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Residential Tenancy Act Reform

13 June 2023

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (16:26): I rise to also speak in favour of the bill, although of course the Greens do have some concerns that it does not go nearly far enough and will be moving a number of amendments to strengthen the bill. I will not talk about all the elements of the bill—they have been thoroughly ventilated through the government's speaking notes—but I will put on record some of the concerns the Greens have around the approach that has been taken by the Malinauskas government.

To say that their approach to this crisis has been slow and piecemeal is an understatement. There is no denying that South Australia is in the middle of a full-blown housing crisis. People are struggling to find rental accommodation and, once they finally find it, they just cannot afford it. The statistics in this area are bleak, but even more devastating are the human stories. Every day we see numerous stories of renters who were evicted for no reason whatsoever, whose rent has been increased for no reason, who have had poor maintenance standards in their homes. Winter is now upon us and many will be living in properties that have substandard energy standards.

Housing is a fundamental human right. Everybody deserves a decent home regardless of their location, their income, their employment or their health. What we are seeing at the moment in our country is very disturbing because rent is increasing faster than wages, and the Greens have been calling for the power balance between landlords and renters to be addressed. This bill is a very small step forward to protect renters, but it does not go far enough.

Every week there is a new report on the concerning statistics about the number of people queueing for rental homes due to low vacancy rates and the increase in rents faced by renters. On 17 May, Mission Australia released its Homelessness and Stable Housing Impact Report, which demonstrated that there was a 103 per cent increase in people living in impoverished homes, tents and rough sleeping, and a 40 per cent increase in people living in short-term temporary accommodation. This shows us what happens when people are in desperate need, but the housing crisis is actually impacting across all sectors of society and across all demographics.

The median rent of houses in SA has increased by 25 per cent over two years. Over the same period, the cost of renting a flat has increased by 18 per cent and in 2022 wages grew by only 3.5 per cent. Anglicare's Rental Affordability Snapshot of 18 March this year reveals that zero rental properties were affordable and available for a single person receiving JobSeeker, Youth Allowance or a parenting payment, just two rental properties were affordable and available for a couple receiving JobSeeker and only nine properties were affordable and available for a single person trying to live on the minimum wage in our state.

The Greens welcome the review that the Malinauskas government has been conducting into the Residential Tenancies Act. A few of the speakers on behalf of the government have referenced a round table that I was invited to attend. I was delighted to receive the invitation, along with the Hon. Mr Pangallo, but was surprised that my role was to sit as a silent observer on a separate table to the other participants, particularly given the significant work that I have done in this place in terms of advocating on rental reform.

As many in this place know, I do hold concerns about the secrecy that has surrounded this review, with the submissions and the report remaining secret, and I have a motion before this chamber to call on the government to release this information. If members of the community have gone to the effort of making a submission to an inquiry—and I disclose to you, Mr President, that I made a submission on behalf of the Greens—surely they should have this published on a government website and surely they should have access to the report and the findings of the review.

Months and months have passed and we still do not know what the review concluded and we still do not know what the key recommendations are. All we have is a very modest piece of legislation that addresses some small aspects of the rental crisis that we face. The Greens believe in transparency, and we have called for the government to release the review.

One of the elements in this legislation that I think is worth addressing in a bit more detail are the claims that have been made about rent bidding. Upon the introduction of this bill, the government issued a media release titled 'Rent bidding to be banned in South Australia' and the minister Andrea Michaels was quoted as saying:

The practice of rent bidding unfairly drives up prices and is contributing to the current rental crisis by making it more and more difficult for South Australians to find affordable rental accommodation.

I agree with the minister that rent bidding should be stamped out. Sadly, this bill does not achieve that objective. What the bill does is stop landlords or agents from soliciting rents above the asking price and we welcome that, but it does not prevent renters who can afford it from offering above the asking price. It does not prevent landlords or real estate agents from accepting a higher offer. Effectively, the bill only addresses half the problem of rent bidding; it does not ban it outright. It is a case of being all sizzle and no sausage.

To properly address the practice of rent bidding, I will be moving an amendment to ensure that no offers above the asking price can be accepted. This will ensure that renters know what they are getting into when they are applying for a rental property and it would effectively ban rent bidding, which the government claims was their intention.

