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Residential Tenancies (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill

28 November 2023

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (16:15): I rise to speak in favour of the Residential Tenancies (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill 2023, and I speak proudly in favour of this legislation. This is transformative legislation. It is something that will help South Australians who are struggling in the middle of the worst rental crisis we have seen in generations, the worst housing crisis we have seen in generations.

If the Greens' fingerprints are all over it, I am proud of that, because this bill actually achieves many of the things that we in the Greens have been campaigning on for many years. Of course, it does not go as far as we would like. We would like to have seen action on rent prices in terms of rent capping, an issue I have campaigned on over many years. However, this bill makes some really important changes that will change the lives of many South Australians for the better. I will speak to some of these features of the bill in a moment.

Before doing so I put on the public record my thanks to Minister Andrea Michaels for the collegial way in which she has worked with the Greens in approaching this. In particular, I acknowledge her leadership and that of the government in taking on this important reform piece, because it has been long overdue, so I thank her for that.

I also acknowledge the work of her adviser, Chad Buchanan, with whom we have worked closely, and my own adviser, Melanie Selwood, who has played a key role in negotiations with the government, and Commissioner Dino Soulio, who worked on the government's review process. I acknowledge their work and the work of the community sector, all the groups that have been campaigning on these things for years. They should be proud of their efforts today, because finally we are seeing some movement in this space.

I talked about the challenges we face in the rental market. It is worth going through them and putting some of the key stats on the public record again today. I will start with the vacancy rate across the state. In Adelaide City, the vacancy rate for property currently sits at 0.4 per cent; it was 1.2 per cent five years ago. In the Yorke Peninsula and the lower north SA it is currently at 0.2 per cent; it was 2 per cent five years ago. We have seen significant rent increases in Adelaide, all dwellings, in the last 12 months; in fact, rent has gone up 7.2 per cent across the board—houses 6.7 per cent and units 9.8 per cent.

We have median rent in Adelaide sitting at $548, versus Melbourne at $553. Gone are the days when people can say that Adelaide is a cheap place to live. We have 29 per cent of people living in metropolitan Adelaide who are renters and 23.9 per cent of people living in regional SA who are renters. These people deserve to have their rights protected by the law. They should not be treated as second-class citizens, and sadly that has been the case in South Australia over many years.

On 14 November, National Shelter released the national Rental Affordability Index, which showed that five years ago rent in Greater Adelaide was considered acceptable at 20 to 25 per cent of income, whereas now it is considered moderately unaffordable at 25 to 30 per cent of income being spent on rent. Large parts of Greater Adelaide are now considered unaffordable, where people spend more than 30 per cent of their income on rent.

In November of this year, the Anti-Poverty Network released a report which detailed a snapshot of low income renting. It found that for people who are on Centrelink payments without any other form of income, 85 per cent are experiencing rental stress and 54 per cent are in the middle of a rental crisis. Seventy per cent of those people surveyed said that the cost of their rent meant they had to reduce spending on food.

In June of this year, SACOSS released their June quarter rental affordability report. Of the 33,000 renters in regional SA, 71 per cent were in the bottom two income quintiles. The Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot showed in South Australia there were no rentals affordable for a single person on JobSeeker, no rentals affordable for a single person on Youth Allowance, 1.7 per cent of rentals were affordable for a couple on JobSeeker with two children, 0.8 per cent were affordable for a single person on a parenting payment with one or two children, and 0.8 per cent were affordable for a single person on the Age Pension.

So the facts speak for themselves and it is pretty disappointing to hear the Liberal Party turn their noses up at these very sensible changes. It is very galling to see the One Nation Party attack the Greens for advocating for a fairer go for renters. It demonstrates, really, that the One Nation Party has no solutions at all, other than fanning the flames of xenophobia when it comes to dealing with the cost-of-living crisis in our state. They do not have any ideas other than to criticise others.

I want to talk through some of the really positive elements of this bill. I also want to highlight one of the things that the Greens negotiated as part of our discussions with the government. We are really pleased that the government have agreed to put funding on the table for an advocacy service for renters. That is an independent tenants' advocacy service that can stand up for renters' rights.

We know, of course, that SACAT receives approximately 1,500 residential tenancy related matters per quarter and that an advocacy body, such as the one that we have proposed and the government has supported, exists in other jurisdictions, such as Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. The activities they undertake include informing and educating renters, supporting to resolve issues, providing help and assistance in writing letters or filling out forms, providing legal advice, support attending tribunal hearings, policy development work and systems advocacy, reform advocacy, and training in tenancy law. These things will be really helpful for tenants in the middle of this rental crisis and I know will be welcomed in particular by people who work in that sector.

This bill has lots of really positive features. One of the elements in the bill that we welcome is the focus on giving SACAT the power to consider whether or not a rent increase is disproportionate. We in the Greens understand that disproportionate increases are those that are beyond CPI. I think this change is a welcome one. It will also require the payment of rent to be reasonably convenient, and at least one means made available for the tenant should be electronic. The government has also stamped out the use of third-party apps, which often apply to tenants for a fee, and it is good that they have got rid of that practice.

One of the elements that has had some focus in the media—and rightly so—is the changes that make it easier to rent with pets. The bill will limit the grounds in which a landlord can refuse to allow a tenant to keep a pet. Other jurisdictions have been well ahead of South Australia in allowing tenants to rent with pets. The ACT and Victoria have a presumption of renting with pets, which is considered the best practice model. In that case, it is the responsibility of the landlord, not the tenant, to apply to the tribunal to deny a request.

This model is more in keeping with the Queensland model, where a landlord can knock back a request for a pet, but they have to have some clear grounds around that. Whilst we would have liked it to have gone further, we recognise that this is going to be a really positive step for renters in South Australia.

