculation of 30% of their income … or over 30% of their income being paid towards rent, and that calculation is made after the rent reduction agreement has been put in place.
There does need to be proof of a rent reduction agreement, so that consumer affairs process is effectively like a front door to the grant scheme, and then there was also targeting in relation to applicants’ income and their cash or savings amount. The cash or savings amount is one aspect that changed in terms of the program design as we’ve gone through from April until now. So it used to be 5000, but in recognition of the wider support that was needed in the market for renters that was increased to 10000, and then the last eligibility criteria is that there’s no PR or citizenship requirement, which we saw as a really key part of the program to reach some of the more vulnerable renters that might not be able to access some of the other supports that have been put in place.
So that’s the eligibility criteria, and then in terms of where people can find more information or you know, get on to applying, if we go to the next slide, there’s obviously the website information through housing.vic.gov.au, we have a phone line which is available and there is also more information on the website to step through what the process looks like, Q&As, and also fact sheets that have been translated into a number of languages to try and widen the reach. We know that there are some harder to reach cohorts that we’re really keen that this particular program gets to and maybe we can get to this in the discussion later on, but we’ve tried to provide enough information through those channels to assist people, and importantly a support agency’s able to assist applicants in that process of applying for the Rent Relief Grants.
If we go to the next slide, just a bit of a synopsis about what we’re seeing, so at the moment the total grant amount paid to tenants is around … this is probably a couple of days old now, but just over $50 million has been paid out to applicants and interestingly or perhaps not surprisingly the average grant amount is actually very close to the maximum grant amount, so that’s showing that … I think that indicates a level of rental hardship that is in the system at the moment. More than half of all tenants are in the cohort of 18 to 29 years of age, you know, it’d be good to explore with people on this call why that might be, it could be because of more insecure employment for example through the COVID pandemic, but it also might be an indication of you know, what groups find the application process easier, so we’re keen to make sure that that’s not a barrier.
Loss of employment has been the most common financial impact, and probably fair to say that in terms of the geographic split of applications, so City of Melbourne and City of Port Phillip have been the top LGAs, and there is a concentration within Metro Melbourne, and I think we’ve got an example of that on the map next, which I won’t spend a lot of time on except to say that there is a spread of applications, but there is a concentration within Metro Melbourne. So next slide, I think this brings me to the end of my spiel, but really keen to take questions from people, to hear about whether people accessing your services are aware of the grants, what we can do to break down any barriers that people are experiencing in terms of access, and any suggestions that you might have.
So I’ll turn myself back on mute but open it up for questions and discussion. Deb forgive me, I’ve already forgotten what our process was for this section of the session.
Karen Taranto: We’re just un-muting Deb. The next section is Q&A.
Deb Fewster: Thank you.
Karen Taranto: It’s Karen Taranto here from VCOSS. I’ll just take this moment to ask that people use the Q&A box rather than the chat box to post your questions, that way we can just keep … answer the questions in the order that they come in, that would be great. Thanks everyone. I’ll hand over to Deb now.
Deb Fewster: Thank you. It’s Deb Fewster here again, I felt very disempowered just then, unable to unmute myself, I’m madly typing messages into my phone, so thank you for your indulgence with the clunkiness of some of these online sessions, but we’ll do our best. Now as Karen said, if you could ideally use the Q&A box rather than the chat box. Karen and I are going to be working together to prioritize some of those questions, but while Karen starts to do a bit of moderation with the questions so we can just get to as many as possible, I might just randomly throw to you a few that I can see in the Zoom chat. So one of the questions that I can see from Elise is can couples each apply for the grant if they are both listed on the tenancy agreement?
Alex Dordevic: I can answer that. So absolutely, as long as one of the couples is registered on the agreement, then we can calculate their eligibility and process the application.
Deb Fewster: Thank you. One of the other questions that I can see on there, so it’s a question from C, and it’s a question around the percentage of rent, and the question is is there a way funding can be accessed without a rent reduction?
Alex Dordevic: No not really. So because this is a response to the COVID pandemic, the government kind of announced it with that really core eligibility criteria to try and get both landlords and tenants to come to the table initially to try and reach a rent reduction agreement, before they can access the grant. So it is the kind of first step. Having said that, I think the government’s not prescriptive about the level of reduction, so what we’ve been seeing roughly is around a 25% reduction through those rent agreements, but that’s not mandatory to apply for the grants. So even if it was lower than that, as long as you’ve registered the agreement with the Consumer Affairs Victoria, you’re eligible for the grant.
Deb Fewster: Great. Thank you. Got a question here around how does it work … how does the rent relief work in share houses, if not everyone in the share house is experiencing financial hardship?
Alex Dordevic: Yeah people can still apply. So we will … you can either apply as a single person in a shared household, or let’s say two or three people in a four person share hold, the combination doesn’t matter. We’ll actually assess the person’s eligibility based on their proportion of the rent, assuming that it’s … if there are four people then we’ll assume they’re paying 25% of the rent. If that’s not the case and they’re paying a higher share then they should add that into the text box in the application and we’ll kind of access that. We’ve had quite a few shared households applying, I think the biggest is a six person shared household, but the average is generally two to three people in a shared household that have applied for the grant.
Alex Dordevic: And in some cases where they’re all eligible for the grant and they all meet rental stress conditions, each of those applicants is eligible for a maximum of $3000 grant each, so there have been circumstances where each person in a shared household has got the maximum grant based on their income and the level of rent that they’re paying.
Deb Fewster: Thanks Alex. Question – is this for public and private rental?
Alex Dordevic: That’s a really, really good question and it’s often been asked. It’s actually open to both people in social and community housing, however very few people would meet the trigger of paying more than 30% of their income in rent, as you know in public housing in particular, the maximum is 25% of income in rent, so they won’t meet their threshold. Sometimes in social housing if people are paying market rents, then they will be eligible, so we’re not putting a blanket, “You can’t apply,” but they are going to have to meet all of those eligibility criteria.
Deb Fewster: Great thank you. Some great questions here. A question from Sabina, the question is, I’m assuming the grant is a one-off, i.e. if a client has received one six months prior, they cannot receive another in 2021?
Alex Dordevic: That’s a good comment as well, and at the moment is it kind of … it is a one time application per grant, but we’ll be kind of reviewing that case if the grant continues beyond March the 28th.
Deb Fewster: Thank you. Great question from Antonia Glover at Justice Connect, Antonia’s written in the Q&A, “We know for our work at Justice Connect that there are challenges for people to understand eligibility as part of the rent reduction process, given that they can only apply after they’ve lodged a rent reduction agreement,” and Antonia’s asking is there any way for people to provisionally confirm their eligibility whilst negotiating a rent reduction?