We do welcome the focus of this bill on protecting renters' data and we are very pleased with the work that the government has done in that regard. Members will recall that there has been some media reportage around breaches of personal information recently and, in order to rent a property, renters are required to give over a substantial amount of their personal information.

At a forum that I held in the inner west on renting, many people spoke to me about the concerns they had about supplying their personal information to landlords, agents and third-party apps when they are not given any indication around how that information will be protected. One renter said to me that it was unreasonable to have to give a prospective landlord their car registration number, their dog chip number and other personal information before they had even been granted a lease on the property, and if they do end up renting the property what happens to their data?

This bill does ensure that renters' personal information must be destroyed after a stated amount of time, depending on their circumstances. Additionally, this bill allows for certain types of information to be prescribed, in effect ensuring that a prospective landlord or agent cannot ask for certain kinds of personal information. We welcome that, and I commend the government for taking that step.

It is worth noting here some of the concerns that have been expressed by the sector in terms of the approach the government has taken. A number of organisations have been calling for more protections, other than just the meagre action that the government is taking on rent bidding. Organisations such as Shelter SA, SACOSS, the Anti-Poverty Network and RSPCA have all made submissions, calling for reforms to make rentals more pet friendly, the abolition of no cause evictions, an opportunity for a tenant resource organisation to be established, minimum energy efficiency standards, mandatory disclosure of how much a property will cost to run, and of course vacancy taxes. To address these calls on behalf of the housing sector, I intend to move a number of amendments at the committee stage.

In addition to the amendment that I have already foreshadowed to ban rent bidding, I will also be moving amendments to require landlords to disclose conflicts of interest. This is an important transparency measure that would ensure that all conflicts of interest are out in the open, especially those that relate to the relationship between the landlord and their real estate agent.

One of the other elements of the bill that the Greens are seeking to change is to give the minister the power to apply rent controls so that the minister of the day can move quickly to deal with skyrocketing rent prices. Rent controls have been used in many places around the world, and indeed in Australia under the Menzies government. I know that some of the commentary around rent capping is that it is a radical concept. I would hardly call Mr Robert Menzies a bastion of the radical left, but his government did have rent controls in place to deal with some of the challenges that were being faced in the housing market at that time. It has been used in places like Spain, Berlin, New York and Ireland.

We are also moving to establish a default position in favour of renting with pets and, of course, we are moving to try to end no cause evictions because no cause evictions lead to tenants being fearful of raising issues with their landlord. It can create that power imbalance where a potential tenant is concerned about raising issues for fear their lease may not be renewed.

I should say that it is one of the elements I am very passionate about. These days I own my own home but I lived in a rental for years. I was in the rental market for about 15 years after I finished university up until I was in my mid-30s. During that time, I experienced a number of issues with rental tenancies that were less than satisfactory, such as toilets not working, holes in ceilings that were bringing mould into the home, problems with gas connections in the property; I even lived in a place that had a rat infestation at one point.

One of the real challenges that we faced as renters in that system was the fact that the landlord held all of the cards and always had the Damocles sword hanging over the tenant to say, 'If you kick up too much of a fuss, we may not renew your lease at the end.' It is one of the reasons why banning no cause evictions is so important. Sadly, it is not a feature of the government's bill but the Greens have an amendment to put it in.

We are also wanting to establish an independent tenants' advocacy organisation or a tenant advocate. We think that is really important and we are proposing that that could be funded from the interest on bond money, and we have an amendment to seek to do that. Such organisations already exist in other jurisdictions: New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria and Queensland. It is worth noting that Victoria's was established 45 years ago, New South Wales' was established back in 1976 and Queensland establish theirs in 1986. These could play a really important role in advocating for tenants, particularly at a tribunal level, and also in pushing for research and awareness raising around some of the issues that renters face in our system.

So just to recap, we welcome this bill. We welcome the fact that the government is taking some action, but they are not going nearly far enough. I am moving a range of amendments to try to beef up this bill to see renters being given the protections that they deserve. I indicate that I plan to call divisions on my amendments.

I appreciate members of this place who have spoken to me about the position of their respective parties. I regret that no-one from the government has let me know their approach to the Greens' priorities, so I will just have to wait and see how that plays out. I do, as I say, appreciate the government taking some action on these issues, but we need to do better. We need to do so much better: so, Malinauskas government, get cracking.