I speak on the Residential Tenancies Amendment (Review) Bill 2018. The bill seeks to redress deficiencies in current legislation pertaining to residential tenancies in New South Wales. It allows victims of domestic violence to immediately leave a rental tenancy without penalty, and limits rent increases for periodic leases to once every 12 months. The bill codifies break fees when a lease is prematurely terminated by the tenant and sets basic minimum standards to ensure a property is safe, secure and habitable. It allows tenants and landlords to request Fair Trading investigate claims around repairs and maintenance. The bill requires landlords to install and maintain smoke alarms and allows for renters to make some minor alterations to their residential properties. It updates the Act to ensure tenants are separately metered for utility usages and updates arrangements for access by the landlord in the instance of a property being sold.
This is a long list of measures, and I note that many of these have been broadly welcomed by the stakeholder and tenancy groups, but the fact remains that the measure of this bill is not what it does but what it fails to do. The single most effective thing that we can do to give renters a fair go is to end no-grounds eviction, but after two long years of consultation the Government is failing to take this critical step, and that is not good enough. The goal of any reform to the Residential Tenancies Act should be about balancing the needs of renters and landlords.
A third of all people in New South Wales rent their homes. As housing prices continue to soar, people will rent for longer. In my inner west electorate of Summer Hill, 40 per cent of residents rent their homes. The Tenants' Union of NSW, which has been advocating for renters for over 40 years, argues that the key objectives for renters are sustainability, livability and affordability. Just as we need to strike a balance between the various stakeholders in this space, it is critical that we balance these three objectives to ensure renters are given a fair go.
Most of the reforms proposed in this bill work to strengthen the livability of rental properties. Establishing minimum standards for rental properties is a welcome move. Every renter should have the right to have a home that is safe and secure, and be assured of basic standards that do not jeopardise their health. I note that the bill establishes seven criteria necessary for a rental property to be deemed as fit for habitation. Properties must have adequate ventilation and natural or artificial light. They must have a supply of electricity or natural gas and have adequate electrical outlets as well as plumbing and drainage. Properties must be connected to water and contain a bathroom, including a toilet, and properties must be structurally sound.
Now, these are good reforms, and I am sure there are many in the community who would be aghast at the fact that these basic standards are not already mandated. The decision to allow renters to seek rectification orders from Fair Trading in relation to repairs will hopefully reduce pressures on the tribunal and act as a further incentive to landlords to make necessary repairs as quickly as possible. The ability for renters to make minor amendments to the property is also a welcome and necessary change. Renters are living in their homes for longer and each renter should have every right to make their house a home. Allowing tenants to hang mirrors or artworks is more common sense.
New South Wales Labor supports these measures because we on this side want to ensure that rental properties are as livable as possible. What the bill ignores, though, is that for many renters, livability also means being able to provide their family pet with a loving and secure home. Pets are part of the Australian family. The evidence around the benefits of pet ownership is clear, especially for vulnerable members of our communities including seniors, kids and those with mental health challenges. For some renters, pets are more than furry friends—they are lifelines. For many vulnerable people, companion animals provide therapeutic assistance and assist with any number of conditions including autism, epilepsy, narcolepsy, arthritis and more.
Moving to a new rental home should not come at the cost of losing a beloved family member, and finding a new home should not be made close to impossible for those who own a cat or dog. Over the years, when I was a mayor, and now that I am a member of Parliament, many inner west families have spoken to me at the weekend markets or the dog park about the difficulties of being a renter with a pet. It does not make sense to me that we have not fixed this problem. So, like all animal lovers out there, I will continue to argue that renters should be able to own a pet as a default. But it must be said that any reform designed to improve the livability of rental properties—including the ability to have a pet—is toothless without changes to no-grounds eviction. While no-ground evictions remain the law of the land, renters will continue to be turfed out for no reason at all.
Labor supports provisions that enable victims of domestic violence to break a residential lease without penalty. The Government has announced this a number of times over the past two years and it is good to finally see some action to make real the promises. The current legislation allows for a victim of domestic violence to break a lease with 14 days notice upon the receipt of a final apprehended violence order. This is clearly inappropriate and insufficient. As the Minister noted in his second reading speech, many victims of domestic violence will never obtain a final apprehended violence order. It is a process that takes time and energy, both of which would be better spent healing and making arrangements to protect the victims and their families. The bill removes the 14-day notification period, meaning victims can leave a property, effective immediately, and broadens the list of documentation that a victim of domestic violence can use as proof of their experience. I wholeheartedly support this measure, because when a woman is experiencing the crisis of domestic violence we should remove the legal and administrative barriers to living a life free of violence.
I would like to address the bill's reforms to break fees and rent increases, both of which are aimed at improving affordability in the rental market. The move to provide some certainty around break fees is a reform that is long overdue. Advocates like the Tenants' Union of NSW have long argued that the current regime for break fees is overly punitive and exorbitant. If a tenant breaks a lease early, they can be liable for anywhere between four and six weeks rent, and the calculation of the break fee is complicated and lacks transparency. The bill introduces a mandatory schedule of break fees, calculated on a sliding scale linked to the length of time remaining in the fixed term of the lease. The bill reduces the liability on renters to between one and four weeks, which more accurately reflects the ability of landlords to replace tenants in a soaring rental market.
