Jenny Leong MP introduces the Residential Tenancies Amendment (Tenant Protections and Flood Response) Bill 2022.
Ms JENNY LEONG (Newtown) (10:20): I move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
On behalf of The Greens, I introduce the Residential Tenancies Amendment (Tenant Protections and Flood Response) Bill 2022 with a sense of urgency arising from the crisis that is occurring across New South Wales following the devastating weather and floods. This environmental and climate disaster has turned very quickly into an escalating housing crisis and will continue to do so unless the New South Wales Government proceeds to act. The Government has the power to suspend standing orders to debate the second reading of the bill today. The Greens have done the heavy lifting by looking at measures that are needed right now in the Northern Rivers, in areas of the Hawkesbury and in flood‑impacted areas across the State. The Government could suspend standing orders and pass this bill today so that people renting homes in flood‑impacted areas of New South Wales would be protected immediately by a moratorium on evictions and a cap on rents to make sure that greedy landlords do not seek to profit from the horrific and tragic crisis.
As a demonstration of the scale and scope of the problem, the huge list of flood‑impacted local government areas [LGAs] where renters desperately need the support provided by this bill runs to more than a page. New South Wales has long been experiencing a housing crisis, which has made affordability a key issue for many people who rent. The situation has been exacerbated by devastating floods throughout New South Wales that have impacted thousands of people who need specific protections right now. The Residential Tenancies Amendment (Tenant Protections and Flood Response) Bill 2022 seeks to amend the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 to provide two things: increased protections for tenants generally across New South Wales and additional specific protections in flood‑impacted areas. The bill addresses two crucial issues faced by renters in light of the housing affordability crisis and the social housing deficit resulting from successive New South Wales governments' failure to act. It also amends the minimum standards for rental properties across the State, which protect renters from living in conditions that are detrimental to their health, by inserting additional fit‑for‑habitation requirements that a property must be free of mould and have adequate waterproofing.
I will focus on the urgent measures that are needed to protect renters in flood‑impacted areas and then go through the detail of the measures that are required across the State to protect renters. I hope the Government is listening because Minister Petinos could adopt this bill to amend the Residential Tenancies Act now—I am happy for it to be a Government bill—and put in place its provisions to assist flood‑affected victims. On Tuesday members on both sides of the House spoke about personal stories and the impacts of the floods on their communities. The member for Coffs Harbour, the member for Lakemba, the member for Tweed, the member for Blue Mountains, the member for Hawkesbury, the member for Prospect and I all contributed to the debate. The member for Lismore and my Greens colleague the member for Ballina were not in the Chamber because they were still in their communities. They have been working tirelessly to support them during this time. They know that right now the Government needs to do absolutely everything it can to protect those who are impacted.
The images might have dropped off the front page of the news, but this crisis has only just begun. In the days after the water receded, reports about how many homes had been destroyed and deemed uninhabitable began to trickle in. First it was 1,000, then 2,000. Today the estimate is over 4,000, and that figure is expected to climb. At least 4,000 families cannot return to their homes. The climate crisis has created a housing crisis. Whether or not members agree that a climate crisis caused this extreme weather event, all members in this place can agree that right now people are living in unacceptable conditions. They are sleeping rough, camping in tents next to their home and living in cars. While COVID cases continue to rise, older people are living in crowded caravans, garages and evacuation centres, or staying with friends and doing whatever they can. No doubt, some people have gone back to dangerous family situations because that is their only option. But today, if we want to, we could suspend standing orders to pass this bill and introduce its two measures to protect renters in flood‑impacted areas. I turn to the details of those now.
The first of those measures, in proposed section 230, provides for a ban on evictions. Tenants in LGAs that have been declared flood impacted will be protected from eviction, subject to a few exclusions—namely, where the property is uninhabitable or ceases to be usable as a residence. This is a crucial protection for renters in flood‑impacted areas where a severe lack of accommodation provides incentives for opportunistic and greedy landlords to seek higher rents from whoever is prepared to pay the most. The proposed section provides for a 12‑month eviction moratorium. I remember falling off my chair during lockdown when the New South Wales Government introduced a moratorium on evictions. I never thought it would be possible. That was a great policy position. But to say that the crisis impacting those in flood‑affected areas is not as extreme as the pandemic crisis would be underestimating the flood crisis. We need another moratorium on evictions immediately in flood‑impacted LGAs across the State. I call on the Minister responsible to take that action now.
