These are extraordinary times, demanding extraordinary leadership.
The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed us to our limits and people are understandably anxious and afraid for their health, wellbeing and livelihoods.
In this time of uncertainty, people are looking to their governments to make tough decisions in the public interest;
They want certainty;
They want to know that hard calls are based on the best health advice and made with a view to treating people fairly and in the greater good.
Parliament remains the best way to give people confidence that the decisions being made in our name are the best decisions to get us through this;
Parliament must resume regular business and to give the people of NSW back their voice.
The scale of the Bill before us today shows just why we need our parliament working;
So, too, does the debate around the best way to assist those in the rental market across our state.
Both renters and landlords have been pushed to the precipice by Covid-19 and unfortunately, the response from the Government is a case of too little, too late.
Rather than show leadership - as has been the case in other States - this Liberal Government has once again sat back in the hope that the market would solve a problem, sadly at whatever social cost.
The NSW Government has announced a six-month support package for renters and landlords, which:
- Commits $440 million in land tax waivers;
- Imposes a 60 day moratorium on residential evictions;
- Requires landlords to negotiate rent reductions - or more correctly, rent deferrals - before NCAT issues termination orders; and
- Bans blacklisting of tenants for failing to pay rent.
Some measures are very welcome and will help keep a roof over the heads of the one-third of people in NSW who rent their home.
Unfortunately, this package must be judged more for what it DOES NOT do, rather than what it does.
I am concerned the package fails to subsidise rents in any way during the period, unlike similar packages announced in Victoria and Queensland.
Instead, rents may be merely deferred, meaning that tenants who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19 are amassing extraordinary debts.
We are merely pushing the problem down the road.
For many, there is little prospect of being able to repay these debts, holding people back from getting back on their feet when they find new employment again.
The path to a rent reduction is confusing and difficult.
The Government’s package does not specify the process by which a negotiation for a rent reduction between a tenant and a landlord should occur; to be eligible for land tax reductions, landlords need only demonstrate that they have entered into negotiations to reduce a tenant’s rent.
It is unclear whether property agents are compelled to pass on requests for rent reductions.
There is no compulsion for a landlord to agree to any rent reduction.
To make matters worse, NCAT is unable decide on claims around rent reductions, handing all the power in those negotiations to landlords and their agents.
This is unfair and means that tenants who want to follow the Prime Minister’s advice and sit down with their land lord, and seek a fair rent reduction may not be able to do so.
Labor firmly believes tenants should be able to request a fair and reasonable rent reduction at NCAT and is calling on the Government to make this change now.
It should also be said that for those tenants lucky enough to be able to connect with their landlords and enter into negotiations for a rent reduction, their rent continues to be payable.
The debt bomb keeps ticking.
And if tenants do choose to end their lease, they still face the prospect of losing thousands of dollars in break fees, effectively trapping them on the road to debts they know they can’t afford.
The Government must act now to freeze all break fees during the eviction moratorium.
Similarly, the Government should be acting to quarantine bonds so that tenants are able to find new premises if they are forced to move at the end of the eviction moratorium.
Allowing bonds to be raided for rental debts means renters may have no options when it comes to finding a new home if they are evicted.
Labor is calling on the Government to prohibit landlords and agents from claiming unpaid rent from rental bonds during the moratorium period.
These are sensible changes that will deliver real protections for tenants.
Labor is also calling on the Government to fund a rental hardship package similar to those in our neighbouring states.
This is the most effective way for the Government to assist both renters and landlords struggling with the financial impacts of the pandemic.
Labor and along with key stakeholders are proposing $2500 payments to landlords to directly subsidise rents.
This proposal will directly put money into the pockets of the people who need it most - tenants and the mum and dad investors who want to do the right thing and help out their tenants doing it tough.
The Government’s package fails to support these investors because it fails to cover the 84% of landlords who do not pay land tax.
This is an extraordinary oversight by the Government that renders its package next to useless for the vast majority of landlords and tenants.
A rental hardship package has the support of the Tenants Union and the Real Estate Institute
It gets the balance right.
I’ve been contacted by countless tenants and landlords from across Sydney’s inner west over the past few months, all calling for a better package that responds more realistically to the scale of the financial crisis caused the pandemic.
Part of the problem is that Covid-19 has in many ways exposed the historic imbalances within our housing market.
For too long, the cards have been stacked against tenants by a Residential Tenancies Act that allows them to be evicted at any time, for no reason at all.
One local wrote to me to explain that he has lived in a dilapidated rental property for years, repeatedly calling on their landlord to make basic repairs to get rid of toxic black mould, fix broken plumbing and other issues.
A few months back, a section of the ceiling collapsed, only to be met by radio silence from his landlord despite multiple calls to have the issue fixed.
Covid-19 hit and like so many others in the inner west, he lost his job and his income.
Through his agent, he tried again and again to negotiate a rent reduction.
The agent pushed back with each request, arguing that the landlord couldn’t be reached, only for a no-grounds eviction notice to be issued once the tenant threatened to pursue the matter through NCAT.
The tenant tried to do the right thing, asking for basic maintenance to make the home safe; all within their rights.
The tenant tried to do the right thing, asking to negotiate with the landlord around a rent reduction.
The tenant tried to do the right thing by exercising their right to pursue the matter through arbitration, only to be met with the blunt response available to landlords in this State for decades - a no-grounds eviction.
It’s an all too common story and one we must no longer ignore.
Another local’s story goes to the pitfalls of the Government’s response for landlords.
She wrote to me on behalf of her elderly mother, who rents their family home in order to pay for her aged care.
She noted that her mother was not a greedy landlord. She was not some fat cat property owner trying to squeeze every dime out of her tenants.
In fact, she wanted to pass on some relief to her tenants but was stuck between a rock and a hard place because the Liberal Government’s land tax waiver failed to cover her.
These are just two of the stories from the Summer Hill electorate.
This Parliament gives them a voice in how we respond to Covid-19 and in particular, how we best balance the rights of tenants and landlords during a global pandemic.
Their stories remind us that on the most part, tenants and landlords want to do the right and help each other through these difficult times.
But Government needs to get the balance right so that we can all do the right thing by each other.
I think one of the bright spots in this pandemic has been the reminder that we are a resilient nation and will get through this together.
But we need clarity, we need certainty and we need compassion.
We need leadership from Government, tempered and bolstered by this, our people’s parliament.
We can’t let the market resolve critical issues like protecting tenants and landlords through a global pandemic.
We need our robust fully functioning democracy to make sure issues like these are resolved in the best interests of everyone in our community.