15 May 2023

ACT rental ombudsman proposed in bid to hold landlords - private and government - to account

| Claire Fenwicke
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aerial view of houses

About 30 per cent of Canberrans are renters. Photo: File.

An alternative to taking tenant and landlord disputes to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT) is being considered for the Territory, with an investigation to begin into establishing an ACT rental ombudsman.

Greens MLA Johnathan Davis moved a motion in the Legislative Assembly during the May sitting week, which could see such a body investigate breaches of rental law; give free mediation to resolve disputes; issue infringement notices; provide information, communication and engagement on legal responsibilities of renters, landlords and rental estate agencies; and give advice to further improve renters’ rights.

It could also represent ACT Housing tenants.

Mr Davis introduced the motion because he said he had heard “countless horror stories” from Canberra renters – who make up 30 per cent of residents – such as unannounced rental inspections, structural issues not being resolved, no-cause evictions and rental bidding.

“Where breaches to rental law occur, putting the onus on renters to hold their landlord or real estate agents to account assumes that renters are aware of their rights in the first instance, and are willing and able to lodge their dispute with ACAT and see the dispute process through to a full resolution,” he said.

“This process can work, but it is not without difficulties.”

Mr Davis said the ACAT process could be lengthy and expensive for tenants, and there could also be a power imbalance as many renters feared that by taking such action, a landlord could raise their rent or cancel their lease.

“We need another way to help renters to stand up for their rights and reach resolutions quickly and easily, and that is why I am calling on this Government to establish a rental ombudsman,” he said.

Mr Davis said this wouldn’t just benefit tenants, but also landlords and real estate agents, who could be warned or advised in instances where they may have misunderstood or inadvertently breached their renters’ rights.

“More often than not in this city, when you think your real estate agent is being malicious, they are more often than not ignorant to their obligations,” he said.

“It is far too often the case in the ACT that your property manager is usually in their first or second year in the job, usually under 30, it is a highly feminised industry, and they are usually grossly overworked and underpaid – a rental ombudsman would support these people too.”

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An alternative to ACAT for tenants is something ACT Legal Aid has been advocating for years.

Its tenancy aid service receives about 4,500 calls a year from tenants, providing advice and guidance to apply for grants for legal representation should a person’s complaint reach ACAT.

Head of Civil Justice Legal Practice Derek Schild said many tenants didn’t have the resources or time to invest in taking a complaint to the tribunal.

Given some laws have changed in the ACT around tenant rights, he felt it was important to have an accessible place for people to take complaints where matters could be resolved quickly, and an appropriate deterrence enforced.

“We have a lot of people inquiring about bonds not being lodged … that continues to happen, which means enforcement through infringement notices would help,” Mr Schild said.

“The recent rental bidding provisions … tenants aren’t well placed to enforce that, they usually have their heads down trying to find a rental for themselves.”

He added if non-compliance by landlords or real estate agents was subject to a register, that would also act as a deterrent against future breaches.

ACT Legal Aid tenancy solicitor Tien Pham said it could also help reduce the backlog of cases at ACAT, as sometimes issues lodged were a result of a misunderstanding or communication breakdown rather than an actual legal breach.

“It’s important for there to be a process where people can file a complaint and have it investigated, and for that to be a lot more accessible,” she said.

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Shadow Housing Minister Mark Parton argued the rental ombudsman should also be able to investigate claims by ACT Housing tenants, accusing the ACT Government of being the “worst landlord in the city”.

Housing Minister Yvette Berry took issue with the accusation, insisting the Government was continuing work to be “good, social landlords”.

While she felt an investigation into the proposal was appropriate, she questioned whether an ombudsman was needed.

“I note something like that would cost millions and millions and millions of dollars, and I would rather see that go into public housing, that’s my view,” Ms Berry said.

However, Mr Davis supported the possibility that the ombudsman could also look at assisting ACT Housing tenants.

“I would encourage every single tenant in the ACT to make use of a rental ombudsman or commissioner, should the Government produce one,” he said.

“The ACT Government is the Territory’s biggest landlord, it should be the ACT’s best landlord, and all landlords should be held to the highest possible standard.

“A rental ombudsman is one way of securing that.”

The Government must report back to the Assembly by the final sitting day of 2023 on its progress.

ACT Legal Aid’s tenancy advice service can be contacted on 1300 402 512.