Following on from the proposed 12‑month eviction moratorium, proposed section 230 of the Act provides for a cap on rents. We need to make sure that greedy landlords and those who are engaged in the short‑term letting accommodation industry, who are profiting from the housing affordability and weather crises, are called to account. This proposed amendment to the Act ensures that for a 12‑month period rent cannot be increased under a new tenancy agreement where the previous tenant leaves voluntarily. Additionally, the section provides that rent payable under a new lease of a property must be set at the level of rent payable as at 25 February 2022 if the property was leased at that time or, otherwise, at the median rent for the same type of premises. Basically, that means that a landlord in a flood‑impacted area cannot kick the tenant out, raise the rent astronomically because they know there are no rental properties available and then lease it to a new person who is going to then suffer financial stress. We need to peg rents. What is a median rental price? The Greens think rents were already too high. However, it is much better to cap it at that level than to allow rents to increase further or to allow greedy interested parties to charge a per‑night accommodation rate on a residential rental property that used to be tenanted under a six‑month or 12‑month lease.
I urge the Government to look at the detail in this bill. I will circulate it to all members. At the next opportunity I will talk about the other measures in the bill designed to protect renters. I urge the Government not to worry about this bill having been introduced by The Greens. I urge it to adopt these amendments that will address the needs of flood‑impacted regions as a matter of urgency—to suspend standing orders, get this done and help people living in flood‑affected areas in New South Wales right now.
Ms JENNY LEONG (Newtown) (10:52): Before the break I was talking about the complete market failure when it comes to dealing with housing affordability, the disastrous situation in New South Wales regarding renters' rights and protections for renters who have lost their homes as a result of the recent significant and extreme weather events across the State, and the need for the Government to step in and act urgently to provide protections for tenants in this State. I was talking about the effect on thousands of people in flood‑impacted areas in the Northern Rivers who have seen their homes and their communities devastated by floods. Now over 4,000 people are affected and, sadly, that number continues to grow.
Let us say that capitalism knows no bounds when it comes to stuffing around the everyday person in the pursuit of profit. Greedy investors and property owners in flood‑impacted areas are already thinking about how they can make money out of this crisis. Instead of returning their properties to the long‑term residential tenancy market, property owners are considering letting them for a short term and charging people per night as opposed to weekly, which is affordable for families who are currently living in evacuation centres or in tents next to their uninhabitable homes, or elderly people who are currently living in caravan parks. The Greens have been working on the issue of renters' rights in this State for a long time—indeed, since before I was elected in 2015. At that time you barely heard mention of renters in this place.
The many hundreds of thousands of people who rent in New South Wales have the right to a safe and secure place to live. The Greens have been pushing for that right to be fully recognised and protected. Nothing could be more urgent or in need of an immediate response than providing affordable housing for renters in flood‑impacted areas. The bill will introduce two measures to assist tenants in such areas. The first is a ban on evictions in flood-impacted areas. This is necessary precisely for the reason I outlined. It will stop property owners being able to boot a tenant from their flood-damaged home for no reason whatsoever and then allowing them to move back in when the property is restored but hiking up the rent, or instead putting the property on a short‑term letting site for a per‑night cost and pricing renters out of the market so they have nowhere to live.
The second measure is rent caps. We know that rents in New South Wales are too damn high. They have been too high for too long. Successive New South Wales governments have failed to act and stand up for those who live in rental properties and recognise their right to have a safe, secure, habitable and affordable place to call home. The Greens support capping rents. We support pegging rents to a median amount so that people can afford to pay rent without adding to existing cost‑of‑living pressures. New section 231 introduces the second specific measure for flood‑impacted areas—a cap on rent increases. The effect of this provision is that existing rents cannot be increased during the specified period and leases on new rental properties will be limited and must be in line with the median rent charged for the same type of property prior to 25 February 2022. This accounts for changes in tenancies in flood‑impacted areas so that rents cannot be increased between tenancies during a 12‑month period if a tenant leaves voluntarily and the property is leased to a new tenant.
