The warnings started not long after the pandemic began.
First of the need for eviction bans and rental debt relief. Then, when state governments did come to the party on that, for assurances those protections wouldn’t be torn away too quickly.
Some claimed that when the protections did end many people could be left with massive debts: a “ticking time bomb” that could sparks many thousands of evictions.
In coming months, we will find out if they were right.
“A lot of renters around Australia are in very bad situations,” says Joel Dignam of the advocacy group Better Renting.
“And that’s the combination of the protections expiring, the state of the rental market, particularly in regional areas, and of course, the cuts to income support from the federal government.”
Most states ended their bans on evictions last month – about the same time the government’s jobkeeper wage subsidy and boosted jobseeker payments also came to an end.
Not only can owners apply to have people evicted for rental arrears again, landlords can increase rents once more.
Dignam’s group estimated in November between 5% to 15% of tenants Australia-wide may have been in rental debt, which would equate to 324,000 to 973,000 people.
“There was this concern about rental debt, but while that’s going on, probably the unanticipated issue to some extent was how significant the protections against renting increases were,” Dignam says.
“Now that those protections aren’t in place, a lot of people who may not have rental debt, who can’t be evicted for that, are getting increases that are really stressing the budget or basically forcing them to look somewhere else.”
Some states have adopted a so-called “transitional period” to soften the blow. In New South Wales, the government has instituted a six-month period before standard eviction rules resume.
People who accrued rental debts between April 2020 and March 2021 cannot be evicted for arrears unless landlords have agreed to negotiate a “fair and reasonable” repayment plan and the tenant has failed to keep up with that.
But those transitional arrangements don’t cover everyone. “People who were on jobseeker or jobkeeper, who are maybe falling into rental debt for the first time since 26 March, they’re not covered,” says Leo Patterson Ross, chief executive of the Tenants Union of NSW.
“So even though they’re very clearly Covid-impacted, they’re very much victims of Covid pandemic, they’re not covered by the moratorium at all.”
Government points out that each state’s civil and administrative tribunal will still need to determine whether eviction is reasonable and proportionate, but advocates are concerned.
The issue is not just the trauma and dislocation of being evicted but, as Dignam notes, the reality of the housing market in some areas. It’s not simply a matter of finding a new place to live.
It’s a particular concern for people surviving on welfare benefits now that the jobkeeper payment has ended. With the end of the coronavirus supplement, the rate of the jobseeker payment has fallen to about $44 a day.
This week, Anglicare’s annual rental affordability snapshot found that of more than 74,000 rental listings surveyed, only three – all sharehouses – were affordable for a person on the jobseeker payment.
Alex Bayley has been renting the same house in Ballarat for seven years. Bayley and their landlord had a brief a dispute over repairs last year, but they successfully managed to negotiate a rent reduction when they were forced on to jobseeker payment.
However, Bayley believes the rent reduction caused friction with the landlord. And on 1 April, Bayley received a notice to vacate because the landlord plans to sell the house.
“My rent here is $260 a week, which has been affordable for me, for most of the time I’ve been here, but not when I was Covid-affected,” Bayley says.
“And I have no hope of finding a comfortable place in Ballarat in that price range going forward. So as a result of this notice to vacate I’m at risk of homelessness.
“Luckily, I’ve got a friend with a farm who said I could put a caravan on his land. So I’m downsizing from a three-bedroom house to a caravan. And that’s my current best option.”
Bayley is a member of the Rental and Housing Union, whose secretary is Eirene Tsolidis Noyce.
“A lot of our members, particularly in the regional areas, like Geelong and Ballarat and Gippsland have already been sent increase notices, in many cases where there’s already situation of severe debt due to unemployment and failed rent reduction negotiations,” Noyce says.
“We’re seeing a very big trend in the regional areas of exceedingly high rents.”
Patterson Ross says the Tenants Union of NSW has picked up the same trend north of the border. “The rents are down [and] they are kind of stabilising in the city, but they’re still rising on the edges of Sydney,” he says. “And the regions are just a horror show, particularly on the coast.”
Patterson Ross says there has been an “upheaval” in the past 12 months. “A whole lot of people have fled the city, and the regional areas are really struggling with low vacancy rates, and that’s causing intense headaches for people.
“We’re hearing a lot of people in regional areas [are being] given no grounds eviction notices, are being moved out, so that the landlord – and they’ve been told this – so the landlord can hike the rent and capture the people coming in from other capital cities or other bigger towns with higher incomes.”
With protections having expired, real estate industry peaks have acknowledged that rents will rise and evictions will occur. The Real Estate Institute of Western Australia has estimated rentals would now go up by an average of 15%, for example.
The Real Estate Institute of Tasmania president Mandy Welling also told the Mercury this month that rents would increase, but she too acknowledged it was “really is brutal out there for renters”.
Patterson Ross says it’s too early to say how badly the “cliff” of ending evictions bans and welfare support is biting.
“The people who’ve just come off jobkeeper in the last fortnight, it’ll take a few weeks before they accrue enough debt that we’d see an eviction notice,” he says.
But he adds: “We do expect to see more and more people coming forward [with evictions notices].
“May, June is when we’re gonna start to see that the next wave of people, who have nowhere else to go and call for support.”