Published on Wednesday 16, September 2020

Carolina's Story - Housing Instability During COVID-19

Before the pandemic, like many international students, Carolina was working in hospitality. She had heard about COVID-19, but wasn't too worried about it.

'At the beginning, I understood there was a pandemic, but I didn't think it would get like this. I thought I would just have to stay home for a bit and it would be okay. But then everyone started talking... and I got scared.' 

Things changed quickly, and Carolina felt trapped. As an international student, she doesn't get government support.

'... when JobKeeper started, they said they couldn't keep me on anymore because I'm not a resident. They couldn't pay me. I decided to stay here, because the virus was back home too and Australia had handled it really well. Even if I wanted to go back to my country, I can't because the flights are too expensive,' she explains. 

Stuck in Australia with no income, she still needs to pay for her visa and study to stay here legally. Knowing the pandemic might not get better anytime soon, Carolina got in touch with her agent early to explain her situation but didn't get the response she expected.

'I want to do the right thing... I tried to negotiate but they refused all my offers. I tried all the time to pay our rent, but they kept refusing to reduce it. They were pushing me and saying that if I couldn't afford the rent then I needed to find somewhere else.' 

Carolina's agent refused to negotiate a rent reduction and told her that if she left she would need to pay break lease fees. She was being pressured to pay money she simply didn't have.

Carolina's difficult situation reflects the experiences of many renters in Victoria who can't pay rent and are struggling to secure a rent reduction from their landlord. The situation is often even more serious for international students, 60% of whom lost their jobs during the pandemic and are unable to access government support.

'That's why I contacted IMCL to help me, because this was really bad... and my English and the fact that I'm only a student made it even harder.'

Despite what her agent was telling her, IMCL Senior Lawyer Louisa Bassini explained to Carolina that the new temporary laws meant that the landlord can't evict her during the pandemic and that she can't be charged lease break fees during severe hardship.

After speaking with Louisa, Carolina felt an initial sense of relief, explaining 'I felt better after I spoke to Louisa... [she] is going to help me. Before, I felt alone and didn't know what to do. Now I have someone. I feel really safe with her.' 

Even with Louisa's support, the mediation proceess with her landlord through Consumer Affairs Victoria was long and hard for Carolina. Struggling to cope with the stress and worried about the debt piling up whilst the landlord refused to agree on a reduction, she considered moving back to her home country. But with COVID-19 making international travel difficult and expensive, this wasn't a viable option either.

After an agreement still wasn't reached through mediation, Carolina was again close to giving up. But, with Louisa's support and guidance, she agreed to keep fighting for her rights and go to VCAT where she knew the tribunal member could make a decision against the wishes of the landlord, forcing them to giver her a rent reduction. 

The hearing was by video and Louisa made submissions about Carolina's severe hardship and loss of income. VCAT took this into account and Carolina ordered a fair rent reduction of 50%. Without the burden of an unmanageable debt weighing on her mind, Carolina has been able to feel confident about her future and move into more affordable accommodation.

'I'm not worried anymore... it saved my life. I moved to another apartment and now I wake up happy.' 

You can read more about our work to secure fair outcomes for tenants during COVID-19 here