Alex Dordevic: That’s a really good question. I’m now just trying to recall if there is an eligibility calculator on our website, Maya or Brittany can you recall? No we’re not exactly sure, but if we can perhaps take that on notice because I’m pretty sure that we’ve got a ready just to see whether you’d be eligible based on those calculations, but I’m not sure if that’s available on the website, so we’ll take that on notice.
Deb Fewster: Thanks. A question from Stephanie Cowan, can the grants be retrospective?
Alex Dordevic: That’s a really good question too. I think … I’m not sure what’s meant by retrospective, but as long as you’ve lost income as a result of COVID events since March, then you’re theoretically eligible, so we basically look at your income at the time of application, as well as what you’re paying in rent and your personal circumstances. So it could be that you may have amassed some of the debt before the start of March, but the grant itself is payable for funds … the rent that you’re eligible to pay under the rent reduction agreement once it’s negotiated.
Deb Fewster: Thank you. A question from Glenda Fraser at Launch Housing, what if your client is waiting for CenterLink benefits?
Alex Dordevic: I’m just trying to think through the answer on that Maya.
Maya Ramakrishnan: Yeah I was just … it’s hard with these virtual environments when you can’t easily ask a question back, but I mean I suppose if there’s been a loss of income and that can be shown, then that doesn’t preclude somebody applying for the grant. So if they’re waiting and their income has dropped considerably and they meet the threshold for the 30% of income being paid on rent, then they can certainly apply.
Deb Fewster: Great thank you. A question from Launch again, do you need proof of unemployment and reasons for termination?
Alex Dordevic: Yeah so during the application process we just need you to verify why your income has dropped since the start of the event, so that will vary based on people’s circumstances, but it could be a payslip which is showing that your income has been dropped, or it could be a note from your employer that says you did work 30 hours a week and now you’re only working 15 hours a week. So the triggers are a 20% loss in income or a 20% drop in hours I think.
Deb Fewster: Thank you. A question from Jacqueline Swan, when an application has been lodged and submitted, is there a way that it can be reviewed?
Alex Dordevic: Reviewed or viewed? So if it needs to be reviewed then you can contact that contact number that’s available on the website, it’s a 1-300 or 1-800 number and you’ll be able to update your details. If you’re really wanting to know the status of your application, I think you contact the same number. There’s also an email address if you’re really wanting to understand where the process is at.
Deb Fewster: Great thank you. The questions are coming in thick and fast, so we’ve still got plenty of time left on this webinar, so thanks for your indulgence and patience as we make our way through them. A question from Ryan Nolan, do you have an estimate of how long a grant takes to be approved?
Alex Dordevic: Yes well look we had a huge demand in grants during September and October once the grants has increased to $3000, so we’re kind of working through that demand, but roughly about a month I think we’re aiming to get applications assessed and out of the door within 30 days. In some cases it might be longer, and I would say that if it’s causing any of your clients hardship or there’s delays that are being … you know, delays that have an effect on their ability to maintain the rent, that’s an awful situation, we don’t want that to happen, so I’d strongly recommend you or your applicant to contact our number and ask about where that application is.
Alex Dordevic: And you know, if it’s an urgent situation we’ll do everything we can to fast-track that application.
Deb Fewster: Great thank you. There’s a question here from Heidi around the financial impact of domestic violence and family violence. We know that they’re well concerned that there’s been an increase in domestic violence and family violence across the trajectory of the pandemic, so a question about whether the financial impact is being kind of noted, acknowledged, considered by the team in assessing these grant applications?
Alex Dordevic: It is absolutely, and we’re very conscious and aware of the extreme hardship that people experiencing family violence are experiencing, and we’ll do everything we can to fast-track that rent application, so if you or the applicant is in that situation, or you know that they’re in that situation, please let us know and we have kind of fast-track and alternative mechanisms to deal with that. We have had some concerns about whether people’s private information … you know, if they’re experiencing family violence, people’s private information through the process could be compromised and the person committing the abuse might somehow get that information, so we’re very conscious and aware of that.
Alex Dordevic: But again I would say contact our team direct if your client’s experiencing family violence and needs special consideration either in terms of timing or in terms of the sensitivity of their personal information. A really good question, thank you.
Deb Fewster: Thanks. We’ve had a few questions which I guess acknowledge the power imbalance between landlords and renters, so I’m going to ask a question from Emily Marcus which I think is representative of a few questions in the Q&A, so Emily’s comment and question is, “You know we work with people who are entering the rental market, not sure it’s likely the landlords will agree to a reduction directly after a lease has been signed, is there a possible workaround for this?”
Maya Ramakrishnan: So I might jump in on that. So absolutely recognize that there’s a power imbalance that can some of those landlord and renter relationships, as Alex mentioned I think in response to a previous question, the rent reduction agreement is a front door for us … for the scheme, and so that is something that needs to be demonstrated for applicants to access the financial support. This is one where I think Consumer Affairs Victoria can play a role. So in the first instance it might be that, you know … the first port of call is that the renter and the landlord tries to come to an agreement themselves, if that is not possible, we are directing people towards the CAV front door in terms of their dispute resolution scheme, and that has sort of an escalating level of, I guess, formality to it.
Maya Ramakrishnan: But they can help bring parties together and that would be something that we’d encourage people to use. In saying that, you know, we recognize that that can be quite a difficult and perhaps daunting exercise for some renters, and we’re happy to keep working with CAV and maybe come back on what can be done in that situation.
Deb Fewster: Thank you. Now I know there’s a few questions around asylum seekers, and I might just ask a couple of questions that I can see on there, related to permanent residency, citizenship requirements et cetera, so one of the questions from Zoe Evans from CISVIC is that given that there are no permanent residency or citizenship requirements, are people on bridging visas with no income at the moment ineligible?
Brittany Clark: Do you want to go ahead Alex?
Alex Dordevic: Brittany go ahead.
Brittany Clark: I was just going to say we have been doing some work with support providers who are working with and representing people who are seeking asylum and those that are currently on bridging visas, to raise awareness of the grants and also talk through the eligibility criteria and the application process because we understand obviously these people are in particularly vulnerable situations, especially financially and in terms of at risk of homelessness. Unfortunately at the moment they are ineligible if they cannot meet the eligibility criteria of loss of income. So I would really encourage people who are working with people seeking asylum to look at other programs that the government is offering, like the Extreme Hardship program, and there’s also financial assistance that I know our diversity team has been working on and we can definitely distribute that to VCOSS to provide to members here who are working with people seeking asylum.
