Policy Demands

 

“The primary purpose of housing should be to meet the needs of people, rather than the demands of profit. It is a collective, universal right; not only do we all deserve access to housing, but this grounding in housing should also facilitate our capacity to shape our urban environments. As long as housing is positioned as a commodity within the market, it is subject to the same boom and bust cycles that all commodities are subject to, and encourages complicity in unjust and unequal processes of urban governance and property economics by keeping many of us vulnerable, and by offering some the hope of wealth at the expense of the security and wellbeing of others.” (‘Housing for All’ Gabba Ward Housing Policy Collective submission in response to the State Government’s ‘Working Together for Better Housing and Sustainable Communities’ Discussion Paper, June 2016).

 

The outdated model of housing in Australia which views renting as a transitional phase for young adults between moving out of home and buying their own house. But increasingly many are being priced out of the housing market and renting for longer, perhaps forever. As of 2016, the Australian census reported that 30.9% of the population rents, which has steadily risen from 26.9% in 1991. Currently, in QLD 34% of households are housed in the rental market and 43% of tenants have been renting for more than ten years. Now that renting has become a long-term prospect for a great many of us, the conditions of renting need to be adapted to reflect this. This is a reasonable and realistic response to the prevalence of long-term renting, exhibited throughout the world.

With more people renting long-term, it makes sense that we adapt our view and treatment of renting so that people can feel at home in their rentals. This means making renting more secure by stabilising rent increases and preventing no-grounds evictions, as well as enabling tenants to make minor changes to their houses and having pets.

It is also necessary to consider renting reform within the broader context of housing in this state. Social housing is in crisis in Queensland, with more than 29,000 mostly “high needs” applicants on a waitlist. Meanwhile, many apartments and houses sit empty, inaccessible to those who need them most. Further, in Queensland, there’s widespread housing stress, with those on low-incomes (bottom 40%) spending more than 30% of their income on housing costs. Only households with at least two minimum wages can afford to rent from the Brisbane private rental market without placing themselves under undue financial stress. All other low-income households (families, couples and singles) need to spend considerably more than 30% of their weekly household income to rent from the Brisbane private rental market. There’s an acute shortage of cheap housing, much of which is being demolished in favour of private apartment developments that do not facilitate diverse, connected communities, are unsuitable for families,  and unaffordable for those with greatest need to live closer to the city. There are roughly 20,000 people currently homeless in Queensland.

 So it’s clear that neither the private rental sector nor the public housing sector have responded sufficiently to the demand for housing in this state. The imbalance of wealth between property owners versus renters and would-be renters means that many are excluded from the private rental market.

 

Basic Minimum Standards

Brisbane Renters Alliance believes that all rental homes should be maintained to a safe and secure standard. This means that unless a special agreement is made otherwise at the request of a tenant:

  • external doors and windows will lock and close safely
  • rotten or unsafe stairs, floorboards and railings will be replaced or repaired
  • leaking or faulty pipes and taps will be repaired
  • faulty or unsafe light switches and electrical sockets will be repaired
  • mould and pest infestations will be addressed promptly
  • roofs, windows and doors are waterproof and do not leak
  • installed services and appliances will be maintained in a working condition (dishwashers, ovens, hot water systems, etc.

 

Feeling at Home

Stable, secure housing is not just about having a roof over your head. It’s about being able to adapt and improve your home to suit your needs. Tenants in long-term tenancies should be free to install picture hooks and put up shelves without notifying the landlord, as long as doing so does not cause permanent damage to the property. Tenants should be free to plant garden beds and make minor changes to the yard without notifying the landlord.

 Tenants should also be free to put up wallpaper or re-paint internal walls as long as they notify the landlord in advance and to install ramps and safety rails to support residents with impaired mobility. If the landlord objects, they should be required to apply to the tribunal and justify why the tenant should be prevented from making such changes.

