- by Bree Booth
- The Guardian
- Issue #1954
In a jarring contrast, the same census concluded that one million houses were “vacant” across the country. While investing magazines and websites will tout the “legitimate” reasons why this number is so high, it is hard to see how a property being untenanted because no one can afford the rent there is “legitimate” in a country where people are sleeping on the streets. Even with the almost certain increase in homelessness due to the pandemic, empty housing far outstrips the number needing to be housed.
Homelessness is by no means a new issue, but it is increasingly relevant now due to two factors. Firstly, the Australian government is about to end the JobSeeker supplement at a time when hundreds of thousands of Australians are already struggling under the weight of a global disaster and the worst recession since the 1930s. Secondly, this is compounded at the state level by the end of moratoria on evictions and rent increases that over the last year have offered vital protections for vulnerable tenants.
There are four states whose moratoria and rental protections are set to end this month.
In Victoria, regulations to the Residential Tenancies Act have been in force since May 2020, instituting a moratorium on rent increases and evictions during the pandemic.
While no reasonable person would assert that the pandemic is over, the regulations are set to lapse on the 28th March, 2021. This coincides with the end of the JobSeeker supplement meaning many Victorians will be pushed back below the poverty line and the rates of housing insecurity and homelessness are set to skyrocket.
Last year Daniel Andrews announced that his government would begin to build more public housing but this is barely enough for what is needed (see Guardian, “Social Housing Scheme Only A Drop In The Ocean” #1942).
The moratorium on rent evictions was extended in September 2020 to have effect until March. This was based on the dire need for protections which existed then. That need still exists now. Extend the moratorium again.
New South Wales
A similar moratorium in NSW is set to end on the 26th March. The government has announced a transition plan to protect tenants over the next six months but many feel it isn’t enough.
Over forty community organisations have signed an open letter calling expressing concern over the transition plan. They’re calling for the government to:
Extend the eviction restrictions and rent reduction provisions for impacted tenants
Provide additional financial supports via, for example, No Interest Loan Schemes for tenants struggling with rent or targeted COVID rent relief payments
Provide additional funding for services supporting tenants
A new report from Equity Economics states that the housing and social services situation in NSW is at a “tipping point.” With 1 million people in that state already dependent on social services, the system is at capacity and the state and federal governments are set to pull the rug out at the end of this month.
According to a University of New South Wales report, Tasmania had some of the best COVID-19 rental moratoriums and relief in Australia. The state extended protections to a wide range of tenants, recognising that all Tasmanians were affected by the crisis. However, these protections ended on the 31st January this year. An extension to the COVID-19 tenants relief fund is also set to expire on the 31st March.
Rent in Tasmania has risen thirty-seven per cent of the last five years. Even before the pandemic, tenants were already struggling. The Tenants’ Union of Tasmania rightly points out that given the high cost of rent, the end of the Jobkeeper subsidy and the fact that the vaccine rollout there has only just begun, “the economics [don’t] stack up.” It makes no sense to lift protections to offset the impact of the pandemic in the middle of the pandemic.
The emergency period in WA ends on the 28th March. During the emergency period a range of protections were afforded to tenants including a ban on rent increases and evictions during the moratorium period, and no lease break fee.
At the end of the month once the protections lift, WA will be facing a crisis as the lowest ever rental availability in the state combines with a loss of income and a liability to pay rent to push thousands of Western Australians into homelessness and housing insecurity, with young renters being the worst affected.
The public housing wait list in WA is currently around 15,000 with the number expected to increase by up to twenty per cent once the emergency period ends on the 28th March.
This crisis was avoidable. The Real Estate Institute of WA states that there has been little to no construction of new residences in the past few years. Now, housing availability is down to as little as 0.4 per cent in some parts of WA.
The state government insists that they are “monitoring” the situation. Renters don’t need their situation “monitored”, they need secure income, secure and affordable housing and more resources for those experiencing homelessness.
Renters must band together to demand an extension of the protections in their states. Housing is a pandemic control issue. When people are safely and adequately housed and where the cost of living is affordable, people are less likely to need to take risks which endanger the health of those around them just to put food on the table. The pandemic is far from over. It’s high time the governments of Australia wake up to that reality and do something about it.