Bill Speech: Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill 2018

Ros SPENCE (Yuroke) (15:28:31) — I am very pleased to rise and add my contribution to the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill 2018. This bill delivers on the Andrews Labor government’s commitment to ensure Victorians who rent have access to fairer, safer housing. As someone who rented for many years, both as a young person and as a single parent, I am particularly thrilled this bill addresses what I experienced to be an inherent power imbalance between the landlord and the tenant. Not only will this bill change the language of this relationship — from ‘landlord’ and ‘tenant’ to ‘residential rental provider’ and ‘renter’ — but it makes the systemic changes that will readjust this relationship whereby renters are not severely disadvantaged by the power imbalance, but nor does it shift to disadvantage rental providers.

A number of the reforms were foreshadowed as part of the Andrews Labor government’s Rent Fair campaign in 2017, and these include, and I will just go through the list:

allowing animals to be kept in rented premises;

allowing renters to make prescribed minor modifications to a rental property;

bolstering security of tenure by ending ‘no fault’ evictions by removing the ‘no specified reason’ notice to vacate and restricting the use of ‘end of the fixed-term’ notices to vacate to the end of the initial fixed-term agreement;

establishing a non-compliance register ‘blacklisting’ residential rental providers and agents who fail to meet their obligations;

providing for the early release of bonds with the consent of both parties to the tenancy agreement;

restricting solicitation of rental bids by residential rental providers and agents;

providing for yearly, instead of six-monthly, rent increases;

providing for faster reimbursement where tenants have paid for urgent repairs;

increasing the number of properties to which the statutory maximum cap of four weeks for bond and rent in advance applies;

enabling automatic bond repayments, which will be available to a renter within 14 days where the parties are not in dispute over the apportionment of a bond;

requiring mandatory pre-contractual disclosure of material facts such as an intention to sell the rental property or the known presence of asbestos; and

prohibiting misleading or deceptive conduct inducing a person into renting a property …

all fantastic initiatives.

The protections are complemented by other important changes aimed at improving the state of rented premises and ensuring that renters have a safe and sustainable living in that property. These include:

mandatory condition reporting to ensure the state of rented premises is accurately recorded at the beginning and end of rental relationships;

mandatory safety-related obligations, notably electrical and gas appliance servicing every two years, and compliance with smoke alarm and pool fence regulations; and

the power to prescribe in regulations minimum standards for residential rental properties.

It is also really important that this bill prescribes minimum standards for rental premises, which include a vermin-proof rubbish bin; a functioning toilet; adequate hot and cold water connections in the kitchen, bathroom and laundry; external windows that have functioning latches to secure against external entry; a functioning cooktop, oven, sink and food preparation area; a functioning single action deadlock on external entry doors; functioning heating in the property’s main living area; and window coverings to ensure privacy in any room the owner knows is likely to be a bedroom or a main living area.

These all sound like really reasonable, common-sense requirements that all rental properties would have anyway. However, that is not the case. Let me share an experience I had not long after I became a single parent. I went looking for somewhere to rent. Like many in that situation, I needed somewhere quickly and I needed somewhere cheap. The image of the place that I was first taken to look at by an agent is still burned in my memory. Quite frankly, it would have made the pre-Block Gatwick Private Hotel look fancy. This was the dive of all dives. The floor was on an angle — you could visibly see that. The two bedrooms were each the width of a single bed. There was what I hoped was vomit on the walls. The bathroom and toilet had no door and the fixtures were stained. The kitchen, or rather the 1 metre bench, had no doors on the cupboard below and the portable electric oven was on the bench next to the sink. There were no cupboards or wardrobes, no laundry facilities, no heating or cooling and no lounge or living area, just a two-seater table in the so-called kitchen. There was certainly no deadlock. I did not check but I am pretty confident that there were no smoke alarms fitted.

Fortunately I was in a position where I could turn down that property, but I went home and I was infuriated. Although I was able to say no and find somewhere else, someone would have been in a position where their circumstances meant they did not have the option to say no, so they would have been living in this horrendous place and someone would have been making money from that tenant’s absolute desperation. What is worse is that there were five units in that block, so not only was one group going to be living in what was absolutely substandard conditions, but there were four other properties, and no doubt the people living in those units were equally in incredibly disadvantaged situations.

I also want to talk a little bit more about the provision that allows for animals to be kept on premises and tie this in with what is often seen as a power imbalance between renters and rental providers based on my experience. I really do want to commend the provision in the bill that allows for pets. As someone who has many pets and sees the value in these family members, I am thrilled about this reform. But I am also thrilled because it is another factor that can rebalance that relationship between renter and rental provider. I recall another property that I rented. Underneath that property was a garage and room that the owner of the property used for storing their own goods, and that was fine. I had no problem with that. Otherwise it was a very good property in a great location.

After the agreements were entered into, I asked the real estate agent if I could please get a cat. That was agreed to by the owner and everything was good — except not long down the track, rather than the owner giving notice of when he was going to come and access his goods at the property, he just started coming whenever he wanted to. There was no notice given; he would just turn up, say hi and wander around, with zero privacy for me. When I approached him, saying, ‘I didn’t get notice that you were coming today’, he said, ‘That’s okay. We’ve got a little bit more of a flexible relationship now because I let you have the cat’. I am not suggesting that his behaviour to me was intended in any way to be untoward, but he felt that was allowed because in that power relationship he could do what he wanted, and he had done me a favour.

It is for that reason that I do think it is really important to have these provisions locked down. Rightly or wrongly, I did not feel I had the power in that relationship to go to the agent and insist upon the terms of the agreement being enforced. I was not in a position where I could up and move on and choose to be somewhere else. What I am sure about though, because I have heard similar concerns from other people, is that I am not the only person who felt that the power relationship between tenant and landlord was such that you probably let them get away with things which were not necessarily to the strict letter of the agreement. Yes, they might wander past, they might want to do things around the property that are not necessarily in the agreement, but as the tenant you do not feel that you have the power to say no.

As I previously mentioned, the great value I see in this bill is that it does provide a readjustment where that power balance is shifted, and it provides security to renters. It does not, in my opinion, go so far as to provide rights to the renter to the detriment of the rental provider. That is a claim that is made by those who enjoy the current superior landlord and inferior tenant relationship. I am pleased that the bill implements each component of recommendation 116 of the Royal Commission into Family Violence. It is fantastic that has been included and it has also been interwoven with other provisions throughout the bill, which avoid further victimisation of vulnerable renters while ensuring the continuity of housing.

As I said before, I do not believe that this bill is one-sided. It addresses the current imbalance in the relationship between renters and rental providers. The bill provides security. It provides financial equity. It addresses the previously discriminatory actions that we have seen occur. It allows those who are renting to enjoy their premises as a home. There has been extensive consultation in the preparation of this bill. I thank the minister for her work and I commend the bill to the house.