 Tenants should be entitled to keep pets on their rental property unless the landlord can demonstrate to a tribunal that there is a strong environmental or public health argument against doing so (for example, it might be inappropriate to keep a dog or cat on a heavily vegetated property that plays an important role as native wildlife habitat). A specific ‘pet bond’ should not be necessary, as most tenants already pay a significant bond for their rental home. It is not the role of a landlord to make animal welfare determinations about whether a specific property is suitable for a particular animal - such questions are more appropriately addressed by local and state authorities, and by specialist animal welfare organisations like the RSPCA.

 

Essential, Fundamental Reforms

We believe the above-mentioned proposals to ensure properties are maintained to a minimum standard and that tenants can make minor changes to their property are essential reforms that would bring Queensland into line with other progressive jurisdictions around Australia and the world. Many of the individuals and organisations making submissions into the Open Doors to Renting Reform process will no doubt be calling for similar changes which support tenants to feel more at home in their rental property and to give them greater safety, privacy, autonomy and stability. Much of the State Government’s promotional material has also focussed on these incremental reforms, i.e. pets and picture hooks. Brisbane Renters Alliance supports these demands. However, we also understand that such changes are meaningless if tenants do not have the power to insist on these entitlements in practice.

 "When it comes to renters’ rights in Queensland, there are stark differences between the law as written and the law in practice. Many landlords and real estate agents frequently and routinely ignore or violate their responsibilities under the Residential Tenancies and Rooming Accommodation Act 2008 and other relevant laws and regulations. In theory, tenants have various legal remedies and channels of appeal for some breaches of their rights. In practice, at the lower end of the rental market, assertive tenants who insist on being treated fairly by their landlord or real estate agent are less likely to have their lease renewed.” (‘Housing for All’ Gabba Ward Housing Policy Collective submission in response to the State Government’s ‘Working Together for Better Housing and Sustainable Communities’ Discussion Paper, June 2016)

 Making it easier for a tenant to have a pet is meaningless if a landlord can refuse to renew a fixed term lease for no reason. Allowing tenants to install shelves or hang pictures on a wall is meaningless if a landlord is likely to respond by jacking up the rent.

 As such, Brisbane Renters Alliance believes that the two most fundamental and essential reforms to Queensland tenancy laws are to introduce tight rules against unjustified evictions, and limits on excessive rent increases. Without these two changes, all other reforms will be of little benefit to the most vulnerable tenants in our community. While wealthier renters with significant bargaining power might be able to assert their right to plant a veggie patch or put up shelves, and can shop around and rent elsewhere if a particular landlord acts unreasonably, lower-income renters, and those for whom moving is particularly costly and difficult (for example, families with children or older renters) will have no choice but to submit to the whims of their landlord, even if technically they do have certain legal rights on paper.

A landlord’s power over a tenant increases as the expiry date of the existing lease draws closer. This means it is generally in the landlord’s interests to have shorter lease periods. Unless this power imbalance is rectified, many Queensland tenants will continue to live with the oppressive uncertainty of not knowing how permanent their home is and whether their lease will be renewed.

Core to our argument is the need to shift the power imbalance between tenants and landlords. If tenants are less afraid of drastic rent increases or unjustified evictions, they will be better positioned to assert their other rights and negotiate effectively for more favourable lease terms. Ultimately, a landlord has the power to make their tenants homeless, and this power is far stronger than the soft legal protections that tenants may or may not be able to access via confusing and bureaucratic appeals and tribunal processes. Unless we shift this power imbalance and make it harder for landlords to jack up the rent or end leases without justification, other rights and reforms will be virtually impossible for tenants to insist on in practice.

 

A Presumed Right to Lease Renewal:
An End to ‘Without Grounds Evictions’

We believe Queensland’s current tenancy laws, which allow a landlord to end a tenancy for no reason, are completely unjust and unreasonable, and at odds with legal frameworks in other similar countries around the world. Whether they are on a fixed-term lease or a periodic lease, tenants should be entitled to have their lease renewed and their tenancy continue unless the landlord has a legitimate reason to end the tenancy.