The bill also limits rent increases in periodic leases to once every 12 months. Currently, there is no limit to the number of times a landlord can increase a tenant's rent in a periodic lease, so long as they give the correct notice. There is also no regulation around the size of an increase. If a renter believes their increase is unfair, they are encouraged to negotiate with their landlord, which is fine except for the fact that their landlord can evict them at any time under a no-grounds clause. Renters can also apply for an excessive rent order, which is an arduous and time-consuming process. Also, there is no certainty that their case will be decided in their favour, and even if it is—you guessed it—they can still be issued with a no-grounds eviction. So while this affordability measure is well intended, without a no-grounds eviction clause it will fail to effectively protect many renters.
The Minister has been reported as saying that his bill reflects "commonsense changes", but nothing is more commonsense than ending no-grounds eviction. According to Dr Chris Martin, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales City Futures Research Centre, out of all the things that can be done for renters, no-grounds eviction is "the single biggest reform of most benefit to tenants". Dr Martin also stated:
"[No-grounds evictions] undermine all the other legislated rights that tenants have because it's in the back of people's minds whenever they think about asking for repairs to be done or question whether a rent increase is fair.
No matter what additional rights are offered to tenants, the fact is tenants will be restricted from exercising those rights with the fear of a no-grounds eviction hanging over their head. The glaring omission of no-grounds eviction in this bill is the measure of the bill, and it is a measure of the Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation too. Minister Kean, faced with the opportunity of making a once-in-a-lifetime reform that would directly benefit one-third of the people in this State, has squibbed it.
Under the current legislation, a landlord can evict a tenant without cause with 30 days notice at the end of a fixed term agreement and with 90 days notice in a periodic lease.
It is a clause that leaves renters vulnerable to retaliatory evictions for such heinous crimes as asking for basic repairs or for daring to challenge unreasonable rent increases. A snapshot report on the experiences of renters released last year by CHOICE, Shelter and the National Association of Tenant Organisations revealed that close to 10 per cent of renters have experienced a no-grounds eviction. The report also revealed that 11 per cent of renters who asked for repairs were likely given a rent hike and that 10 per cent reported landlords or agents became angry at the request. I note that the Tenants' Union is currently undertaking a new survey of renters' experiences and preliminary results show that from a pool of over 500 respondents a whopping 38 per cent have experienced a no-grounds eviction and 72 per cent report holding back on exercising a right because they feared the landlord would end their tenancy. Julia Murray from the Inner West Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Service said she receives calls complaining about retaliatory evictions almost daily. She said:
"Unfair evictions happen every day and they affect a wide cross-section of our community, including students, seniors, share-houses and families with young kids. In each instance, you have a person who has put down roots in a community and is then forced to uproot themselves and move on. It can be particularly hard for vulnerable people and for families who struggle enough as it is to find childcare or manage school enrolments. Given how tight the enrolment catchments are for inner west schools, unfair evictions can separate siblings at school and impact families for years.
Julia estimates that the majority of tenants assisted by Marrickville Legal Centre either face an unfair eviction under no-grounds provisions or have to consider the risk that they will be given a no-grounds eviction when asserting their rights. The Government will claim that there are current laws to protect tenants from retaliatory evictions. However, Julia notes that these are rarely used because they are difficult to enforce. She said:
"At the end of the day, it is extremely difficult to prove that an eviction is retaliatory; especially when we give landlords a green light to legally evict tenants without cause. That leaves renters on shaky grounds and renters know it. They will choose to keep quiet about maintenance or unfair rent increases if it means not rocking the boat and being forced to find a new place in a very expensive and competitive rental market."
That is the reality that renters face in my electorate and more broadly across Sydney. I want to share the story of one renter in my electorate. Marrickville Legal Centre assisted Carol, a single mum with two children at high school living in the inner west. Carol called her local community legal centre because she had a serious mould issue in her property that was not being addressed by the landlord. The legal centre advised Carol that she had a right to have repairs carried out but it also had to tell her that she may get a no-grounds eviction notice from her landlord.
Carol works casually and one of her children was about to undertake the higher school certificate. Having to move would have disrupted her child's study and affected Carol's employment, if she could not find a home nearby. Although Carol could have challenged a notice on the grounds that it was retaliatory, the centre could not assure her that such a challenge would be successful and that she would not have to move out. Faced with the prospect of being forced to move and what that would mean for her family, Carol did not raise the repair issue with the landlord and continued to live in a mouldy house.
This is a familiar story for countless inner west residents and for residents across our State. On 21 May this year, theSydney Morning Herald reported on postgraduate student Hanna Torsh, who was served a no‑grounds eviction after complaining about a faulty stove. In October 2017 theSydney Morning Herald again reported on the issue, describing how a single mum of two was forced to move from her Zetland apartment after being served a no-grounds eviction. If the Minister is committed to delivering commonsense reforms about renting, he should work with Labor and accept Labor's amendments today. No-grounds evictions fundamentally disadvantage renters, and he knows it, because in October last year he said:
"No-grounds evictions, retaliatory evictions, all these things are currently undermining renters' rights in NSW."
If the Minister knows he is undermining the rights of renters then he should have the courage to do something about it. While I support the many aspects of this bill which work towards delivering livability and the few measures that improve affordability, I am disappointed that the key element about delivering security of tenure is not within the bill. The one-third of the people in this State who rent their homes deserve the security of knowing they cannot be turfed out at any time for no reason at all.