Published on Wednesday 16, September 2020

Tenancy advocacy during COVID-19

Housing has always been an issue of basic dignity, but it's also a health issue. During COVID-19, its centrality as a fundamental human right essential to maintaining individual and public health has been made even more apparent. A pandemic poses a significant threat to the health and wellbeing of those experiencing housing insecurity, with access to housing being crucial for effective social distancing and self-isolation.

IMCL is always advocating for individual outcomes and fairer laws to make sure that members of our local community are treated fairly by their landlords. While we ordinarily have a strong public and community housing focus, when COVID-19 hit and workplaces were shut down with thousands of workers in the inner-city losing their jobs, the emerging need among private tenants at risk of eviction meant we needed to pivot our service delivery to act quickly in response.

In early March, we helped create an alliance with a range of legal services and social organisations including the Federation of Community Legal Centres, the Council to Homeless Persons and the Victorian Council of Social Service, to give input into the new regulatory scheme. We aimed to ensure that the legal and policy changes would support tenants experiencing financial hardship, and that evictions would only occur in exceptional circumstances in order to give effect to the public health objectives of the restrictions on movement.

Important changes to the law we helped to secure include:

  • A moratorium on rental evictions from 29 March 2020 - 26 September 2020, and a subsequent extension to 28 March 2021
  • A process for tenants to negotiate reduced rent with their landlords
  • A prohibition on tenants blacklisting for rent arrears
  • A ban on rent increases
  • The introduction of a dispute resolution scheme for tenants whose landlords were unwilling to negotiate on rent reductions
  • Financial support to reduce rental stress

Although these are positive changes that recognise the importance of housing as a fundamental right, the experiences of clients like Linh have revealed that the scheme is not operating as intended. 

Despite a clear prohibition on eviction, tenants and their families are still being pressured into leaving their home because they have a lack of awareness about the new dispute resolution scheme that exists to facilitate negotiations, or they simply do not feel able to challenge aggressive landlords who refuse to negotiate.

'We don't want to live in an apartment without paying. But they refuse to negotiate, they say 'you need to pay or leave'... it's really frustrating, sometimes we feel like just giving up,' explains Carolina, an international student. 

Senior lawyer Louisa Bassini says that many of the clients we are seeing, like Linh, are not going through the rent reduction scheme. 'They have all been entitled to do so and would have a strong basis for reduction, but the time and stress was too much,' she explains.

Our client experiences are consistent with Consumer Affairs Victoria data which indicates that under 6% of tenants have registered rent reductions or deferrals. This is also consistent with insights from a Tenants Victoria survey of 370 tenants in August, which showed that almost one in five tenants didn't even ask for a reduction because they were scared or confused, or because of discouragement due to their agent's behaviour.

The temporary ban on evictions is made even less effective by its long list of exceptions, allowing disingenuous landlords to evict tenants under the guise of carrying out renovations or wanting to move in themselves, as our client Linh experienced.

Acknowledging these limitations, we are continuing to make sure the voices of our clients are heard in advocating for rental laws and processes that are fair and equitable for everyone. This includes better coordinated legal support for people less able to advocate for themselves, proper oversight of negotiated rent reductions, and timely access to rent assistance grants. We are committed to working across the sector and with government to ensure tenants know their rights and feel supported to enforce them. 

'Victoria is at the forefront of protecting tenants' rights, but without the same commitment to real support for tenants to navigate the system, the rights become theoretical and remain unrealisable. We welcome the recent appointments of the Hon Melissa Horne MP as the new Minister for Consumer Affairs and Nicole Rich as the new Director of Consumer Affairs Victoria and look forward to working with them to ensure the rights of tenants are front of mind' - Damian Stock, IMCL Chief Executive Officer