The end of March is pivotal for renters – and not in a good way.
Eviction and rent protections in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia will all expire.
Federal income support through JobKeeper and JobSeeker supplements will evaporate.
And bankruptcy pauses protecting some landlords will disappear in a puff of smoke — all in a single week.
It all boils down to a multibillion-dollar hit to the pockets of financially distressed renters, which advocates warn could see tens of thousands evicted or unable to pay for basics like food and power.
Now, less than 50 days until NSW and Victoria ease emergency support, tenant advocates say governments in both states should extend the measures to avoid severe economic and human costs.
Tenants Union NSW chief executive Leo Patterson Ross said the Berejiklian government should extend help in some form past March 26 – when eviction moratoria are due to end – until it becomes clear how the withdrawal of federal income support will affect the economy.
“It’s very risky to leave people without protections … people are coming down off higher [JobSeeker] payments, which have made a big difference to people’s ability to pay for food, healthcare and bills,” Mr Ross told The New Daily.
People should never be evicted because of an external economic crisis, that’s never a good enough reason to lose your home – the moratorium is important.”
In Victoria, where a slew of new reforms will introduce additional protections against evictions, negotiable rent reductions and a pause on increases will expire on March 28.
Jennifer Beveridge, chief executive of Tenants Victoria, said she was negotiating with the government to ensure renters aren’t “unfairly disadvantaged” when federal government income support expires.
“The expected drop in federal government income protections certainly doesn’t help hard-hit renters improve their lot,” Ms Beveridge told The New Daily in an email.
“We are advocating for a number of solutions, including ongoing protections for renters facing COVID related pressure.”
Renters & Housing Union organiser Jesse James Frances urged the Andrews government to extend support and cancel existing rental debt.
“If you went into debt in 2020 because your industry was decimated … it’s more than likely you haven’t had the chance to recover,” Ms Frances told The New Daily.
“We urgently need ongoing protections for renters in financial hardship, including cancelled debt.”
A spokesperson for NSW minister for better regulation Kevin Anderson, who handles the renter protection program, left the door open to continuing some form of emergency support continuing past March.
“The required measures and support needed will be adjusted to align with this new climate. We will continue to monitor the situation and react where necessary to support and prioritise the people of NSW,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
A Victorian government spokesperson said it was “looking closely” at opportunities to ensure a smooth transition from the eviction moratorium to its rental reforms.
“With more than two months’ notice, we’re giving rental providers, estate agents and property managers fair warning to ensure that when the eviction moratorium ends all rental properties comply with these regulations,” the spokesperson said.
‘Nobody knows’: Data gaps underscore risks
But “nobody knows” how many people are at risk of being thrown out when eviction moratoria end in March, according to Emma Baker, professor of housing research at the University of Adelaide.
That’s because although every auction in Australia is tracked in minute detail, there’s much less data available when it comes to evictions and rental debt.
What data does exist suggests a significant portion of the 2.6 million households that rent stand at a financial precipice, Professor Baker said.
“The big worry we have from the data we have is that, one year into the pandemic, as the emergency protections and assistance packages roll back, a number of tenants are likely to be a lot worse off than you would expect,” Professor Baker told The New Daily via email.
A survey of 15,000 renters taken by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute in 2020 found about 40 per cent were struggling to make ends meet, while over a quarter had skipped meals to save money.
About 30 per cent requested a rent reduction, but only half of them said they were successful.
Compounding the problem: Rents are going up
Joel Dignam, executive director at tenancy advocacy group Better Renting, said data gaps underscored how renting issues had been “neglected” in Australia.
He told The New Daily up to 15 per cent of renters surveyed by his organisation last year carried rental debt (unpaid rent) through the pandemic.
If extrapolated, this suggests hundreds of thousands of people could face significant bills in 2021, just as rents across the country start rising, particularly in regional and rural towns.
“Its a pretty rough time to be a renter in Australia,” Mr Dignam said.
“What’s quite scary is the way the economic recovery is slow for a lot of people and at the same time around Australia we’re seeing landlords increasing rents.
[To lift] protections and make people vulnerable to evictions and rental debt couldn’t come at a worse time.’’
Although house prices and rents in inner-city areas have fallen after the pandemic, that’s also driven faster increases in prices across suburban, regional and rural suburbs and towns as people escape the city.
According to figures published by SQM research, rents have been steadily increasing over the past twelve months, up 9 per cent nationally over 2020.
That’s more than four times the 10-year annual growth rate of 2.2 per cent.
Fed up: ‘Hard hit’ landlords say it’s time to sell
But it would be a mistake for governments to force landlords to continue supporting renters in financial distress, according to Australian Landlords Association (ALA) president Andrew Kent.
“If housing is considered an essential service, why has it been up to landlords to fund tenants up to this point?” Mr Kent told The New Daily.
“What avenues do [landlords] have to pay their own bills?”
Mr Kent said a minority of ALA’s members have been “hit hard” by the rent protections and were now considering selling into a hot property market.
A lot of members [say] it’s time to get out of being a landlord,’’ he said.
When protections were first implemented, Mr Kent said there was broad agreement between the government, banks, landlords and tenants.
But since then banks have started resuming mortgage repayments, tightening the screws.
Mr Kent said renter advocates now risk shooting themselves in the foot by incentivising landlords to escape the market, which would reduce supply and push up rents faster.