Additionally, the new section calls for new medium‑term or long‑term rental properties to be leased at the median rent for the area on 25 February 2022, prior to the floods. We recognise that rents were already too high. The member for Ballina has spoken multiple times in this place and in her community about the fact that, even before this extreme weather event—when the climate crisis intersected with the housing crisis in New South Wales—there were sometimes between 10 and 100 people waiting to inspect a single rental property in her region. Now what do we have? We have a further escalation of this crisis. Do we see any action from the Government? We have Ministers visiting flood‑impacted areas and doing what they can to assist. But there are things we can do right here, right now in this Chamber.
There is nothing stopping the Government coming into the Chamber right now and saying, "Let's suspend standing orders. Lo and behold, The Greens have got an idea that is actually responding to the needs and the interests of renters." We have seen successive Ministers for Fair Trading, who were responsible for rent regulation in this State, come and go. I can think of at least four in my time in this place, and I have been here only six years. But The Greens have consistently stood up for renters' rights. If the Government has any desire to respond to the needs of flood‑impacted victims who are struggling right now, then this rental reform should be adopted. New section 231 takes into consideration the development of new rental properties, which could be properties that are moving from short‑term accommodation to market leases. Rent protection in the form of stopping or limiting rent increases and banning evictions are imperative in all flood‑affected local government areas, which we know are currently experiencing a housing emergency that is not going to end soon. It is absolutely critical that we recognise that, and that is why The Greens are calling for a number of broader provisions across the State.
I will briefly summarise the broader provisions of the bill now, and I will go into more detail later. The broader State provisions that we are looking to deliver for the people of New South Wales who rent include a requirement that all rental properties are free of mould and have adequate waterproofing. The recent extreme, nonstop rains—whether in my community of Newtown or across the inner city, the inner west or the State—have resulted in a significant presence of mould, which is having a huge impact on people's health.
The other absolutely critical provision in the bill puts an end to no-grounds evictions in the State. That is not new; it was brought up when the now Treasurer, Matt Kean, was the Minister responsible for the Residential Tenancies Act in this place. We saw a push by the community and the Everybody's Home campaign, backed by the Tenants' Union and so many others, to see an end to unfair no‑grounds evictions in the State. The Tenants' Union has been leading the charge, and its recentEviction, Hardship, and the Housing Crisis report shows that the average cost of a move for renting households in New South Wales ranges from $3,215 for a single person in a household in Greater Sydney through to $5,400 for a family household in regional New South Wales. It is critical that we end unfair no-grounds evictions so that renters are not slugged with those costs in addition to the incredibly high cost-of-living issues that they are currently facing.
We also want to see a cap on rents across the State. If the Premier is so set on capping public service wages at 1.5 per cent or 2.5 per cent, then why is it not reasonable for the Government to cap rents in the State in line with public service wage rises? The only way to avoid housing stress is to see that wages growth matches cost of living, and 60 per cent to 70 per cent of renters in the State are currently living under housing stress. Housing stress is real, and the Government needs to do more to recognise that housing is a fundamental human right. The Government needs to stand up for the rights of renters when it comes to the power imbalance currently inflicted on them by landlords.
Debate resumed from 24 March 2022.
Ms JENNY LEONG (Newtown) (10:16): On behalf of The Greens, I continue my second reading speech on the Residential Tenancies Amendment (Tenant Protections and Flood Response) Bill 2022. The bill amends the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 to provide for two things. The first is increased protections for all tenants across New South Wales and additional protections for tenants in flood‑impacted areas. The second is increased minimum standards for rental properties, which protect renters from living in conditions that are detrimental to their health. The bill inserts two additional fit‑for‑habitation requirements: A property must be free of mould and have adequate waterproofing.
Last week I explained how the bill addresses the urgent need to increase protections for tenants in flood‑impacted areas. The bill introduces a ban on most evictions for at least 12 months and increases caps on rent increases to protect vulnerable renters and stop greedy opportunists from profiting from the flood crisis. This week many communities in the Northern Rivers and across northern New South Wales are facing further catastrophic floods. We are watching the same rains come down, the same waters rise and the same roads disappear. I recognise the trauma, hurt and pain that has been inflicted on those communities. I also recognise that the flood crisis has only just begun. Again I acknowledge all members in this place, and their staff, who have been impacted by the floods for their work in addressing the impacts of the floods in their communities. Right now their priority is looking after their suffering communities: finding accommodation; facilitating access to food, water and education; and making sure that the trauma is not too heavy a burden on them.