Deb Fewster: Thank you. A question about … from Georgie from Community Information Services Moreland, what if people don’t have an official tenancy agreement but the landlord knows they’re living in the house, are they able to access the grant?
Alex Dordevic: Thanks that’s a really good question, and the answer is yes. So we recognize that there are a lot of informal lease arrangements that may not have gone through the tenancies bond authority. In those cases we’ll just need proof between the landlord and the tenant that exists, so either a letter, or a statutory declaration that one exists, so absolutely we do want to capture people in less formal arrangements. Having said that we just want to make sure that there is actually a genuine accommodation relationship. So during the application process we’ll ask for some kind of confirmation, whether it’s rental payments made through a bank account just to prove that there is a rental relationship that exists.
Deb Fewster: Great, thank you. Now a question from Tao from Launch Housing, and so there’s a little bit of narrative around this one, so if I just read it out, the question is, “I can’t find any section on the website which clearly explains how the grant is calculated and used. My understanding is that it is used to cover the gap between the 30% of the client’s income and the reduced rent,” and Tao says, “I’m working with a tenant who’s property manager said the grant is used to cover the gap between the original rent and the reduced rent. I directed the property manager to the website but they are adamant that their information is correct.” So a question about just a bit of an explanation around how the grant is calculated and used.
Maya Ramakrishnan: Yeah, and this is a question that’s come up a few times with the grant when the grant has been announced. So in relation to Tao’s position is the correct one in terms of it’s a grant that is used to bring the rent payment down to 30% of income, it is not intended to bridge the gap between the original rent amount and the rent reduction agreed with the landlord. In terms of … that should be available on the website and I think probably the best point … there should be Q&As on the website that go into that detail, but there are also operating guidelines that are on our website that will detail some of the case studies that give people, I guess, more of a tangible view of how the grant is calculated.
Maya Ramakrishnan: Deb I’m just thinking that, you know, we’ll get through as many questions as we can, but there are so many questions that are probably relevant so it’d be great to get an extract from this and we can also respond to some of those questions like Tao’s where we can direct them specifically to that information.
Deb Fewster: That’s a great idea Maya.
Maya Ramakrishnan: And similarly with the asylum seeker question that came up, we can also, you know … Britt mentioned a few programs that we’d encourage people to direct clients that they’re supporting to so we can provide some more information on that in responding to the questions.
Deb Fewster: Yeah great. Really good.
Alex Dordevic: Deb I’ve also just put a link to the operational guidelines in the chat, so it’s about a 30 page document and it actually gets into the real detail of it, so just to Maya’s point, feel free to have a look at those and ask us more questions if they’re not clear.
Deb Fewster: Great thank you. Now again just kind of integrating or bringing a few different questions in the Q&A together, there’s been a few questions about what evidence a renter will need to provide to prove that they’ve lost income. Just wondering if you can provide some examples please?
Maya Ramakrishnan: Alex are you happy to speak to this one?
Alex Dordevic: I am. I’m sorry, I’m just looking at what we require. So we can either have a bank statement which demonstrates there’s been a reduction in income between the period of before March and since March. If you’re a sole trader and you’re not actually earning an income but reliant on the income from your business, then again it’s a bank statement demonstrating a reduction in turnover for sole traders, or a 13 week profit and loss statement, and then if people don’t have those evidentiary requirements, and in some cases they don’t, then a letter from a current or previous employer that employment has ceased or income has been reduced, or working hours have been reduced will kind of do.
Alex Dordevic: So there does need to be some evidence, but you know, we’ll look at payslips, we’ll look at anything that kind of really demonstrates that there’s been a drop in income or working hours or revenue turnover in between those periods. So I’m hoping that’s not going to be too much of a barrier to people and I encourage that if you’re struggling or your applicant is struggling with what the evidence requirements are, to contact our number and we can take you through what will be useful in their circumstance.
Deb Fewster: Great, thank you. Related to an earlier question just regarding renters with no income, does the eligibility criteria regarding lost income exclude people with no income?
Alex Dordevic: I think it does unless they’ve actually lost income. So you know, you need to have income to lose it, so you know, I think Brittany’s point’s right that inadvertently because of the focus on this being a response to the COVID pandemic and the fact that a large proportion of people that were already working have lost income, it probably cuts them out. So I think that’s a fair observation.
Deb Fewster: Yeah. We mentioned earlier the power imbalance between landlords and renters, and so there’s been a few questions about landlords refusing to grant a rent reduction, so I think we kind of addressed part of this question a little bit earlier and I know Maya you acknowledged that unfortunate we weren’t able to have our colleagues from Consumer Affairs Victoria on the call today, but they are a great team and very responsive, so as Maya said we can take some questions offline as well, but just wondering from your team’s perspective Maya, where we her stories about landlords refusing to grant a rent reduction, even though we know this is probably more of a CAV remit is there any advice that perhaps you could share on that? And you might not have any, but just wondering if there’s anything that you might be able to share with the audience today from a DHHS perspective?
Maya Ramakrishnan: I mean it is a little bit tricky because I think that process is a Consumer Affairs Victoria managed process, assuming that a renter and landlord can’t come to an agreement themselves. That said I mean I think it’s always helpful to hear from people if that’s the experience of renters in the current market because I think that helps, you know, build an evidence base for a changed or a more nuanced approach to what that dispute resolution scheme is. I appreciate that’s not a particularly tangible thing to say, except that you know, either through us or through CAV directly we’re happy to take feedback on those experiences, because I think it just builds that case for what might be more … what might be required in the system.
Deb Fewster: Great. Thanks Maya, I know that was a bit of a tricky one to put to you because it really does sit in CAV’s remit, but given that there were a few questions and comments, thanks for speaking to that, and as we mentioned at the outset of this forum, this is just one of a series of forums, so we will continue to both work with the DHHS team and the Consumer Affairs Victoria team around really, you know, getting accurate information to community sector workers about the range of measures that are available and how we can support as many tenants as possible who are eligible to access support. A question as well around people wondering if the Rent Relief Grant can be used for debt accrued in the last nine months?
Alex Dordevic: Look once … the rental grant is really designed to bridge the gap between a person’s rent, or full rent before a rent reduction agreement is in place and their current rent. Having said that once, I think, the grant has been credited to the account of the tenant, would be quite flexible about how it was used, but that’s really in the process … that’s really in the control of the tenant I think, and we expect the tenant and the landlord to agree about the use of the funds, but you know, we’re really being clear in the messaging that it’s designed to bridge that gap between … sorry I’m just … I’ve got a buzz in my headphone so I can’t quite hear, Maya do you mind picking up?
