Landlords Pet Peeves: Renters To Get More Rights

"Renters deserve to enjoy the basic comforts of home."

Proposed new laws in Victoria to allow rental tenants to redecorate their homes, own pets and be protected from unfair evictions, with NSW and Queensland tenant groups wanting similar changes too.

Victoria's Labor government is introducing 130 changes to its laws around renting and tenancies, with the aim "to make renting fair". Changes include legislating minimum standards for a property -- such as functioning appliances, heating, power and locks -- as well as more rights for tenants to have a pet, capping bond payments at four weeks rent, limiting rent increases to once per year, and allowing tenants to make 'minor modifications' such as nailing picture hooks into walls.

Reforms will also protect domestic violence victims who have to terminate a lease early, or who have homes damaged by abusers.

"This is the biggest reform to renting in Victoria’s history -- cracking down on rental bidding and making it easier and faster to get your bond back," said Consumer Affairs Minister, Marlene Kairouz.

'A box can be rented out'

Devon LaSalle from Tenants Victoria told ten daily that minimum rental property standards do not exist in the state, and while the full detail of the changes was yet to be unveiled, she broadly welcomed the reforms.

"So many people live in housing not of a livable condition. There are absolutely no minimum standards. A house that has four walls, a roof and windows can be rented out, as long as it has a smoke detector, it doesn't need electricity, heating or insulation," she said.

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"If those facilities exist in the house, they need to be in good order, but there's no requirement to have them. Essentially a box can be rented out on the market."

LaSalle also hoped minimum standard laws would cover mould growth in homes, which she said was a major health issue making people sick in older properties. Other changes mean a landlord can only refuse a pet in a rental home following an order of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

"There's always been imbalance of power in Victorian tenancy legislation, in favour of landlords. We’re very supportive of legislation that enables tenants to make their house a home, like hanging pictures on the wall or having the companionship of a pet," LaSalle said.

"Owning a pet is one of the simple joys in life. Renters deserve to enjoy the basic comforts of home."

But landlords say the changes have gone too far.

Landlords fear 'uncertainty'

"It's too one-sided to tenants. Landlord rights are being eroded," Richard Simpson, president of the Real Estate Institute of Victoria, told ten daily.

He said the changes to modifications of rental homes would impact on landlords who own brand new or heritage properties, and said the package of laws could create "uncertainty" among investment property owners.

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"Properties will be withdrawn from the market. Landlords are already struggling with increases to land tax, so these increased responsibilities will make it too hard. It will reduce the pool of properties available," Simpson said.

"Once you make a landlord put in heating, deadlocks, they will look for more return and put rents up. While I agree we need minimum standards around power and water, when it comes to features like heating or cooling, that adds to the cost. You’ll be disadvantaging people at lower end of the market."

"If you make it easier for landlords, they will provide more stock and keep the rents at a reasonable level. Make it hard and they will withdraw stock or won't buy investment properties to rent out."

How do other states compare?

Despite fears raised from the landlords' side, tenancy agencies in NSW and QLD have praised the Victorian changes and hope similar reforms might be on the way in their states.

NSW has stronger laws around minimum standards than Victoria, said Leo Patterson Ross of the NSW Tenants' Union, and he welcomed the essence of the VIC changes.

However, he said NSW needed to scrap laws allowing for no-grounds eviction, because the current system would still allow tenants to be evicted on retaliatory grounds.

"The landlord can say get out, and you can't see the reason why, they don't have to tell you and there's nothing you can do about it," he told ten daily.

"The ability to put a hook up in your home without having to check with the landlord every time would be a big improvement. It gives you more ownership of your home, more recognition a rented home is a home and a place we value and should be able to personalise."

"The signal sent out from government now is they don't see tenants as being responsible or adult enough to make these decisions or take responsibility if it goes wrong... Moving away from this paternalistic way of renting is positive."

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Penny Carr, CEO of Tenants QLD, also praised the changes but also wanted her state to address grounds for eviction.

"It will be hard to see people push their right even if they have the security of knowing they're legally allowed to," she told ten daily.

"At a high level, these issues are the same across the country.  If you don't do something they want you to do, even if it's your right, they can ask you to leave."

As for the REIV argument that landlords would leave the market? Carr said research conducted by TQ showed tenancy law changes were a very minor factor in investment decisions made by property owners.

"There was never a progressive change supported by the industry. They warn of the sky falling in, and it never happens. The stock will be there," Carr said.

"Even if it did happen, it might even allow aspirational homeowners to get into the market. This is always the argument rolled out, but it hasn't ever happened, to my knowledge."