Call for penalties for failing to maintain rental properties as advice line overwhelmed

Ian Bushnell 16 July 2019 3

ACT Tenants Union Executive Officer Deb Pippen says the phones have been running hot this year with inquiries from renters seeking advice. Photo: George Tsotsos.

Landlords and real estate agents who act for them should be liable to penalties for failing to make repairs or have work done on a property as required by law, according to the ACT Tenants Union.

Executive Officer Deb Pippen says there are no disincentives or repercussions for landlords or agents who are tardy about work orders or downright refuse to make repairs or replace faulty appliances such as heaters.

A tenant may be forced to go to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal which might make an order. However, for the landlord or agent that’s where the matter rests even if it has been an issue of public safety or health, she says.

“The penalty for a tenant [who breaches a lease] is to lose your home. There’s no penalty for the landlord,” says Ms Pippen, who has been with the Tenants Union since 1995 and has seen a marked increase this year in the number of people seeking advice.

In fact, the service has had to close its advice line recently to catch up on calls.

Ms Pippen says the pressure has not let up all year for the small service, and attributes it to a greater awareness of tenants rights and the Union, and an increase in the number of people renting as the dream of home ownership slips from their reach.

She says the big issues remain the same – bonds, repairs, terminations and rent increases, and in winter there are more concerns about heaters and the condition of homes.

Agents sometimes make the call that a landlord need not know about some issues, and some landlords are surprised to learn what work is needed, Ms Pippen says.

Or agents sometimes may pass on information but not push the landlord hard enough to ensure necessary work is done, or they can also face an intransigent owner who will not spend the money.

“I would think it’s my responsibility to say to the landlord you really need to get this done. It’s in your interest in terms of maintaining your property but the law says you have to get it done and the tenant can take you to the Tribunal and there will be an order against you,” Ms Pippen says.

“My experience is that sometimes they’re not always very strong in doing that.

“We’re always quite frustrated how people can think that it’s OK not to take action in these circumstances where people are really suffering.”

But the Tenants Union’s experience is that if people want to make complaints about agents, not much gets done.

And for many tenants the thought of taking their landlord to the Tribunal is a bridge too far, fearing repercussions and needing references when wanting to move, which is why the Tenants Union has been campaigning to end no-cause evictions so that it is really clear that the tenancy can only be terminated if there’s a demonstrable and fair reason.

Ms Pippen has little time for excuses from property investors with portfolios who say they are stretched financially or complain about their overheads, saying it is a business and the costs of maintaining a property should be factored into the decision to purchase it.

“It’s not as if they magically sit there and you just reap the benefit, there are costs associated with those decisions,” she says.

“A lot of landlords don’t actually factor that in and as far as the law is concerned that’s a problem they really have to overcome themselves because they’ve signed that contract, they have that agreement with the tenant, have those responsibilities, and if it’s pushed they will have to make those repairs or get that work done.”

Ms Pippen says arguments that imposing more requirements on landlords will drive investors from the market are trotted out regularly but there is little evidence for them.

If an investor decides to leave the market they are either selling to an owner occupier or another investor, she says.

“Maybe there are better landlords moving to the market if it’s the others who can’t stand the fact that properties have to be managed and looked after and maintained,” she says.

The Tenants Union will continue pushing for minimum standards for rental properties, saying they exist for every other consumer product. “How can there be no standards when it comes to someone’s home?” Ms Pippen asks.

It will also campaign for the Residential Tenancies Act to cover other renters such as those in caravan parks, boarding houses and student accommodation.

The Tenants Union advises people from all walks of life, but has noted an increase in the number of older Canberrans seeking its help.

With decreasing home ownership, the issue of better balanced tenancy laws is attracting more attention in Australia and overseas.

  • Changes to the Act that passed the Assembly in February relating to pets, rent increases, tenants making modifications and break lease fees will not come into effect until 4 March 2020.


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3 Responses to Call for penalties for failing to maintain rental properties as advice line overwhelmed
David Anlezark David Anlezark 7:24 pm 18 Jul 19

This article really cuts to the bone when our current tenant hasn’t paid his rent in damn months and has always had his requests for maintenance actioned promptly.
We’ve contacted the agency multiple times and either been brushed off, promised without action or just outright ignored. I don’t think that blaming the landlord isn’t always the case and that penalising them when they may not even have been notified of the problem would be ridiculous.

Maya123 Maya123 5:03 pm 18 Jul 19

Yes, necessary repairs should be carried out, but the tenant should not expect this repair to be carried out any quicker than the owner could get the repair carried out on their own house, as Mitch indicated. If the heating breaks in the middle of winter, then the same as the owner would need to do, the tenant must go buy a portable heater until it’s fixed. (It’s Canberra, so who doesn’t in their right mind not have a spare heater ready to go.) Although a kind owner might lend them a heater.
As for other conditions, this should depend what rent is being paid. If rent is lower than normal for the area, that tenant should not expect the same condition for the house as one with higher rent. If they want better conditions, go pay higher rent.
When “minimum standards for rental properties” are mentioned, that often means R rating. Again, that should be reflected with the rent. A lower priced rental property should not be expected to be as good as a higher priced rental. I also get the idea that it is thought that the owner is living in this wonderfully high R-rated property and is snug and warm, while the tenant is freezing. That can be far from the truth. I used to have a rental property; one that the Tenants Union would demand should be improved before it could be rented. Thing is, my own house was much worse than the rental, so not all owners live in luxury. The rent on my rental reflected its condition; likely being one of the cheapest rental houses in Canberra, even though it was inner Canberra. Anyway, if a tenant wants a better insulated property, they exist, but they will likely need to more to outer suburbs.

Mitch Mitch 2:31 pm 18 Jul 19

I think there is still a misconception that property investors are rich. I can assure you that this is not the case. Of course, its a business so to speak but tell me what business doesn’t spend/budget within their means.
I agree, if something is broken – it needs to be repaired and to expect a tenant to go without a heater during Canberra winters is unacceptable but unfortunately unavoidable sometimes. I know that to get heaters repaired quickly isn’t as easy as it sounds.
The wait time is appoximately 2 weeks just for someone to check it out. We don’t get any special treatment from heating companies and if they need a part, we are at their mercy;
But its not a hotel, and if my heater breaks – I too have to wait and will rush out and buy a couple of cheap heaters to get by. (Yes, I am an agent)

Every tenant should keep the dialogue open with their owner and agent and ultimately if they aren’t happy, there are clauses in the lease to go ahead with the repair under urgent repairs anyway.

In regards to the 26 weeks “no clause” notice – Just like bad owners, there are bad tenants. Owners/tenants who don’t get along need an out – Tenants can leave with just 21 days notice, owners have to wait 6 months – still think its fair?

Most agents are very fair and we do everything in our power to quickly get maintenance and repairs done as well as educate our owners on whats acceptable. I would thoroughly enjoy handling the lines at the advice service for a day and/or offer advice furthermore I would encourage the advice service not to ostracize agents – it really is the minority.

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