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And who holds the tenants to account for their bad behaviour? Many tenants are well off and own homes in other places, so don’t cry the line that they are all poor. Look up rentvesting.

I guess the guy who won’t stop talking about being brought up by a single mum in a housing commission flat wants the rest of Australia to go through the experience.

When did the Commonwealth get involved in state/territory based matters associated with tenancy laws that, you guessed it, are at the state/territory level?

Talk about dribbling on about nonsense.

Bob the impala3:36 pm 17 May 23

Canberra currently has the highest vacancy rate in Australia.

Median rental costs have fallen slightly despite an increase in other cities.

“unavailable” “costs” “regulation” “trams” “leave” “dry up” “why?” “trams” “rates” “taxes” “exorbitant” “roughshod” “tenants pay”. Did I mention trams?

Median rental costs have fallen slightly despite an increase in other cities.

Canberra currently has the highest vacancy rate in Australia.

Rentals are going to dry up quickly with all these imposts.

Why would anyone buy property, let alone an investment property, in the ACT? The Territory government has absolutely no income strategy or vision beyond exorbitant taxes and fees for ACT residents, and property Rates and Land Tax are right at the top of their list. They are either ignorant or indifferent to the fact that, where it comes to rental properties, all such fees are ultimately borne by tenants.

I assume it won,t be long before tenants can fill in a wish list that owners need to fullfill, want coloured walls , pay heating costs, mow the lawn, supply food etc

No one in their right mind would be a landlord in Canberra. Many tenants destroy properties, don’t pay rent, and the ACT government does nothing to assist landlords. Tenants who don’t pay rent and damage things should be arrested and put in jail. It’s theft and vandalism, yet the ACT government does nothing about these crimes.

Problem is that the cost of incarnation in jail is expensive at more than 200,000k per year. Perhaps… weekend chain gangs on community projects. Bring back the “public stocks” with tomato throwing or the “witch dunking chair”.

If you steal money from your employer or steal from a shop (or cause damage to a shop or other people’s property), you get charged. Not paying rent (when you signed a contract that you would pay) is a form of theft and should be taken seriously. So is causing damage to other people’s property. Your response shows you find it funny and that is part of the problem when tenants commit crimes and yet are viewed as ‘victims’ and are allowed to get away with it (and people like you laugh and support it). One day when someone damages your car or your property, I hope you laugh about it.

Got any actual evidence to support your supposition that ‘many’ people do this.

Or is it like everywhere else where a very small minority do the wrong thing, whereas most do exactly the right thing.

TruthinMedia6:44 pm 15 May 23

I had a rental property 18 years ago managed by an agent. Acted on ALL tenant requests immediately be they maintenance or improvements, stopped the agent doing too frequent inspections and yet the tenants suddenly stopped paying rent, went way into arrears and it cost me a fortune to resolve. They left the property in a shambles. Sold the property and never invested in rentals again. I am not alone in this type of experience and I no longer have a dog in the fight but this can only lead to a reduction in available rentals in the future.

That’s all fine because everyone can pick up cheap housing if all the investors leave the market. The international students in particular can each buy a house for every member of their family back overseas.

What was your agent doing exactly to stop the problem? The issue there is as much a principal-agent issue as it was an issue with bad tenants. If they were doing their job it would never have got to a point of them getting ‘way into arrears’.

devils_advocate1:42 pm 15 May 23

So they’ll continue to put band-aids over the symptoms rather than address the cause.

The cause being not enough houses to meet demand. Until that’s fixed landlords will ride roughshod over tenants.

I’ve been waiting for the Barr Govt to help us renters and they haven’t done anything to help my cost of living from rising. My rent goes up every 12 months and my buses into civic get more and more infrequent. Plus cycling infastructure is poor despite every election they promise to improve it and Greens push a reduced carbon footprint inline with this.

What does Andrew Barr, Chris Steele and Shane Rattenbury actually do for Canberrans?

devils_advocate3:43 pm 15 May 23

“ What does Andrew Barr, Chris Steele and Shane Rattenbury actually do for Canberrans?”

Well let’s see

There’s the virtue-signalling

Increasing costs and regulatory risks for landlords (which in a tight housing market gets passed straight through to tenants in the form of rent increases)

And then there’s the toy tram set for those that live in the inner north or Gungahlin

What more do you want really

They go on expensive holidays, I guess

For a start they are going to make rentals unavailable if all the above goes through.

Absolutely. Shall we vote them in again next year ?

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