It is up to all members now to do the work in this Chamber to support those communities and to recognise that the broader housing crisis that has been escalating in the region will be even greater as a result of the floods. This Greens bill responds to the flood crisis by addressing the rental crisis up north. I have outlined the details of the additional protections required for renters in the flood‑impacted zones in particular. I will now focus specifically on the second aspect of the bill—the proposed protections for renters across the State. The bill makes amendments to minimum tenancy standards, which will benefit those in flood‑impacted zones but will also assist with providing additional protections for renters across New South Wales.
The Greens are calling for the provisions relating to a landlord's general obligations for residential premises in section 52 of the Residential Tenancies Act to include a requirement that rental premises are both mould‑free and have adequate waterproofing. These provisions strengthen the existing requirements for rental properties not to be subjected to significant dampness with respect to floors, ceilings, walls and supporting structures, and to include adequate ventilation, plumbing and drainage as determinants of the property's fitness for habitation. In my experience, both as a renter and as an advocate for renters over many years, I can confidently say that the existing regulations are not making homes fit for habitation.
Even at the best of times, poorly insulated, poorly ventilated, leaky and stuffy rental properties are prone to mould outbreaks that cannot possibly be controlled by the measures available to individual tenants. The recent rain events and catastrophic flooding have made matters even worse. So often I hear from renters who struggle to get their landlords or real estate agents to address mould issues. They are forced to live in houses that ruin their clothes, ruin their furniture and make them sick. If the landlord does do anything to fix the problem or the real estate agent does step in to help, the tenant is made to feel as though they should be grateful that someone has come to finally address the mould issue in their home.
Some tenants told me they were forced to live in unsafe properties while they waited and waited for action to be taken on mould in their homes. Some were evicted because they asked for action to have the mould removed. Some copped rent increases when it was finally cleaned up, while others got sick and moved out. Some tenants spent thousands of dollars trying to sort the problem out themselves. Let me take a moment to put some tenants' statements on the record—and there is no shortage of these stories. A tenant from Dulwich Hill wrote:
Our rental property would seep water under the skirting boards when it rained and it would be about mopping it up all night. Furniture and walls went mouldy, and we were told by our real estate agent, "It's not that bad. It only happens with bad rain." "That's what contents insurance is for", they said. They started ignoring our calls and emails, so we just had to move out.
Let me take a guess at what happened then. No doubt, the landlord then put the property back on the market, hiked up the rents and then another family faced the same issues. Another tenant wrote:
We ran dehumidifiers constantly and scrubbed every weekend, but it came back overnight. My partner lost his sense of smell and taste, I couldn't sleep, my asthma was off the charts, and they just offered to paint over it.
I was told by the real estate agent it's something I need to manage and deal with myself. Fast forward to now and mould covers the ceiling, the window sills, the toilet and whatever else is damp. It is impossible to get rid of myself.
There is mould in my place. It was there when I moved in. The landlord says it's my fault and said we have to pay for removal. We've cleaned it, but it's taken all the paint off. My old property triggered my eczema, gave me nose bleeds, asthma, you name it. We didn't realise what was causing it until we left.
I have mould rotted through my bedroom wall. It rains on the carpet. There is a mushroom colony growing in the corner of my ceiling.
Think about that for a minute. These are not people who allow mushroom infestations to grow in their wardrobe. We are talking about people who rent often older properties in the inner city or inner west of Sydney who have no ability to force a landlord to take action to address these dampness issues and ensure their homes are free from mould. This is not an issue of their doing. This is an issue with the property that they are renting. They are paying exorbitant rents and landlords are failing to act when it comes to mould issues. There is only one way to make landlords act. They will not do it out of the goodness of their heart, because landlords are basically only interested in making more profit. The way that we make landlords do these things is by putting these obligations in legislation and saying to them, "You must ensure that your rental property is free from mould. You must ensure that it's waterproof. It is not okay for rain to come down in the middle of someone's lounge room onto the carpet. It is just unacceptable for that to happen."
