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.
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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.