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We Must Protect The Rights Of Renters Who Are Locked Out Of Home Ownership

Stable housing is a right, not a privilege.

20/03/2017 5:53 AM AEDT | Updated 20/03/2017 5:57 AM AEDT

If we accept that owning a home outright is increasingly out of the realm of possibility for the average Australian -- that is until the eventual market crash/correction -- we have two follow up issues to address:

(i) The legal rights of residential tenants;

(ii) The government provision of affordable housing.

As I am not an expert on affordable housing, I am reluctant to comment on that matter, except to say that we need more and drastically. That said, I am more than willing to talk about the lack of rights for residential tenants.

At the moment I am crying along with most of Australia at property prices and low interest rates. But neither can be corrected immediately. There is too much reluctance. Too many vested interests. Too many politicians with negatively geared investment properties they forgot to declare...

But law change is immediate. It can be done easily. It should be done now. Australia wide. With up to 33 percent of current occupiers renting, there is a large and growing group who warrant further legal protection.

So, let's take a look at some of the major issues and possible legal solutions.

Lack of general tenant's rights and the ability of owners to turf tenants who do claim their legal rights

Residential tenants have no ongoing rights after a lease has ended. Residential tenants also have no way of forcing an owner to sign a new lease. Both of these facts combined create a minefield for residential tenants.

Raise an issue about leaks in the tenancy and wanting them repaired when on an expired lease? The owner is legally able to simply issue a termination notice and get a new tenant in -- no need to do the repairs at all.

Raise a desire to get a new lease for certainty? The owner can just ignore you.

Raise issues with your tenancy when under the lease and you are protected, yes. But as soon as the lease expires, the owner can terminate and you are out on the street.

Solution? Mandate that (i) expired leases automatically roll over into a new lease, unless the tenant opts out, and (ii) tenancies can only be cancelled by the owner due to a serious breach by the tenant, such as non-payment of rent, illegal activities or causing major damage to the property.

Lack of rights for tenants with pets

Residential owners have the right to refuse owners with pets from leasing -- outright. Owners have total unfettered discretion in this regard.

Depressed and need your dog for companionship? Just left your violent husband taking your children and dogs with you? Tough luck if you can't find an owner to graciously allow you to rent their property -- pet included.

Solution? Mandate that owners must allow pets and that not allowing a tenant with a pet is an act of discrimination. Here, any possible damage by the pet can be taken out of the tenant's bond at the end of the lease if needed.

Lack of long-term leases and auto rollover with tenant to opt out leases

At the moment, standard residential leases are from six months to three years or so. Which seems okay. But when you add in the fact that owners can refuse to re-sign a residential tenant to a lease, the issues become very apparent.

Solution? Mandate minimum-lease terms of a greater length, including the ability for the tenant to end the lease with three months notice. After all, it's easy to find another tenant, but very hard to find another home.

Lack of any real penalty for owners who leave residential homes vacant

Currently, in all states of Australia it is legal to own a residential home and not let it out. Ever. It can just be left there in the land bank in perpetuity.

Solution? Mandate that owners must lease out their residential properties at a fair market rate or else the property would be seized by the Government, or at the very least heavily taxed.

Discriminatory letting practices

It is very much possible to engage in discriminatory and/or racist residential letting practices in the current legal landscape. Here, this issue is covered by our anti-discrimination legislation. But it is greatly lacking.

The issue here is that the legislation is toothless -- only a party who has been directly harmed by discrimination can bring a case, a third party is barred. Seems reasonable until we look at the real world effect:

Let's say an owner passes on a request to his agent to not let their residential property to people from a specific country -- a clear and flagrant breach of anti-discrimination rules.

Well, in such a case, it is highly unlikely that any citizens of that country who apply and are declined for a lease will be told the reason -- namely that they didn't get the tenancy due to their race.

Instead, the agent will tell them that 'there were better candidates' or some such waffle. They won't know about the discrimination. And as we all know, it's very hard to act on something you have no knowledge about.

But surely workers within organisations can help shine a light on the discriminatory acts of their firm? Our law makers must have understood the issue? Well, sadly, no. As the worker hasn't been directly affected by the discrimination themselves, they have no legal standing to bring a case. Only the person discriminated against, but with no knowledge of being discriminated against, can launch action.

Solution? Allow people not directly affected by discrimination to report it. Allow whistleblowers and third parties to take action. After all, they are the only ones who will ever really know about the discrimination going on behind their back.

Gracious reader, you may think all the above is just the dreams of an inner-city liberal scumbag -- and technically you're right. But most if not all the solutions noted above, and indeed many more, such as caps on rental increases, rental rates and even sale prices, have been imposed to great effect in Germany.

Don't believe me? Ask a German. They seem to understand that stable housing is a right, not a privilege.

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