Landlords have been allowed to get away with these things because the New South Wales Government refuses to stand up to them. The Government is more interested in taking big money from property investors than it is in standing up for the rights of families who are living in mould‑infested homes as a result of their landlord's inaction. One tenant wrote:
I lost thousands of dollars' worth of furniture, clothes and shoes, and all the real estate agent would do was ignore us.
My housemate and I had moved out of our rental a few weeks ago after reporting the growth of mould some time ago and our landlords are not doing anything to resolve it. This ended up with my housemate developing horrible respiratory symptoms and ending up in hospital.
None of this is okay. None of this is reasonable. This has to change. Every rental property should be mould‑free and the law needs to ensure that landlords take responsibility for making sure that is the case.
Let us take a minute to think about why the New South Wales Government might be reluctant to force landlords to act responsibly. Maybe it is because the Government has been known to be the worst landlord in the State, based on the poor condition of public housing in New South Wales. It is well known that there is a lack of maintenance carried out on public housing in this State. Maybe the State Government does not want to stand up to protect renters' rights because then it will be forced to take action to ensure that all public housing properties are mould free. After the recent rain and floods, many homes are currently infested with dangerous levels of mould. That is something that tenants did not cause and which they should not be responsible for fixing. That is why the bill amends the minimum rental standards to include the requirements that a property must be mould free and waterproof to be deemed fit for habitation. The bill protects renters from living conditions which are detrimental to their health.
Last week I touched briefly on the provision in the bill that puts an end to no-grounds evictions, except under specific circumstances. I will go into more detail on that now. The Greens are putting the abolition of no- grounds evictions on the table once again as an urgent and necessary amendment to the Residential Tenancies Act. We are not alone in calling for an end to unfair evictions. This measure was endorsed by around 100 peak bodies and housing organisations who partnered with the Everybody's Home campaign back in 2018. At that time we all hoped that the New South Wales Government would make what Dr Chris Martin, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales' City Futures Research Centre, said would provide "the single biggest reform of most benefit to tenants." There is also the bonus that it costs absolutely nothing. The Government can introduce a significant housing reform that will improve the lives of so many people in this State and it will cost zero dollars. Has the Government done it? No.
Dr Martin has also provided research to show that the rate of no-grounds evictions occurring in tribunals in New South Wales and Victoria is more than half that of similar evictions in the United States of America. He calls this an "eviction crisis". No-grounds evictions or unfair evictions are one of the most problematic and unjust provisions in the New South Wales Residential Tenancies Act. They have two impacts. The first is that when tenants complain or raise concerns about maintenance issues, to avoid fixing those issues, the landlord instead gives the tenant an eviction notice and boots them out of their home. So if your oven is broken, or your gas does not work, or you have mould growing in your cupboard because there is a leak and you say to your real estate agent, "I really need you to fix these things", the landlord can issue you with an eviction notice for complaining and then put the property back on the market—without having fixed the oven, without having gotten rid of the mushrooms or the mould in the cupboard—and charge more rent to new lot of people, who then go through the same cycle.
Why is that an issue? It is an issue for two reasons. The first reason is that people are displaced from their home. The second reason is that the report by the Tenants' Union of NSW,Eviction, Hardship, and the Housing Crisis shows that the cost of being forced to move is really high. The average cost of a move for renting households in New South Wales ranges from $3,215 for a single person or household in Greater Sydney through to $5,400 for a family household in regional New South Wales. Imagine having to bear these costs repeatedly, as happens frequently to renters who have no protections from unfair evictions. I know that the New South Wales Government loves a voucher—right? Minister Dominello loves giving out vouchers through the Service NSW app—Active Kids vouchers, Creative Kids vouchers, a voucher to take your kids on holiday, a voucher to take your kids to a move. Well, I have an idea for a new voucher. What if the New South Wales Government each year gave every renter in the State a voucher—$3,215 for a single person or $5,400 for a family—to pay for the cost of having to move home every year because the Government is failing to act to end no-grounds evictions in this State? If you worked out the cost of that voucher scheme versus ending no-grounds evictions, it would make a lot more sense to just end no-grounds evictions.