Maya Ramakrishnan: I’ll pick it up. Yeah I think just to add to Alex’s point, so when the payment is made, the payment is made to the landlord or to an account that’s there for the rental payments, and so I suppose the scheme is structured in a way that it gets the financial assistance out, how that is then applied in the context of somebody’s situation is … we haven’t sought to step in between that relationship, so it might be that a renter might choose to use it to bring down future payments so that then, you know, they’re paying 30% of income for the next however many months, it might also be that by the time the payment is made there might be a lag between for example someone losing their job and applying for the grant, and then the grant being paid out, and it could be between that period between them applying and them losing their job that they might have accumulated rental debt.
Maya Ramakrishnan: In that instance it might … it’s completely conceivable that the renter and the landlord might come to an agreement whereby the grant is paid and it pays off the past debt.
Deb Fewster: Thanks Maya. A question about once the Rent Relief Grant is approved, how are the funds spent? Is the rent paid in full or is a portion used to lower the rent cost on a week-to-week basis?
Maya Ramakrishnan: And I think this sort of relates back to the last question in a sense from the scheme’s perspective, we pay out a lump sum, so it’s calculated based on bringing the rent payment down to 30% of income. As we’re seeing in many applicants that is equating to 3000 or close to 3000, so the maximum grant being paid out. In terms of how that grant is then applied, that is dependent on the renter’s circumstance and the agreement that they might come to with their landlord or their agent for example. So it might be that they bring it down, it might be that they clear an accumulated debt, or it might be that you know, they decide to go to zero payments for the next couple of weeks and then pick up. So that structure we don’t … we leave the sort of flexibility in terms of what’s going to work best for renter circumstances there.
Deb Fewster: Great thank you. There’s been a few questions asking whether there’s any support during the application process, so for example people with low English, for example?
Alex Dordevic: Yes, look during the grant application process we’re more than happy for any support agency to support an applicant completing the application. So you know I know that many of the members that are on this today do that day-in day-out so we’re open to that, and we can also use the Victorian Interpreting Service to help as much as possible, so you know I think the frontline is probably the members on this call, but if you need help there is help on hand with the translating service.
Deb Fewster: That’s terrific to know Alex, thank you.
Alex Dordevic: And there are fact sheets in about 30 community languages available on that website, so that’s not actually the application but it does kind of explain the process in main community languages.
Deb Fewster: Great. Thanks for that information. Just a comment and a question, many renters are now seeking an extension to a rent reduction agreement or making a fresh application as their rental reduction agreement, is there a way they can access any remaining DHHS rent relief? Is there an expedited process?
Alex Dordevic: Yes they can apply for the balance of that maximum $3000 if they didn’t receive it the first time around. I don’t think there’s an expedited process, so I think you really either need to contact that number, the contact number directly, or … but that’s probably the easiest way to do it, I think, rather than necessarily a new application.
Deb Fewster: Great thank you, and then a question I’ve just noticed on the Q&A as well, Tanya York is asking are people who pay board and lodging eligible for the grant? So like this is for example people paying board and lodging to family or others, they may receive Commonwealth rent assistance for this, so just a question about whether that’s in scope at all.
Alex Dordevic: That’s a really good question Tanya, and I think the answer is generally yes, as long as they meet all of the other eligibility criteria, so in designing the grant the government’s been keen to have a really wide remit, not just in terms of the people that can apply, by not needing to have a citizenship, but also they can be in any type of accommodation, as long as there is proof that there’s a genuine accommodation arrangement and I think in the circumstances where people are renting from family then would need sufficient proof that a genuine rental relationship exists in that matter.
Deb Fewster: Great, thank you. Just a question from a little earlier, I’m just scrolling back to the Q&A just to scoop up any questions that we missed earlier on. So a question about with the grant, is this in addition to accessing HEF, so the Housing Establishment Fund, and rent assistance from the access point?
Alex Dordevic: That’s a really good question and the answer is yes, they’re not linked really, so we kind of generally expect that people would apply for one or the other, but there may be circumstances in which people are eligible for both.
Deb Fewster: Yeah great.
Alex Dordevic: And yeah, it’s … so the CRA stuff will only kind of factor in potentially on income but probably on how much of their income they’re paying on rent.
Deb Fewster: Yeah great. Now we’re seeing a lot of questions in the Q&A as well about informal tenures, things like overcrowded student accommodation, subletting, I might ask a question from Melinda that is an example of some of the types of questions we’re getting in the Q&A, so Melinda’s asked, or made the point, that many international students live in crowded share homes with informal rental arrangements, and sometimes the rental agreements are in text messages only, there’s no formal paperwork and so Melinda’s asking can they access this grant?
Alex Dordevic: Yeah again that’s a really good question, we’ve met quite a few times with Students Victoria, and some of the international student bodies to try and work through the circumstances or international students and how we can make sure that the grant reaches them. I think it’s a tricky thing, right? So really to kind of … to be fair and reasonable with the grant we need to make sure that there’s a genuine rental relationship, so a text message may not cut that, you know, I think it needs to be probably something that’s … even if it wasn’t it writing at the time, that is confirmed in writing or through a stat dec after the event. I know that kind of puts a slight additional burden on these very informal and sometimes vulnerable rental relationships, but I think it’s important that we do kind of make sure that there’s a proper accommodation relationship in place.
Alex Dordevic: So you know, we’re quite happy to be as responsive as possible to the individual circumstances of international students, and I think if you’re in doubt or not sure then please contact the contact number and that can help you work out what’s appropriate evidentiary requirements for the situation of an individual student.
Deb Fewster: Great thank you.
Maya Ramakrishnan: I think just to come back on that because there’s been a few questions around whether it’s insecure or informal arrangements. You know I think in structuring the scheme we’ve tried to be as wide-reaching as possible and you know, have flexibility within the eligibility criteria to really capture as many vulnerable renters as possible. I think that’s … you know, obviously it needs to be balanced with the integrity and kind of privity requirements across the scheme, so it will often come back to those evidentiary requirements in making sure that they meet a threshold by which there is comfort that it’s an appropriate payment to be made.
