‘The Renters Rights Rundown’ was filmed live on Wednesday 30th September, 2020.
- Emma King, VCOSS CEO
- Matthew Andrea, Tenants Victoria senior lawyer
- Download Matthew’s notes
- A step-by-step guide to rent reductions and rent relief grants Tenants Victoria
- coronavirus (COVID-19) guide for renters Tenants Victoria
- Workers Advice Line Tenants Victoria
- Renting rules and support during the moratorium Consumer Affairs Victoria
- A guide to the rent reduction process Consumer Affairs Victoria
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) rent relief grant Department of Health and Human Services
- Tenancy Assistance and Advocacy Program Providers Consumer Affairs Victoria
- A step-by-step guide for rent relief for young people in Victoria YACVIC
- COVID-19 Rent Relief Grant Information for Disabled Young People YACVIC
- Dear Landlord (Self-help tools for renters during COVID) Justice Connect
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.
The above session and notes are general information only. They are not a substitute for specific and formal legal advice.