Friday, February 10, 2017

Why all politicians should support tenants' rights

Yesterday the Australian Senate passed a motion seeking the implementation of a national minimum standard of tenancy rights. Senators Lee Rhiannon of the Greens, and Doug Cameron of the ALP introduced the motion, and Senator Rhiannon tweeted about it after it passed.

The full text reads that the Senate:
a) Notes that: 
i) The proportion of Australians leasing in the private rental housing market is the highest in over 50 years; 
ii) Long-run structural changes in Australia' s housing system are leading to increasing numbers of households choosing to rent on a long-term and in some cases, a permanent basis; 
iii) Comparative international studies, including a 2011 study by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, show that tenancy laws administered by the Australian States and Territories perform poorly in the provision of tenant protections against arbitrary eviction, excessive rent increases and allowing tenants the full enjoyment of their home; 
iv) In the absence of affordable owner-occupied housing, life-long renting is now a prospect for many people; 
v) Australian tenancy laws may no longer be fit for purpose; and
b) Calls on the government to: 
i) Work with the States, Territories and relevant non-government organisations to set national minimum tenancy standards to ensure that tenants' rights are protected in relation to matters including fairer processes around lease terminations and evictions, fair standards to govern the amounts by which rents can be increased and provide for long-term residential leases that enable households the full enjoyment of a secure home.
This is a welcome development - while the states and territories administer their own tenancy laws, the cultural conceptions and attitudes towards renting are fairly common throughout the country. Each of the laws reflect this. No state in Australia has banned "no grounds" evictions as a way of promoting long-term residential leases, though the ACT and Tasmania have come the closest. No state in Australia effectively protects tenants against excessive rent increases, though again the ACT comes the closest.

What this motion really tells us is that the changing profile of households renting their home is beginning to make a difference in electoral politics. In the last NSW election, we saw the seat of Newtown won by the Greens' Jenny Leong who, among other things, ran on a tenants' rights platform. As the number of people affected by poor renting laws grows, the conversation of how we as a community value the safety and stability of a rented home will only grow as an electoral issue. It will especially grow away from the inner city.

Indeed politicians of all parties should take note as the profile of whole electorates will change with the growth of the tenant population. We noted before the previous Federal Election, some particular marginal seats and their renting populations. It will be interesting to do the same again in April with new Census figures and the current parliament. The increasing inaccessibility of property ownership through ever rising prices means the pool of landlords may also begin to shrink. Already some are reporting an increase in the size of individual landlords' portfolios, and this is something we've noted ourselves before, too.

More people staying in the rental market for longer - particularly those whose upbringing might have delivered an expectation of home-ownership at some stage in life - means an increasing range of political views and allegiances will start to converge on the question of tenants' rights. Voters from across the spectrum will inevitably begin to question why the law allows them to be removed from their homes when they have done nothing wrong. While it can be easy to point people further and further from the city in search of affordable home ownership as their means of achieving some security of tenure, this will not last long as a solution.

Perhaps they will even question why it is that investors appear to be living quite so large on the public purse - through tax breaks that cost the national budget literally billions of dollars each year - without ever having to justify the results. And while many will retain the aspiration and appetite to invest in property, if they are not lucky enough to come from a property owning family the barriers to entry will continue to grow faster than they can keep up. This will leave some wondering whether their vote is worth leaving with any political parties who may continue to have a tin ear to their plight.

Some politicians are starting to cotton onto this, and that's a good sign for those of us working for better tenancy laws across the country. Let's keep it up!

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