Deb Fewster: Yeah thanks Maya, and just noting there’s an earlier comment or question in the chat which I think is a similar … in a similar vein, it’s not so much about those kind of informal living arrangements or renting arrangements, but around that issue of like people perhaps in insecure work, people earning cash-in-hand, so similarly you know, a question about what if a tenant was earning cash-in-hand prior to their job loss, they’re unable to provide a separation letter from their employer, and asking would that exclude them from accessing the grant, so just noting your comments Maya around the evidentiary requirements, your team’s … you know, the balancing act of insuring kind of the integrity of the process and of the scheme, but also ensuring kind of equity of access and addressing kind of community needs, so yeah, similar question there around people earning cash-in-hand and would that exclude them from accessing the grant if they were unable to provide a separation letter.
Deb Fewster: Is there anything else that you would kind of want to add in that regard Maya or Alex or Brittany?
Maya Ramakrishnan: I think it’s probably similar to what I detailed before which is, you know, there does need to be some level of evidence, but I think just going back to what Alex mentioned, where somebody is in doubt, we would encourage them to call or contact us, and then talk through what those evidentiary requirements are specific to their circumstance, because you know, as we said, we’re keen to make sure that this is as far-reaching as possible, we just need to strike that right balance to make sure that there’s integrity in terms of the payment administration.
Deb Fewster: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah and just want to commend you on that kind of very … kind of, I guess, fair and just approach that the team is taking. Now I’m conscious of time, we are due to finish up shortly, just probably a couple more questions before we finish up and as we said, we will have a record of all the questions asked, and look at a way of addressing anything that we weren’t able to get to today, but it’s been a really engaging session. So a question around if someone received the grant and then moved house, what happens to the unused funds?
Maya Ramakrishnan: Alex did you want to take this one? There’s been-
Alex Dordevic: yeah.
Maya Ramakrishnan: yeah.
Alex Dordevic: yeah absolutely, and look I think this has been a really interesting example of the tension between wanting to make sure funds go to people that need it, and making sure that funds don’t necessarily travel with people when they don’t need it. So where we’ve got to currently is that if there is money left over at the end of a tenancy agreement, once you’ve settled with the landlord on all outstanding stuff, if the grant was paid, kind of, I think after the end of September then we would generally expect the landlord and tenant to agree to pay that money back. So there might be a small proportion of the grant left over, but if that person is kind of moving on to another tenancy, then we can probably fast-track, you know, reconsidering how that money is used. So in general we would expect it to be paying out all arrears and outstanding debts, and if there’s any money left over, returned back to the fund.
Deb Fewster: Great thank you. So we’re at 10:58, we’re due to finish up now, can I just thank everyone for attending, we were just blown away by the level of interest in this session, and really appreciate … you’ve all got very busy jobs, appreciate you making the time to join us this morning, we really hope it’s been useful. We’d love you to answer some survey questions at the end, and really we recognize that we’ve got a great kind of package of supports assistance available to renters in Victoria right now, and we absolutely recognize the important role … the key role that community sector workers make in amplifying that message, letting people know what’s available out there for them, and connecting them to those resources and supports, so thank you to all our community sector heroes, we really appreciate the partnership with you.
Deb Fewster: Really want to thank Maya, Alex, and Brittany, like what a fantastic team, very smart, switched-on people and I think we covered a lot of ground today. So thank you for joining with us for this session, it will be the first of many kind of points of engagement between the different teams across government and VCOSS with the sector to make sure that you have all the best information to hand. So thank you very much, please complete the survey questions pop up on your screen, and please continue to look out for more events and information as part of the VCOSS renters rights rundown. I’d really like to thank Consumer Affairs Victoria for their support in helping us to put this on as well. So thanks everyone, have a great day, and we’ll enjoy catching up with you again in the near future. Thank you everyone.
Maya Ramakrishnan: Thank you.
Emma King: Good afternoon and welcome. My name is Emma King. I’m the CEO of the Victorian Council of Social Service. And it’s my absolute pleasure to welcome you to our forum this afternoon. I’d like to begin by acknowledging that I am with you today on Aboriginal land. I’m on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. And I would like to pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. And of course, to acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded.
We’re running this session today because Victoria’s rental laws have changed to better support people during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m joined by Matthew Andrea, a senior lawyer from Tenants Victoria who provides information, advice, and legal representation to Victoria’s renters. In a moment, Matthew is gonna be talking to us through the changes in detail, and then answering your questions. Please put your questions into the Slido box underneath this video. We will do our best to get to as many questions as we possibly can. If we don’t get to yours, we will do our best to chase it up afterwards. Now being mindful of time and the short 30-minute window we’ve got today, Matthew, I might throw straight to you. Matthew, can you take us through what people need to know? Thanks.
Matthew Andrea: Exactly, and thank you, Emma, for that introduction. Hello, everyone. As Emma mentioned, my name is Matthew Andrea. I’m a senior lawyer at Tenants Victoria where I’ve worked for the last four years. I’d also like to acknowledge and pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the land before getting into yeah, the discussion today about the rent reduction process and what that involves.
So a little bit of a disclaimer before we begin, just noting this presentation is not to be taken as a substitute for legal advice. And if you do require legal advice about a client you’re assisting with the tenancy matter, we have a contact numbers for organisations to get in touch with us, as well as a direct line for tenants to contact us as well. That material will be provided as part of the material for registered participants today. I’m also talking today through some slides, which won’t be up on the screen. But again, that that material will be available. I believe it might already be available for, for registered participants if they wanna look at it afterwards or to go along as I’m speaking to it.
But just for a bit of background before talking about the rent reduction process as well, tenants were one of the groups most impacted by the outbreak of COVID-19, as there are more likely to be people in industries that were, that experienced reduced employment, or indeed a complete reduction in employment entirely. In response to the outbreak and the impact on tenants there were a number of changes to tenancy law and to policies that were introduced in order to support tenants in dealing with the pandemic. We won’t go through all of those changes today, but I do want to highlight just briefly a couple of them just ’cause I think that it’s relevant for the context of considering the rent reduction.
So the first is that tenants who can’t afford their rent are unable to be evicted for that reason, which is a big change that, you know, tenants who previously were tenants were behind in their rent, they may face the threat of eviction because of that. But currently the laws in place until at least March, sorry, the 29th of March next year provides a protection against tenants from being evicted for that reason. And also tenants who can’t afford their rent as a result of the pandemic are unable to be listed on a tenancy database, which might affect their future rental history. I won’t talk too much about those points, so they sort of deserve their own topic on their own, but I think it’s relevant context just to considering the environment in which tenants are at the moment with and the relationship they have with their landlord. It’s sort of this, the landlords, they’re also in a new situation where previously, if a tenant was not paying their rent, they would, you know, begin the process of eviction to get them out of the property.
