Support for Marginal Renters

(10.53 am 23 August 2012, Parliament House Sydney)

I thank the Minister for Fair Trading, the Minister for Ageing, and Minister for Disability Services and Members representing the electorates of Bankstown, Port Stephens, Auburn and Wyong for their contributions. Home is our respite from the world; it is the place we long for when we are travelling, sick, cold or tired. It is a place where we grow and where we can be ourselves. Having a safe and comfortable home is essential to our wellbeing and is the reason we have laws to protect people's right to live in their home, particularly if they do not own their residence. But many renters have no specific legislative protections in their homes because they are not covered by the Residential Tenancies Act. They are at risk of eviction without reason or warning and have few options to enforce basic rights such as getting urgent repairs or bond refunds.

When I briefed the Minister for Fair Trading about my Residential Tenancies Amendment (Occupancy Agreements) Bill 2011, he assured me that the Government shared my concern and would introduce its own legislation to protect marginal renters. The Government's draft boarding houses bill has been released for public comment and final legislation is expected, as both Ministers have mentioned. I welcome the bill, particularly after the long history of inaction in this area. However, I am concerned that, unlike my bill, the Government's draft bill covers only boarding house residents, leaving other marginal renters without protections. I was concerned when I heard the Minister for Fair Trading say that this bill is not the right response to a complex issue, that he wants to consider a whole-of-government approach and that there must be comprehensive analysis. I feel anxious because I have tried for many years to get reform in this area where, as I said, there is a long history of inaction. However, I am comforted by the words of the Minister for Ageing, and Minister for Disability Services. I am certainly appreciative that two Ministers have engaged in this debate and that Opposition members have also made a positive contribution. I hope the issues I have raised in this bill will be included in the legislation that the Government is considering.

Marginal renters such as lodgers, students in educational residences, persons in crisis accommodation and people in shared houses not on a lease would have rights under the bill before the House but not under the draft government bill. They will continue to have no straightforward access to effective dispute resolution and will be required to rely on the Supreme Court. So the most vulnerable people in our community will have to rely on the Supreme Court. This is unfair and unreasonable. The problems other marginal renters face are highlighted by the case of a man who recently contacted me in the hope that my bill would soon become law. He rented a room in a two-bedroom North Sydney apartment between November and January, paying $250 a week to a tenant, who was on the lease. He was not covered by the lease and was not even provided with a key, having to get his own cut. The man told me that one Friday night at 11.00 p.m., without any reason, the head tenant told him to leave the apartment, stating that he was going to be evicted. He says he declined to leave because his rent had been paid, but he was again asked to leave the next evening. When he refused, police were called and told that he was a visitor who would not leave. So the police assisted with his eviction, took his keys and left him on the street at 7 o'clock on a Saturday night.

This man has to pursue the return of rent paid through the Supreme Court. Under my bill he would have access to the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal and would have a range of enforceable rights, such as receiving reasonable notice prior to eviction. Under the draft government bill, his situation remains unchanged. The draft government bill also fails to include provisions for the payment of bonds despite regular reports of difficulties experienced by marginal renters in getting bonds refunded. The Tenants Union recommends that bonds be limited to two weeks occupation fee with mandatory provisions for their lodgement with the Rental Bond Board. The Tenants Union is also concerned that the Government's bill fails to ensure that the occupancy principles are properly reflected in occupancy agreements and provides only statutory and not contractual rights to residents. While the draft government bill includes a centralised register for all boarding houses and my bill does not, it is no reason to defeat my bill. A boarding house register could complement my bill. Occupancy principles should apply wherever a person is granted the right to occupy residential premises if that person is not subject to tenancy law.

The Government could have consulted on my bill during the winter recess, passed it now and then worked to develop prescriptive protections through the regulations, starting with boarding houses. The Residential Tenancies Amendment (Occupancy Agreements) Bill 2011 would introduce rights and responsibilities for all residents and landlords who are not covered by existing tenancy law based on the Australian Capital Territory model of occupancy agreements. Under the bill, occupancy agreements would comply with basic principles, regardless of whether there is a written, oral or implied agreement.

The basic occupancy principles identified in the bill include the right to quiet enjoyment of one's home, a clean and secure home, written receipts, being charged for one's fair share of utilities, the carrying out of inspections, and reasonable notice before rent increases or evictions. Under the bill, both occupants and grantors would have access to the Consumer, Trading and Tenancy Tribunal to resolve disputes. I am sure all members would agree that those are reasonable rights for any person living in a country like Australia, whether living in metropolitan Sydney or in regional areas. The bill would require grantors who take bonds from occupants to lodge those bonds with the Director General of Fair Trading. This would be a big improvement as there are current reports of some grantors withholding a bond and using it to threaten occupants. I call on the Government to include this in its bill.

My bill would provide basic flexible protections for all renter situations not covered by any other legislation, so that occupants have access to basic rights such as a clean, safe and secure home, as well as responsibilities like having to following rules. My bill has the support of the Tenants Union, the Redfern Legal Centre and the Eastern Area Tenants Service; and I thank those organisations for their assistance in developing this bill. Their experience is very much based on the reality of the incredibly challenging situation of housing in Sydney and of course housing for our most vulnerable and Sydney marginal renters. I am sorry that the Government is not supporting this bill, because many people will be disadvantaged as a result. I urge the Ministers to immediately work on legislation to ensure all marginal renters will have protections. I commend the bill to the House.

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