15 April 2020

Probing the polls: how to help renters and when should we lift the COVID-19 restrictions?

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Cafe shut due to COVID-19

Now that the COVID-19 curve appears to be flattening, how soon can economic activity ramp up again? Photo: Michelle Kroll.

As the COVID-19 crisis rolls on with its consequent enormous economic damage, RiotACT readers’ opinions were divided last week on how best to help both renters and landlords at one of the pressure points in the crisis.

The ACT’s relief package for renters will, in effect, put the normal operation of the rents payment system for affected tenants on ice until the COVID-19 crisis has passed and the economy can return to normal.

“Everybody is going to wear the pain here: governments, landlords, tenants and the banks. There is no way of fixing this, which is a very complex set of private contractual arrangements, without every sector wearing some pain,” Chief Minister Andrew Barr said.

But managing director of property management at Independent Hannah Gill, who also sits on the Real Estate Institute of ACT board, said the way the situation has been represented in the conversation about tenants was overly simplistic.

“We are talking about six months with no eviction. What does that mean in real terms? What if we have a repeat offender for arrears prior to COVID-19? Do they get a get-out-of-jail-free card?”

We asked you Should rents be reduced or deferred during the COVID-19 crisis?

549 people voted, and the split between votes was surprisingly even. Your options were to vote Defer the rent. Every situation will be different. This option received 56 per cent of the total or 309 votes. Alternatively, you could vote Reduce the rent, we all have to suffer through this together. This received 240 votes, or 44 per cent of the total.

This week, we’re wondering about what happens next as Australia seems to be making progress flattening the COVID-19 infection curve. In Canberra, infection figures have been in single digits for weeks and we’ve seen several days with no new cases at all.

It’s the same in surrounding NSW, where both the Murrumbidgee Local Health District, stretching from Hilltops to the Victorian border, and Southern NSW Local Health District, covering the Tablelands, Monaro and South Coast, have both recorded minimal or no new infections for more than a week.

Australia’s strict social distancing measures and testing regimes both appear to have thrown the nation a lifeline not afforded to other countries who have been slower or less able to shut down infection rates.

But the cost to our economy is high as unemployment spirals and Federal and State governments dig deep into their coffers to offer support in the form of employee subsidies, rent reductions and other measures.

The medical advice has been to continue restrictions for the foreseeable future although Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Monday that the Federal government had been “actively planning” the road out, adding that Australians had “responded magnificently” to the plea not to travel over Easter.

Given that Australia seems to be moderating infection rates effectively, the key issue is where the balance lies between ensuring public safety and ameliorating economic damage. There’s been a mixed reaction to news that the NRL, for example, hopes to resume competition at the end of May under strict conditions.

Our question is:

How soon can we lift social distancing restrictions?

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