We want tenants to have security in their homes. It is good for our communities and good for our society. It is not good for children to have to move schools every couple of years because their families have to move to a different rental property. It is not okay for older people to have to move away from their connections to community centres and community gardens to find a new place to call home. The bill also includes guidance to tribunals to prevent retaliatory evictions, which we know are common, as landlords simply throw tenants out if they seek repairs. The system as it stands now is completely biased towards landlords, and that absolutely needs to change. Tenants are treated like second-class citizens—easily dispensable money earners for landlords. This is capitalism at its worst. The bill also seeks to limit rent increases across the State because, if we do not cap rents now, they will continue to rise to the point where people are unable to pay those rents.
I note that as I am speaking I can hear the nurses and midwives outside this Parliament protesting, because the right to protest should be a fundamental human right. I remind the Government of that after last night's debate. The nurses outside are protesting because they want fair patient-to-staff ratios, but they are also protesting because there is an outrageous cap on public service wages in this State. We say that if the State Government wants to cap wages, then there is one simple thing it can do as well: peg rents at the rate at which it is raising public service wage caps. The bill seeks to ensure that rents cannot increase in the State more than the public sector wage cap increases. That will make sure that there is some alignment between the wages people are getting and the rents that they are paying.
We know that inflation is hitting people hard. A full-time nurse, quoted on the ABC's7.30 program, recently said that her income after expenses was not enough to live on and she now has to work on weekends. Recent data reveals that some 40 per cent of renters in some Sydney electorates are suffering financial stress, with some extraordinarily high percentages, including that between 65.1 per cent and 76.5 per cent of renters are financially stressed in a handful of key New South Wales and Victorian electorates. Under these conditions rents cannot continue to rise, and The Greens are willing to put rent caps on the table because nobody else will have that conversation. We are not scared to stand up to landlords. We are not interested in big developer donations. We know that families and people who live in rental properties are doing it tough and that landlords are adding to this problem. The New South Wales Government is providing a protection racket to landlords, because it knows that it is the worst landlord in the State, managing all of the public housing property as badly as it does.
We have to do better. We know that in 2019, women over 55 made up the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia. Figures from the Older Women's Network and the Australian Human Rights Commission show that there has been a 55 per cent increase in women aged between 55 and 74 seeking assistance for homelessness in the last decade. Many in the Chamber have spoken strongly over the past weeks about the tragedy occurring as a result of the floods. The amendments in the bill go a long way to assisting not just those vulnerable victims in those catastrophic flood regions but also renters across the State who are crying out for help. I hope that Labor will look at the bill and provide a backing for it, and I hope that we are making clear the fact that renters need to be front and centre of the focus in the lead-up to the March 2023 election.
People should know that no-grounds evictions need to end. It is clear from recent events in our State that we need to act. I urge the Premier, the Deputy Premier, the Minister for Fair Trading and the Minister for Homes to acknowledge the level of crisis that renters in this State are facing and to take crucial steps to implement solutions. The Greens have done this work. We have drafted the legislation. We understand renters' rights and what renters need. I have been advocating for this since 2014, before being elected, and working in consultation with peak housing and advocacy groups. The bill is fair and it is urgent. Ministers have come and gone, but we are here. This is what people who rent in New South Wales need, and they need it now.
I really believe that it is time for the New South Wales Government to act. It is clear that the growing level of the housing crisis in this State can no longer be ignored. It is clear that the climate crisis is turning into a housing crisis. And it is clear that the nonstop rain across our community has created a significant amount of mould and damp problems in our houses. I urge all members of this Chamber to look at the bill. I urge the Ministers responsible to take a moment to look at the bill, and to feel free to take parts of it, particularly the flood response elements, and bring it back as a Government bill if they want to. This urgent reform is needed. We need an end to no-grounds evictions. We need to ensure that the fit-for-habitation requirements include a mould-free waterproofing of all properties across the State. We need a ban on any evictions in flood-impacted areas across the regions. And we need a cap on rents to finally end the exorbitant prices that people are paying, so they do not have to make the choice as to whether they can feed their children, whether they can buy medicine or whether they can pay their rent this week.