We know that according to the RSPCA, one in five animals surrendered is due to their owner being unable to find a rental property that allows them to have pets. That is pretty cruel when you think about it because a pet is actually a member of the family. If you are moving house, you do not leave a member of your family behind, and yet that is what we are asking people to do in the middle of this rental crisis. That changes with this law and that is a really good thing.

The bill also ensures that it is the responsibility of the landlord to manage a premises that has been contaminated by previous drug activity. It also reduces the right of entry to inspect a property to four times per year; previously, it was every four weeks. It also deals with terminations and evictions. It makes clear that a landlord can only terminate a fixed term tenancy with 60 days' notice, whereas it was previously 28 days. That extra time is going to be so beneficial for people in the middle of this tight rental market.

It is also going to see the removal of no-cause evictions from the act, that is, instead ensuring that a landlord can only choose not to renew a lease if the prescribed grounds have been met. This is a really important change because one of the issues we face in South Australia for renters is that we have a really tight market, but at the same time because the renter is living in fear of their lease not being renewed they are not in a position to assert their rights under the act.

I rented when I was in my 20s and my early 30s, and I had lots of issues in the rental market living in share houses with problems like broken air conditioning, broken toilets and issues with mould. It was very difficult to assert my rights as a renter because you knew, heading into the Christmas period, your lease was going to expire and you did not want to give yourself a bad reputation as a tenant and find that you were not able to then secure another place. That was 10 years ago. The market has changed dramatically since then. This change is one that has been on the wish list for advocates in this space for many years and finally the parliament can get that done.

Another really important change relates to domestic abuse. This bill establishes protections for people who need to terminate their agreement on the grounds of domestic abuse. They will no longer need to apply to SACAT. Instead, they can provide supporting evidence as prescribed in regulation. If a person is protected by an intervention order but not listed on a tenancy agreement, they will be able to apply to vary the agreement so that they can remain in their home without the perpetrator. Changes to the rules around damage caused to the property to protect people who have experienced domestic abuse are also happening.

There are changes in the law relating to rooming houses and residential parks. There are also changes relating to solar systems and tenants will be able to enter into agreements with landlords regarding the installation of solar energy for their homes. There are also changes around the way that information is managed. The landlord will not be able to charge a tenant a fee for giving personal information relating to them.

That is just a snapshot of some of the elements of this bill. There are many positive features that are worthy of support. In concluding, I want to read out a few stories that have been shared with me. In the lead-up to this debate, I put out a call on my social media and said, 'Look, does anyone have some stories they would like me to read into Hansard?' and we did get some constituent feedback so I will share those. In the first of those, and I will not name the constituent but I will refer to it as story 1, she wishes to share her daughter's experience as a tenant over the last decade. She writes:

It's a long story. It compromised her health and is certainly keeping her in poverty.

She is now homeless and has moved back in with myself (her mother) and step-father for the past 10 months. She cannot find affordable rent and is competing with hundreds of others in similar circumstances.

Ten years ago she moved from regional SA to Adelaide after ongoing harassment at her work and had depression as well as anxiety. She shared a house for the first 12 months with a former colleague. They went their separate ways, and she found a [National Rental Affordability Scheme] house at Andrews Farm which was modern and all appliances were in good working order. After 12 months, despite being an exemplary tenant, the rent increased to a level that was unaffordable for her on her Newstart income.

She was successful in getting a unit at Windsor Gardens which had a [Housing Improvement Act] order over it. There was mould, bowed walls, salt damp, broken screens and many fixtures that did not work…It was during this time she developed an autoimmune disease which I believe was triggered by the mould and damp in this unit. Only 1 fan was working, screens were broken and only an antiquated air conditioner in the lounge was operational.

She was there nearly 8 years. The lounge ceiling collapsed narrowly missing her, despite her bringing it to the attention of the agent that items were coming through from the roof. The owner shortly after this terminated the contract as she claimed she was selling the unit.

Since then my daughter has been unable to find accommodation in her price range. She is now on the Disability Pension.

That really underscores the point I made earlier about the benefit of axing no-cause evictions because this would give a tenant in this situation the capacity to be able to better assert their rights. Story 2 is:

When we first moved into our rental in Blackwood we had no access to electricity. The landlord had given SA Power Networks the wrong address to register the property. We did not have the permissions necessary to register, as we do not hold the title to the property. We explained this to our real estate agent, and they insisted it was our responsibility. This went back and forth for 2 weeks. They then demanded that we pay rent even without power to the unit (everything is electric, the stove, the water. There is no gas).

We did not. They then eventually had the property registered and told us that this wasn't a good start for us and that in the future we 'shouldn't make waves'. We still had to pay the rent for the first 2 weeks because we had moved our stuff in, which was limited to a couch and a bed frame. We both had to stay with friends in this time. Shortly after, the backyard sewage line developed a crack and began to leak raw sewage out of our back yard and into the walkway where other people walked. We were told it was not a priority to fix, and this was only resolved as the strata got upset. We've also had an ongoing issue with mould on our ceilings.

If this bill gets through, this tenant will be in a much better position to assert their rights. Story 3 is:

We are paying $450 a week for an old Housing Trust house that is falling apart. We've had 8 maintenance reports in 3 months. We have a power board that can't actually power the whole house properly. The back yard is completely overgrown.

Can anyone seriously say that the current system is working? Can the Liberal Party honestly say that the market is delivering what is needed to solve this crisis? It is clear that we need intervention, and whilst this bill does not go as far as the Greens would have liked, it is a significant step in the right direction and it will have a tangible impact on this crisis and I really do thank the government for their leadership and for stepping up to the mark on this important issue.