We suggest that there are only three legitimate reasons to end a tenancy in a situation where a tenant has not breached their lease conditions and desires to remain living in their home:

  1. The property owner, or the owner’s spouse, sibling, parent or child, wishes to move into the home themselves.
  2. The property owner requires the home to be vacant in order to make major renovations to the property. In such situations, the outgoing tenant should be offered first right of refusal to move back into the property after the renovations are complete, and the landlord should bear the onus of demonstrating that any increase to the rent is proportionate to the value of the improvements.
  3. The property has been compulsorily acquired by a government authority for an essential infrastructure project

Our position diverges slightly from some other advocacy organisations in that we do not believe that the mere fact that a property has changed ownership is sufficient grounds for ending a tenancy. Obviously, if the new owner wishes to move in themselves, they would be free to do so at the end of the current lease period, but a new owner of a home should not be able to end a tenancy simply, so they can lease the home to a new group of tenants.

 

Limits to excessive rent increases

Whenever there’s a property boom, whether in a particular suburb or across a whole region, landlords get carried away and start increasing the rent dramatically. Recent history shows that when the market heats up, rent increases can rapidly exceed inflation, wage growth, welfare payments or changes in the purchase value of a property. When rents start rising faster than incomes, many renters become homeless or come under extreme housing stress, skipping meals or going without other essentials like medical treatment in order to keep paying the rent.

 When sharp rent increases occur across a whole neighbourhood, the disruption to community networks is substantial. People lose touch with neighbours, children have to change schools, and vulnerable residents struggle to access the local community services they’ve come to rely upon. Long-term, low-income residents are forced out to the suburban fringe, where housing might be slightly cheaper but transport costs are significantly higher. This contributes to a more segregated society with hubs of poverty and social disadvantage. The Australian Homelessness Monitor Report 2018 documents a sharp rise in homelessness since 2011, and attributes this in part to gentrification and rising rents.

The above-mentioned demand for an end to ‘without-grounds’ evictions is widely supported and has recently been introduced in other jurisdictions such as Victoria. However, a rule against unjustified evictions is relatively meaningless if landlords still have the power to drastically increase the rent. The recognition that tenants should be entitled to have their lease renewed unless there’s a legitimate reason to end the tenancy carries with it an implicit acknowledgment that landlords cannot be given free rein to increase the rent as much as they see fit.

We advocate a general rule that rents should not be able to rise by more than 1% per year, but that a landlord can still seek to increase the rent by more than 1% if the tenant agrees. If the tenant does not agree, the landlord must apply to the tribunal to demonstrate that the value of the home has increased (e.g. through renovations and improvements to the home) that justify a greater increase.

Placing a ‘soft limit’ of this nature on rent increases would not prevent rises, but would shift the onus of proof onto landlords to demonstrate that a steeper rent increase is justified. Limiting rent increases in Queensland is an urgent priority, particularly in light of recent revelations by the Rental Affordability Index November 2018 report that tens of thousands of Brisbane rental households are in acute housing stress.

To avoid regional market distortions, the percentage ‘soft limit’ on rent increases should be uniform across Queensland. This limit should continue to apply to a property even if current tenants move out and new tenants enter on a new lease. If landlords were able to set new, higher rents on a property simply by taking in new tenants, this would create a perverse incentive to make properties unliveable for current tenants and discourage them from renewing their lease (as has happened with the most recent iteration of New York’s broken rent control system).

Similarly, if a landlord evicts one group of tenants, moves into a property themselves, and then moves out six months later, the rent payable by a new group of tenants should be based on the rent at which the property was previously rented for. This is an important and necessary limitation to prevent landlords exploiting a loophole in the system.

Placing soft limits on excessive rent increases helps smooth out the peaks and troughs of the housing market, particularly during construction booms, and discourages the formation of property bubbles. Limiting excessive rent increases gives tenants significantly more security and stability while ensuring that landlords can still put up the rent incrementally. Landlords should not be penalised for deciding not to increase the rent every year, so if a landlord goes three years without increasing the rent, they would then be entitled to increase the rent by 4% the next time the lease is up for renewal.