Fewer than 10% of Australian tenants received 'satisfactory' rent reduction during pandemic

Luke Henriques-Gomes
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Fewer than one in 10 Australian tenants who lost income during the Covid-19 pandemic obtained a “satisfactory rent reduction”, a new survey has found.

A report from the advocacy group Better Renting, to be released on Thursday, surveyed almost 1,000 residential tenants about their experiences during the health and economic crisis.

Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they had lost income due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, but of those people, only 9% asked for and received a “satisfactory” rent reduction.

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The report found 20% had their request for rental relief denied, while 7.5% had their rent deferred, meaning they would have to pay the reduced rent back as a debt at a later date. A further 4.5% received a “trivial reduction”.

Despite the near doubling of the unemployment benefit and the jobkeeper wage subsidy, which the report said had made a significant difference, tenants still told of significant financial hardship during the pandemic.

The survey found 16% of respondents reported skipping meals to save money, while one in two (44%) said they had “struggled to make ends meet with rent and bills”.

“In their survey responses, renters described an initial period of fear and anxiety when they imagined paying full rent after a significant loss of income,” he said.

“For these renters the coronavirus supplement meant they could keep paying rent while also affording essentials such as food and dental care.

“However, this relief has been relatively short-lived. Although the economic crisis continues to deepen, people who rent now anticipate a cut to income support come September.”

The national cabinet agreed to a six-month moratorium on residential evictions in late March, although the failure to reach agreement on the details left a patchwork system of protections across the states and territories.

Most of these temporary measures are due to expire next month, just as the federal government’s boosted jobseeker and jobkeeper payments are set to reduce.

Tenants unions also note some renters obtained a deferral rather than reduction, prompting fears of a financial time bomb come the end of September.

In Victoria, which has entered unprecedented stage 4 restrictions, the state government has hinted that it would be prepared to extend these provisions, which prevent tenants from being evicted because they cannot pay their rent.

Related: 'We don't know how many timebombs are ticking': Australia's rent deferral debt trap

Joel Dignam, the executive director at Better Renting, said state and territory governments needed to extend and expand the evictions moratoriums, particularly in Victoria.

“Come October, many renters will still be struggling to find work, many will still be facing rental debt, often because landlords have not helped out with rent reductions,” he said.

“Extending moratoriums will help to keep these renters secure in their homes. At the same time, there’s a case to expand the moratoriums so that tenants aren’t being evicted on flimsy grounds.”

Dignam said it was “clearly” a time for Victorians to be supported to stay safe in their homes.

“This absolutely means ensuring that people who might be struggling to pay rent don’t face the prospect of losing their home,” he said.

The Better Renting report released Thursday noted that while Victoria and Queensland created an arbitration system that allowed tenants to seek an independent umpire to decide a request for a rent reduction, other states did not.

This meant that renters were forced to accept their landlords’ decision or move out.

An interim Victorian parliamentary report into the pandemic, released this week, found that Consumer Affairs Victoria had registered 17,852 rent reduction agreements on 5 July, representing 3% of all rental households in the state.

Of disputes that were handled by the consumer watchdog, the average weekly rental decrease was 27% or $155 per week per agreement.

A Victorian government spokeswoman said: “We’re assisting tenants and landlords wherever possible during this extremely challenging time.

“As the situation is evolving, we’re continuously reviewing the measures in place to ensure an appropriate response.”