But now they’re in a situation where that’s not possible for them to do. So really I think it is a great opportunity for both tenants and landlords to have that conversation about the payment of rent and what can be done about it. But the other things that have been introduced and we’ll talk more about today is that there’s also been a new process introduced to assist tenants who are seeking a rent reduction and are having difficulties achieving that with their landlord. And they’ll say that tenants who do reach an agreement with their landlord may be eligible for up to $3,000 from the paid, from the rent relief grant, if they’re experiencing rental, still experiencing rental hardship after that. And this is really, a lot of fuss was made about the reduction in land tax that landlords might receive if they offer a rent reduction. But I think that this is really the true incentive for landlords to offer a rent reduction for tenants, which is potentially being able to access that grant of $3,000 to help cover some of the arrears that the tenant might or difficulties that a tenant might have with paying the rent. Well, we can save a conversation perhaps for the question about the eligibility criteria for the rent relief grant. I don’t wanna talk for too long ’cause I wanna make sure we can get to your questions. But I’ll just go through a bit of a step-by-step guide of what the process for seeking a rent reduction might look like for a tenant and what their experiences might be if they did, if they are trying to get a rent reduction.
So the first thing that we’d recommend for tenants to do is to do first of all determine what they can, figure out what they can afford. We recommend based on mid literature from the literature, from the social services sector, that’s somewhere between 25 to 30% of the tenant’s income is probably a good figure for working out what would be affordable for them in terms of rent. Now, I do wanna emphasise part of this first part that they should, tenants again you thinking about what they can afford and not what they think the landlord will agree to. So their starting point should always be what is it that I can afford at this moment and go from there. We’d also note that really encouraged tenants not to agree to deferrals of rent. So rather than getting a reduction in rent, having the rent deferred to be paid off later on. Effectively that’s essentially just kicking the can down the road and making the problem much more difficult at that stage to try and work out a solution. It’s definitely something that needs to be dealt with head on. And we we’ll talk a bit more as we go on about what tenants can do if landlords are only offering a deferral of the rent. But the next step after figuring out what the tenant can afford and what they wanna propose for rent reduction is obviously to write to the landlord or to their estate agent, setting out the rent reduction that is being sought.
Now there are a number of resources that are available to help tenants with that on our website, on Tenants Victoria’s website. We do have some example letters available. The tenants might wanna use or adapt for their own purposes just as an introduction to approaching that subject ’cause that can be a difficult, it can be a difficult thing for tenants to approach. A number of tenants who are in this situation might be people who previously consider themselves to be very financially stable in their lives. And this might be the first time in their life where they are having to seek support services or to ask for clemency in terms of their debts. We do have some resources available on our website to help with that. And we definitely recommend that tenants keep a record of all communications that they have about requesting a rent reduction.
Now, the next step is if tenants can reach an agreement with their landlord about it, then that’s great. Then problem solved. We’re all done there. Really the only advice there would be is if tenants can reach an agreement with the landlord. It’s important to make sure that it’s clearly set out in writing so that both parties understand what exactly it is that has been agreed because we have seen some issues come up where agreement it’s unclear. Well, one party’s is unclear about what has been agreed to as part of the rent reduction. And then that school is the further dispute later on. I note the Consumer Affairs Victoria have an example agreement on their website, which tenants might find useful in terms of, in terms of using. But the other important thing is that if tenants do reach an agreement to make sure that they lodge that agreement with Consumer Affairs Victoria, because that’s one of the key criteria in terms of being eligible for the rent relief grant is having that rent reduction agreement.
I think there’s been some confusion for some tenants because they see the advertising and they think that there might be just the $3,000 just available if they’re having hardship. But having a rent reduction agreement is actually one of the eligibility criteria for that grant. So again it’s important to have that registered with Consumer Affairs Victoria so that tenants can then apply for the rent relief grant if they are eligible for it. But under the more, I guess, contentious side of it, which is what happens if the tenant and landlord can’t reach an agreement about the situation.
The first thing that we would note is that we’d encourage tenants not to wait for too long once they’ve made an offer of a rent reduction or a proposal for a rent reduction to their landlord. What we would suggest is that that tenants should wait no more than a week for the landlord or the real state agent to respond to the request. It’s not something that should be left to sit on for months or indeed be engaged in lengthy back and forth for months without any kind of resolution. Long and short, and tenants may even wanna put a deadline on their offer and say that, you know, if, you know, this agreement can’t be reached, then I’ll be taking it further. And what do I mean by taking it further is that Consumer Affairs Victoria have introduced free mediation and conciliation services to assist tenants who might be having difficulty reaching agreement with their landlord. And so tenants who are in that situation can get in touch with Consumer Affairs Victoria, explain their situation. And then Consumer Affairs Victoria, and someone from the Dispute Settlement Center of Victoria will step in. They’ll talk to both parties and they’ll try and sort it out one way or another. So that might involve, that might involve just a bit of back and forth on the phone with each other, or it might involve in a more formal sort of sit down for a couple of hours where both parties sort of talk about the issues that they’re having at the moment and then try to reach some sort of agreement about that. And I’d definitely encourage tenants to explore that, to take that option up if they are having difficulty in getting a rent reduction agreement. And again to take that step sooner rather than later if it’s clear that agreement can’t be reached.
Ultimately though, if the parties still can’t reach an agreement about the issue after, after mediation or conciliation, the Chief Dispute Resolution Officer at Consumer Affairs Victoria can actually make binding dispute resolution orders on the parties without their consent. And by that I mean that the Chief Dispute Resolution Officer might look at all the circumstances of the tenants and landlords situation and say, okay, the parties here can’t reach an agreement. So I’m going to say that I think that this is what is fair in the circumstances. Or alternatively, the Chief Dispute Resolution Officer might decide not to do that. But if that’s the case, then tenants have the option to make an application to VCAT, to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, for a legally binding order. Again, it’s reducing their rent in those circumstances. I think that there’s a couple of points I do just wanna make about that very briefly without getting too much into the legal side of it. But I think that one thing I really do wanna emphasise that if tenants do get to that stage, just to keep going and to not give up at that point, because it may take some time to get to that stage. And tenants may be feeling somewhat deflated or somewhat defeated after going through that process. But I really do encourage them to keep going through with it. And if it does require making an application to VCAT then to do it because, you know, I have plenty of experience over my years working here at Tenants Victoria with VCAT. And the main thing that I can say about my experience with it is that it’s relatively informal. It’s designed to be used to be accessed by people from all backgrounds in life. So, you know, a tenant shouldn’t feel intimidated by that process just because it’s a little bit more formal than the mediation. But as part of the Chief Dispute Resolution Officer making binding orders, or of going through VCAT, tenants may need to collect and provide good evidence about what their financial situation is in order to provide it.
