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Thousands Pledge To 'Rent Strike' After Struggling Tenants 'Served Illegal Evictions'

Activists say they've been "inundated" with reports of illegal evictions through the coronavirus crisis, with a growing social movement calling on tenants to go on "strike" from paying rent in protest.

"Renters are being left at the bottom of the pile when we're the ones needing the most help and support," Ariana, one of the organisers of the burgeoning Rent Strike campaign, told 10 daily.

Despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing in early April a "moratorium on evictions" would be enacted to support tenants through the coronavirus crisis, renters are still being threatened with eviction after telling landlords they will struggle to pay their bills.

Morrison, after initially flagging the federal government would take action on renters and landlords, later kicked the issue to state governments, and recommended tenants negotiate rent reductions or deferrals if they have lost work.

"We've been inundated with people coming to us with responses from agencies when they've tried to negotiate," Ariana said.

She is a renter herself, and employed as a casual cleaner in Melbourne. She asked for her surname to not be published, fearing repercussions for her own tenancy.

"Some are offering a 10 percent reduction now but saying the tenant has to pay it back with 20 percent interest later," Ariana said.

"Many people aren't having successful negotiations whatsoever, there's no guarantee and there's a lot of confusion and insecurity."

Tenants unions nationwide said they were aware of such stories.

Ariana is one of those behind the growing Rent Strike campaign, calling on rents for tenants and mortgage payments for landlords to be frozen for the duration of the pandemic.

She said the push began in March after bubbling anger over inadequate housing support through the coronavirus crisis, with  hundreds of thousands left out of work or  with reduced incomes due to business shutdowns and economic downturn.

Screenshot from Rent & Mortgage Strike Australia campaign video. (Image: Facebook)

Despite state governments in NSW and Victoria announcing rental support packages, with land tax exemptions and other concessions for landlords, there have been criticisms not enough attention is being paid to renters.

Nearly 18,000 people have pledged support for the Rent Strike campaign, with hundreds across the country sending pro forma letters to inform landlords and real estate agents they do not plan to pay rent.

"For many, it's not a choice. They're not really striking, they don't have an option," Ariana said.

"But it's also for anyone in this precarious confusion, who can stand with those people who don't have a choice, so we can build up our numbers to support and withhold collectively."

Morrison left the issue of tenants to state governments. Image: AAP

One of those people who has struggled to negotiate with their landlord is Melbourne man Paddy Gordon. He and his partner are both employed casually, and have a two-year-old daughter.

After asking for a rent reduction due to the family's declining work hours -- Gordon works in local council, his partner in teaching and tutoring -- he claimed his real estate agent refused to even pass on the request to the landlord without a detailed set of "intimate" personal financial information.

"I wasn't that comfortable with what they asked for. It was about proof of reduced hours, financial hardship, bank balances, proof you've applied for Centrelink," Gordon told 10 daily.

"They said that until they see that, they wouldn't negotiate or even contact the landlord."

Forms from his real estate agent, seen by 10 daily, request evidence of bank balances, job termination, and applications for government financial assistance. The form states the information may be "passed on to third parties" including banks, mortgagees or government agencies.

Some of the documents requested by Gordon's real estate agent. Image: Supplied

Gordon said after falling 14 days into arrears, he received a notice to vacate his property -- which came days after Morrison announced there would be an eviction moratorium. He said it was "pretty distressing" but his real estate agent claimed the notice was issued automatically. Negotiations have opened with his landlord, but another notice to vacate was recently issued at 21 days of arrears. He said his family may have to move back in with their parents.

"It makes you anxious and stressed. There's insecurity everywhere, everyone has it, but especially with a child, you're trying to not let the stress intrude on her," Gordon said.

"Governments keep talking about a partnership of tenants and landlords, but that implies some equality. The idea is pretty laughable. Renters are at this structural disadvantage, very vulnerable and the ones to take a hit when it goes bad."

The movement is calling for a freeze on rents. Image: Getty

In a statement, Real Estate Institute of Australia president Adrian Kelly said tenants should try to negotiate with landlords or agents, saying there were "many cases of negotiations that have been reached with amicable outcomes".

"We don’t find the activities[of Rent Strike] productive when the industry is calling for tenants and landlords through their agent to negotiate an outcome in difficult times. There is not a uniform approach for all situations," he told 10 daily.

"Each state has taken its own direction around the PM’s directive of no evictions. Some have been more easily achieved than others but all have attempted to take stakeholder interests into consideration."

Kelly had said earlier in April that he was "disappointed" the federal government had not enacted a uniform approach to tenants during coronavirus, instead leaving it to state governments.

Tenants claim they are being left behind. Image: Getty

Ariana said she expected the rent strike movement to grow as the pandemic continued, saying more than 500 people had already sent letters to landlords signalling their intent to not pay rent.

"It will increase as people realise what little options we have. The more of us doing it, the more protected we are," she said.