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Motion: COVID-19 Rental Affordability

10 February 2022

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I move:

That this council—

  1. Notes the extension to the moratorium on eviction from residential tenancies for the non-payment of rent due to severe rental distress as a result of COVID-19, expired in December.
  2. Recognises that the current outbreak of the Omicron variant, and subsequent restrictions have had a devastating impact on businesses across the state, particularly those in the CBD, with many now being unable to meet rent payments.
  3. Calls on the Marshall government to—
    1. (a) immediately provide a moratorium on eviction for residential and commercial tenancies for six months in circumstances where tenants are unable to pay their rent due to COVID-19; and
    2. (b) provide a more generous and effective financial support package for businesses that are experiencing financial distress.

This motion calls for an extension to the moratorium on eviction from residential tenancies for the non-payment of rent due to severe rental distress as a result of COVID-19, and we note that that expired in December. It recognises that the current outbreak of the Omicron variant following the Liberals' decision to open the borders without appropriate preparation, which occurred last year, has led to a series of restrictions that have had a devastating impact on businesses across the state, particularly those in the CBD, with many people now being unable to make rent payments.

The motion calls on the Marshall government to immediately provide a moratorium on evictions for residential and commercial tenancies for six months in circumstances where tenants are unable to pay their rent due to COVID-19, and provide a more generous and effective financial support package for businesses that are experiencing financial distress.

This is not new to this chamber; I have talked a lot about this issue since I began my term in the parliament back in May last year. At that time, the moratorium on evictions for people experiencing financial distress was due to expire and the Greens worked hard to get it extended and appreciated the support of other parties here in this place to make that happen. We were able to secure an extension of the moratorium until December, but it expired in the lead-up to Christmas.

I am very concerned that as the economic crisis and the public health crisis have deepened, vulnerable people are not getting the protection they need. We know that if somebody is evicted out of rental accommodation they are at high risk of falling into homelessness and insecure accommodation, and that can really create long-term issues for somebody in terms of being able to access housing and have a roof over their head and a place to call home long term.

I am also very concerned about the plight of many businesses in the CBD, many of which are renting commercial tenancies. I have spoken to many businesses, and I am aware of many that are reporting that it is going to be really difficult for them to pay their rent and that, if they cannot do so, their business is going to close. What I am calling for is for the government to put a moratorium on these evictions and to actually provide some adequate support to struggling businesses.

I recognise the government have put forward a support package, but it has been inadequate. It has not hit the mark. We need to ensure that there is a more appropriate investment in support for businesses that are struggling and for vulnerable renters. I do say also that I hope that after the next election in the parliament we have an opportunity to review renters' rights here in South Australia and take steps to strengthen renters' rights more broadly.

We need to look at rent caps. It works in other places around the world, yet we have not used it here in South Australia. There is something seriously wrong when we have a housing system that treats housing as a commodity. We have a housing system that allows some people to own numerous properties when others do not have a foot in the door, do not have a place to call home, do not have a roof over their head.

I think there is something seriously wrong with that system. We need to recognise that housing is a human right. That means changing the Residential Tenancies Act to restore the balance between tenant and landlord. It means ending things like the no cause eviction process we have in South Australia. Mr Deputy President, you would be aware that when somebody reaches the end of their tenancy the landlord can simply say, 'We are not going to renew your tenancy.'

That creates a lot of anxiety for renters. It means that they are often reluctant to report issues around inadequate housing, or report maintenance issues that need to be actioned, because they live in fear and anxiety that their tenancy may be terminated or may not be renewed. That is a terrible thing and it puts tenants and it puts renters really at a significant disadvantage in terms of being able to assert their rights.

But there are other things that other states look at too. I know my predecessor in this place, the then Hon. Mark Parnell, introduced a private member's bill to provide a presumption in favour of tenants being able to have pets. Other states have done that, but we do not do that in South Australia. That needs to be looked at. Also, we have bidding wars that occur in South Australia, where if someone is trying to get a rental property they are often at the mercy of a market that allows people to just bid against each other. All these things need to be addressed.

We need to amend the Residential Tenancies Act to ensure that renters get the protection they deserve, but in the short term the government should step up and provide protection for renters experiencing financial distress during this economic crisis. I asked the minister about this yesterday. I did not receive a satisfactory answer in terms of what measures are in place to help people. It is not good enough to say, 'We will refer you on to a support service.' We need to ensure that people have protection now. We need to ensure that they know they are not going to be evicted, that they are not going to be kicked out onto the street.