So that might be something to really encourage tenants to do early on is to really put together the material that they wanna point to, to demonstrate the hardship that they’re currently experiencing. And just a last part about the process that I wanted to mention was, the emerging issue of tenants who have agreements that are about to expire or agreements that might be onerous for them. So they might be having difficulty paying them, or they might’ve previously agreed to a rent deferral only instead of a rent reduction. And in both cases what I would encourage the tenants to do is to go back and to renegotiate that agreement again, just because the agreement’s been, you know, an agreement has been reached once, or, you know, that an agreement’s been reached and it can’t be complied with, or the tenant is having difficulty complying with it.
That doesn’t mean that’s the end of the story. Tenants can go back through that process and start all over again going through the Consumer Affairs Victoria process or indeed going through the Consumer Affairs Victoria process for the first time if they previously had worked it out with their landlord. So I think that’s one thing I just wanna emphasise as just sort of a last sort of introductory thing to this presentation before getting to your questions, which is again, if tenants do already have an agreement not to despair, not to think that that’s the end of the story, but to understand that they do still have options for renegotiating that agreement too.
Emma King: Thanks so much, Matt. That was an incredibly comprehensive overview. Very, very quickly as well. We do have questions flooding in, so I’m about to get to those. I also just wanted to acknowledge that apparently we’ve had some issues with our website, some technical issues, so just letting you know that we are up and going again, and my sincere apologies for any issues that you might’ve had in accessing the website. One area I think that’s come through while you’ve been doing your introduction as well. Matt has been around renters and renters applying for rent reduction or rent relief grant if they’re not listed on the lease. So for example, if they’re living in a shared house. Are you able to address that?
Matthew Andrea: Yeah, it is a bit of a tricky situation, particularly obviously people who are in a share house who might be, you know, partners of someone who’s living there, or children of someone who’s living there, or some other situation. They may not have the same kind of rights and protections as the actual tenants who are listed on the agreement may have. With that said, however, I think what I would emphasise is that if they had been making contributions to the rent or to utilities or to other expenses of the household, and that has been affected by the pandemic, certainly I think that that’s a relevant circumstance to raise as part of any process for negotiation in this instance. Because one thing that’s very clear, I think, from the mediation scheme and from both, from going through VICAT with these issues as well too, is that really any kind of hardship or any kind of difficulty is on the table for discussion at the moment. It’s not limited to, you know, X, Y and Z kinds of hardship or these circumstances only. It’s really an opportunity for all those issues to be discussed and raised and hopefully resolved.
Emma King: Thanks, Matt. One of the other questions that’s come through is can a housing provider increase rent because the tenant’s Centrelink payments have increased during the COVID crisis?
Matthew Andrea: Ah, that’s a little bit of a technical question. I assume the question’s in the context of either community or public housing. My advice is my view, you know, that there is a provision that says quite simply that rent can’t be increased as a result of, as part during the period while these laws are effective. And that applies equally to private renters as well as renters in social housing. I think the comment I might say without going too much into it is is that it is actually quite a contentious issue. So perhaps if someone does have that issue for one of their clients, perhaps to give us, give Tenants Victoria a call and we can perhaps talk about it a bit more detail.
Emma King: Thanks, Matt. One of the other questions that’s come through is saying, can a landlord take their property under the current moratorium on eviction when the tenant’s fixed term lease runs out?
Matthew Andrea: No is the short answer to that. So, as part of the laws that have been passed, there have been restrictions placed on the reasons why a landlord can terminate a tenancy agreement. So there are still reasons that a landlord can make an application to VCAT to terminate a tenancy agreement. And indeed that is one of the big differences. It’s no longer simply giving a notice to vacate. Landlord needs to make an application to VCAT to say, “Can I please terminate this tenancy agreement?” But the reasons that landlord can do that are limited and simply because of fixed term agreement has come to an end or indeed, you know, for no apparent reason when a tenant is on a periodic tenancy. Those are not reasons that the landlord can apply to VCAT for terminate at the moment.
Emma King: Thanks, Matt. I take you’re under pressure at the moment as all the questions are coming in. But it’s fantastic. One of the other questions is around laws around family violence and how have laws around family violence been affected by the COVID-19 conditions for renters.
Matthew Andrea: It’s certainly a definitely a broad topic to discuss on. But I think that the main points that I would raise is that tenants who have experienced family violence, one of the other key changes that was introduced at the same time was amendments to the act to make it easier for tenants who’ve experienced family violence to either end the tenancy agreement entirely without further lease breaking costs or the like, or to get an agreement in their name alone and without the other party on the tenancy agreement as well. So that’s one of the issues that, one of the things that has been introduced at the same time as the changes in response to the pandemic. I think the other thing that I’d mentioned as well, too, in that is that is that one, of course, as mentioned before, if a tenant is having difficulty paying rent as a result of family violence to rely on the same provisions. So to go through the same rent reduction process as has been discussed. And second of all, as well, is that if it did come to the landlord saying they wanted to terminate the tenancy agreement, one of the other things that was introduced is that it’s very relevant for VCAT to consider family violence as part of deciding whether or not to terminate the tenancy agreement. So certainly there have been some added protections against, you know, being evicted and being liable for lease breaking costs and the like if tenants have experienced family violence.
Emma King: Thanks, Matt. And it’s important as well, isn’t it, to acknowledge the changes that have been made by virtue of the family violence Royal Commission that feed in there as well. Another question we’ve had was around rooming houses and can rent reduction be applied for if someone is living, when someone is living in a rooming house?
Matthew Andrea: Yes, most definitely. The same procedure applies. There’s different sections of the law that apply to rooming houses, or indeed to caravan parks, or to Part 4a agreements for those who are familiar with those kinds of arrangements. So indeed the same process and the same option of seeking a rent reduction is available for all those circumstances. The only real difference is the section number that you’d point to if you’re going through VCAP. But that’s probably more of an academic point rather than a practical one.
Emma King: Thank you. So if a tenant’s been continuously breached at a property for issues such as damage, can they be evicted by the landlord at the moment?
