When Jolene Choo approached her landlord about getting a rent reduction during Melbourne’s stage four lockdown, it didn’t go as planned.
After losing income from her cafe job and falling behind on rent, the 37-year-old says she was told she’d have to leave her accommodation.
“I was issued a notice to vacate, which was pretty much illegal during the pandemic. If it wasn’t for the Renters and Housing Union, I wouldn’t know it was illegal, and I wouldn’t know what to do next.”
Jolene kept a roof over her head thanks to a moratorium on rental evictions, which forced landlords to negotiate payment plans and undergo mediation with their tenants.
This weekend, Victoria, New South Wales, and Western Australia will become the final three states to lift their moratoriums.
“I’m actually feeling very unsettled because I think, not only me, a lot of people are still struggling to get back on their feet, and a lot of people are still struggling to find jobs,” Jolene said.
“The only difference with us is that we are only a dollar away from being homeless, or having to choose between having a roof over our head or having food on our table.”
I’m actually feeling very unsettled … a lot of people are still struggling to get back on their feet.
– Jolene Choo, 37
Tenants advocates say the moratoriums could not be ending at a worse time, with JobKeeper set to finish on Sunday and an end to the coronavirus supplement to follow on Wednesday – meaning those on JobSeeker will have $150 less each fortnight.
In New South Wales, more than 40 renters groups and charities have penned an open letter to the government, warning a wave of evictions could inevitably lead to a sudden rise in homelessness.
“What we’re particularly worried about is the rate of debt that people are accruing,” CEO of the Tenants’ Union of NSW Leo Patterson Ross said.
“Our housing market is a competitive sport, so if you’ve got any kind of black mark, any kind of thing that puts you at the bottom of the list, it makes the task of finding a new home really, really difficult.”
A recent study from the UNSW City Futures Research Centre suggests rental debt may follow some Australians for years to come. At least a quarter of renters nationwide said they lost some income during the pandemic, but only 16 per cent were able to secure a rent variation.
Of those variations, 37 per cent were just rent deferrals, meaning as many as 75,000 households across the country are now in rental debt. On average, households were deferring $216 per week in rent. If that continued for nine months, those households would now be carrying $8,400 in debt.
One of the lead authors of the study, Chris Martin, says unmanageable amounts of rental debt will likely be what pushes people into homelessness.
“For many households, those debts have already started coming due, and that’s money that they are expected to pay on top of a rent that’s gone back to normal,” he said.
“A lot of households are going to struggle, and that may mean terminations and evictions into homelessness.”
Australia’s most vulnerable at risk
Charities such as the Jesuit Refugee Service are now bracing for a surge in demand for their assistance. The service helps feed and house asylum seekers, many of whom had no access to government support payments during the pandemic.
“We were previously providing food aid to about 50 to 70 people a week, but during the pandemic, it’s grown to about 1,000 people a week, including 300 kids,” advocacy coordinator Nishadh Rego said.
“The end of the moratoriums on evictions inevitably means that some people will face eviction and will face either situations where they have to sleep on people’s floors or couches, or they will have to sleep rough in parks, train stations, or in their cars. So we’re worried about how we find them a place to live.”
One asylum seeker the charity is helping, who does not want to be identified, says it was already hard enough to find a place to live, but the pandemic has made it almost impossible.
“When the pandemic struck, I lost my job, and it was at that time I became homeless,” he said. ”I could not afford to pay my rent, and the person I used to share with was left with no option but to kick me out of the place.”
He has since found someone to stay with but says finding permanent accommodation remains one of the biggest challenges.
“When you’re on a bridging visa, most landlords do not have the confidence to give people seeking asylum a place to live. That actually causes double trauma in the lives of asylum seekers.”
What support is available?
New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria have all announced interim measures in a bid to soften the blow as their moratoriums are lifted.
For the next six months, New South Wales will still make landlords negotiate with their tenants before evicting them, but that only applies to tenants who accrued rent arrears during the moratorium period.
In Western Australia, tenants can apply for a one-off grant of $2,000 if they are facing a rent increase greater than the normal market value rise of five per cent per year.
In Victoria, if tenants can prove they had a change of circumstances due to COVID-19, notices to vacate will be referred to VCAT and tenants who are evicted will not be blacklisted for falling behind on their rent.
Secretary of Victoria’s Renters and Housing Union, Eirene Tsolidis Noyce, said the interim measures were a good first step to extending protections.
“We will continue to make sure that the government takes further steps to cancel debt and truly addresses the housing crisis.”