Anyone who lives in the CBD area will be aware of the significant issue we face around homelessness in our state. It is a significant problem for us to address. It is deeply saddening to see more and more South Australians sleeping on the street. If we do not put these sorts of protections in place, I am very concerned that we are going to see more and more South Australians living on the streets and facing insecure housing. I commend the motion.

The Hon. E.S. BOURKE (11:46): I rise today in support of the Hon. Rob Simms' motion and thank him for his advocacy of some of the state's most vulnerable citizens in our community. When we think of the basic needs we all have, secure housing is right at the top of that list. All members of this place should be aware of the ongoing rental affordability crisis in our state. Given previous debates in this place just this week, we should all be aware of the impact of COVID-19 on the financial security of many casual workers.

While those opposite claim that their government was well prepared before the opening of our borders in November, we have many examples of the impacts they were not prepared for. Some seem not to have even been considered at all. Being prepared means planning for events before they occur. It means looking to see what happened in the past and what has happened in other states and predicting what might happen and what the impact could be. After all, it is only the government that has the most recent Omicron modelling available to them. It means learning from the past so that the outcome is better the second time around.

Two years into this pandemic, this government can hardly say the impacts of COVID-19 on our small businesses and financially vulnerable citizens were unpredictable. This government had two years of lessons from other jurisdictions. Not only could they learn from the experience of other places that had a suite of policies that had been designed to avoid the worst impacts of the pandemic ready to go but, instead of learning the lessons or maintaining these policies, this government opened up with no safety nets and no protection.

The Marshall Liberal government let our small businesses, casual employees and our most vulnerable citizens bear the brunt of COVID-19, when they should have been more prepared to protect them. Back in September, we saw the expiry of sections 8 to 10 of the COVID-19 emergency act, which had, up until then, put in place protections for rental and commercial tenants experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID pandemic. These protections protected tenants from increased rents and terminations of tenancy if the tenant was unable to pay rent due to the impact of COVID-19 on their business or employment.

Those opposite might have hoped that we were all suffering from short-term memory loss, Omicron may have been new and we may not have known much about that variant, but we did have some idea of the impact any variant of COVID-19 would have on our workforce and any business, especially the hospitality sector. The Hon. Robert Simms touched on this, but the hospitality sector has been particularly impacted.

This government did not even need to look that far to see what potential effects may occur. They could have looked to our neighbours in Sydney and Melbourne to see the impacts our state would face when this outbreak would eventually hit. In Sydney and Melbourne, casual workers were again losing shifts and their personal financial security. Mixed messages and unclear communications of restrictions saw small business hit by the shadow lockdowns—that is, customers avoiding businesses they perceived as dangerous.

In New South Wales, although dining was not restricted beyond one in two square metres, not only were concerned customers staying away and leaving dining rooms empty but staff who had no isolation available to them were unable to work. Some businesses were losing so many staff as close contacts that they were unable to be open.

As I mentioned already, all this was happening before the much more highly transmissible Omicron began to circulate in our community. The writing was on the wall. The protections for residential and commercial tenants had expired and alarm bells were being rung by multiple organisations and industry associations—as well as my colleague the Hon. Rob Simms—about the bomb that was about to go off in our state.

Yet, nothing from this government. No plan and no protections for those at risk were put in place. When this government could have extended sections 8 to 10 of the act, which would have provided a safety net in case an outbreak caused the same issues that were unfolding in other jurisdictions, it instead let them expire.

When COVID-19 first came to South Australia, the stress of the financial impacts that would be overwhelmingly borne by our casual staff and small businesses was blunted by protections put in place by the federal and state governments. JobKeeper, eviction moratoriums, tax breaks, grants and other incentives were used by all other layers of government to buoy the economy from the worst impacts of this pandemic.

These economic levers recognised the potential for the pandemic to cause significant and lasting damage. Of course no-one expected these things to last forever, only for as long as they were needed, for as long as COVID-19 threatened to wreak havoc in our community. So why was it, when our state was experiencing the pandemic most acutely, we were taking away the restrictions that the community needed?

The decision to let sections 8 to 10 expire has caused additional stress to thousands of vulnerable South Australians who are at risk of eviction through no fault of their own but from a lack of planning by this government for the predictable impacts of COVID-19, impacts that were obvious even before Omicron. We remain in the middle of a global pandemic and are feeling the worst of it in South Australia in our community without the safety nets designed to navigate the pandemic at its worst.

Labor will be supporting the Hon. Rob Simms' motion and calls upon the Marshall Liberal government to learn from their mistakes and support South Australians by recalling this parliament—which might be too late—to fix sections 8 to 10 of the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act.