Matthew Andrea: Potentially that could be something that happens. So breaches of the tenancy agreement are, is a reason why the landlord can make an application to VCAT for termination order. But I think the one thing that I would note there is that one of the, that there’s a new test that VCAT has to consider as part of any termination application. And that’s whether or not it’s reasonable and proportionate to terminate, which, you know, the question of course is what does that mean? What does it mean? Is it reasonable and proportionate to terminate the tenancy agreement, but essentially it’s a multifactor sort of consideration about everything that’s going on. So it might be, you know, VCAT might consider the seriousness of the breaches, how often they’ve happened, as well as the likely impact on the tenant of a termination order being made. So is there a risk of homelessness to the tenant if this order is made. And really at the end of the day, to put it simply like, is this order justified? Like, is it really justified to terminate the tenancy agreement in the circumstances given the hardship that maybe resulting to the tenant as a result?
Emma King: Thanks, Matt. In terms of a renter who’s getting, you know, a rental subsidy from DHHS, if they move to another properties, they’re still paying more than 30% of their income in rent. Does this subsidy move with them to the new property?
Matthew Andrea: Yes, it should. I’m not quite sure I fully understand the situation. So I might need a little bit of a clarification. If it is a public housing, a tenant in public housing, then their rent should be based on their income rather than any market forces. It may be a case of if there are issues with it, then then taking that up with DHHS either informally or indeed through a formal appeal, internal appeal, through their policies. And it’s a little bit, it’s not as simple as simply saying, you know, is a tenant paying 25 or 30% of their income? ‘Cause different income is assessed in different ways. And it can get a little bit complicated sometimes. But, yeah, as a rule of thumb, if a tenant in public housing or indeed community housing came to you and they’re were saying they were paying more than 30% of their income in rent, that’s probably an indication that something has gone wrong in terms of how the policies are being applied.
Emma King: Thank you. One of our questions that’s just come through is actually in terms of, you know, if someone who’s requested a rent reduction and the agent’s written back saying no because the landlord themselves is in financial hardship, is the tenant able to do anything about that in the circumstances?
Matthew Andrea: Yes, most definitely. I would encourage the tenant at that point to get in touch with Consumer Affairs Victoria, and lodge their dispute online to seek mediation or conciliation of the matter. And it may be the case that the hardship of the landlord is relevant for consideration. But I don’t think the tenant should feel embarrassed by that or that they shouldn’t follow through on it because, you know, without sounding too bleak about it at the moment, but most everyone is experiencing some form of hardship or some form of difficulty at the moment. And really the mediation process is to work out with an independent third person there who’s not there to pressure the parties into anything or to decide the dispute necessarily. But the point of the mediation, sorry, is to really work out those issues and try and come up with something that’s fair for both parties.
Emma King: Yeah, fantastic. That’s really great clarification. I think a question that we will have regularly as well. Now, I know you touched on this in your introduction and it might be worth just ’cause the questions come through just briefly mentioning again. So people have asked what documents do renters need to provide when they request a rent reduction? I know you spoke earlier about the sort of the templates that exist I think on your own website and a few others as well. But in terms of perhaps just touching a little bit more on the sort of documentation that renters provide.
Matthew Andrea: Yeah, and it can be a little bit of a contentious issue as well too, because I know that there’s a number of tenants have reported that the real estate agents in particular have like a set template already now that they’re using to ask tenants of their financial details when considering a rent reduction. and the number of tenants have said that they find that those forms and the information being requested to be quite invasive. I think that, but with that being said, I think at the same time too, tenants, if a tenant is asking for a rent reduction, then I think that they should provide evidence that that they believe demonstrates a hardship, or sorry that is sufficient to demonstrate the hardship or their circumstance at the environment that would, yeah, that would justify considering a rent reduction. So it may be for example, their bank statements. A lot of tenants don’t like giving the bank statements, but that might still be a good document to include. It may be a separation letter or a letter from the employer detailing their situation. It may be documents from Centerlink, just acknowledging receipt of job keeper or job seeker to point to the change in the circumstances. But really I think it may vary depending on the tenant’s particular circumstance, but I think that those are sort of, a good sort of broad category of documents to consider in providing.
Emma King: That’s fantastic, thank you.
Matthew Andrea: The only thing I was just gonna say is that if tenants are feeling pressured to provide more than they’re comfortable with, then they may want to just, you know, say, well, look, here’s what I’m happy to provide. And I think that that’s enough for you to consider my request.
Emma King: Fantastic. And then I think probably what will be our last question for today noticing how close we are for time as well. It’s gone very fast, hasn’t it? So in terms of DHHS including the COVID supplement payment when they’re assessing the 55% affordability for DHHS bond loan.
Matthew Andrea: Unfortunately, I might have to take that question on notice. I’m not quite sure–
Emma King: Fair enough.
Matthew Andrea: How that policy is being applied at the moment. I was going to speculate, but I think it probably best–
Emma King: No, we can park it. We can park it and then I’ll fit in one more just briefly. And it’s just say, if we can take that on notice and perhaps look at how we share that information afterwards, is the landlord able to evict someone at the moment because they want to renovate the house?
Matthew Andrea: No.
Emma King: Okay. A nice, easy one to finish on. The simple answer is no, yeah.
Matthew Andrea: That was one of the reasons, but unless it’s public housing, public housing is the one exception, but even then the same rules about whether it’s reasonable portion would apply.
Emma King: Fantastic, thank you so much. Matt, you’ve been incredible in terms of looking at covering so much detail within this incredibly fast time, noting that we’ve got, you know, this sort of half hour window to cover a huge amount of information. I just want to let people know that we will have a full transcript of this event that will be available in a couple of days. We will send that through to you so that everyone who’s registered for the event today will also chase up the questions that we haven’t got to today.
Although I have to acknowledge Matt who has been phenomenal in working through a huge number of questions within a very short time. Keep your eyes peeled for updates from VCOSS and from Tenants Victoria about future events such as this. We had a huge number of people registering for today. So I think it just shows a very deep interest that exists as well. In closing as well as acknowledging Matt and his fantastic work in the lead up and during today, I just wanna give a huge shout out to teams at VCOSS and Tenants Victoria, who are working behind the scenes and have done, you know, who are working to make all of this happen. And of course, also the team at Tenants Victoria who are giving advice to renters every day. I know your phones are running hot all of the time.
And I just really wanna acknowledge the work that you and your team do, Matt, ’cause it’s just phenomenal. And it makes such a difference to the lives of so many Victorians. And we know that more and more people are renting. So on that note, it’s my pleasure to say a huge thank you to everyone. Have a fantastic afternoon. And we hope to see you at an event similar to this again soon. Thank you very much.