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Renters appeal to national cabinet for more help

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Seventy national renting advocacy groups, including Shelter SA, sent an open letter to national cabinet yesterday demanding further protections for residential tenants during the COVID-19 economic crisis.

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South Australian renter and University of Adelaide Honours student Amelia Chaplin, 24, and her two housemates didn’t pay rent for a month in April so they could afford to eat.

Chaplin lost all her hospitality shifts in March when the federal and state governments imposed coronavirus restrictions, forccing the closure of non-essential businesses, including the two wine bars where she worked. Her two housemates, also university students, lost their jobs too.

Chaplin told InDaily she didn’t qualify for JobKeeper – she had not worked at either role for 12 months – and her JobSeeker application was slow to be approved.

“Our money was real thin,” she said.

“I also don’t have family members to call upon to bail me out.”

Chaplin informed the real estate agent immediately they were concerned they may not be able to pay $990 a fortnight for the eastern suburbs property.

The trio wanted to negotiate an arrangement for rent deferral, but the application was rejected.

“So, we didn’t pay rent for a month,” Chaplin explained.

“I told them, ‘we do not have the money to pay rent, as we’ve explained before.’

“We’ve tried to find a way to drip-feed money so you still get money, but we don’t have it. It’s rent or us having food for the indefinite future.’”

Chaplin and her housemates stayed in the property from April to the middle of May without paying rent and dodging calls from their agent. They were eventually successful in acquiring JobSeeker benefits and since then have started repaying the debt. They were recently offered a contract to renew their three-year tenancy agreement on the property.

However, Chaplin is concerned that she will not be able to keep the lights on come September, when the Federal Government returns JobSeeker benefits to its previous level and the State Government’s moratorium for rent evictions ends.

“[I’m] very scared about how I’ll pay bills and my rent,” she said.

It’s a wide concern among renters, prompting the National Association of Tenants Organisation (NATO) to write to National Cabinet yesterday asking for further protections for renters, such as Chaplin.

“Commonwealth, State and Territory governments must offer more support for people who rent by preventing forced evictions and preventing rental debt,” the letter says.

“We’re calling for further urgent action to support the huge number of people and families who face the prospect of losing their homes due to the economic impact of COVID-19.”

It lists six recommendations, including a halt in evictions due to rental arrears, supporting renters who terminate a rental contract due to financial hardships while ceasing penalties or debts, and a requirement for binding arbitration if tenants and landlords cannot reach an agreement.

Also among the proposals are a freeze on rent increases, financial support for tenants who cannot afford their rent even after rent reductions, and a requirement for banks and insurers to offer relief to landlords who have reduced rent.

NATO spokesperson Leo Patterson Ross said governments across Australia had offered support for residential renters during the crisis, but people were still struggling.

“We also know that once you fall into financial hardship, it can be years before you recover,” he said.

The letter is signed by 70 organisations including South Australian peaking housing body, Shelter SA.

Shelter SA executive director Alice Clark said the letter was directed to the National Cabinet instead of territory and state governments to “lead the charge”.

“Each state and territory has its own residential tenancy law, but it was about… talking about renters and renting and what concerns are on a bigger level,” she said.

Clark said the South Australian Government had worked swiftly to protect renters, initially, however she was concerned there will be mass evictions in September when the protections end.

In April, State Parliament passed temporary measures as part of the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act in response to the crisis. One of the provisions was a short-term moratorium on evictions if individuals were unable to pay rent due to severe financial distress caused by the pandemic.

The Act says these protections expire on September 30, 2020.

A State Government spokesperson told InDaily as the Emergency Period is still operational, any extension of the moratorium is not actively being considered.

“As detailed in COVID19 Emergency Response Act, the moratorium is due to expire either when the emergency period ends or six months after commencement, whichever occurs first. This means the latest this can occur is October 9 this year,” they said in a statement.

“The Government will be working with stakeholders on all COVID19 measures on the transition out of this Emergency Period.”

Clark said the State Government needed to consider extending the moratorium and temporarily banning no-cause evictions.

“We did hear of one family were given three months notice for eviction,” Clark said.

“They were asked to move because the owner’s daughter had lost her job and needed to live somewhere. Being evicted during the pandemic is still happening.”

Not-for-profit housing and social services organisation, SYC, says there was a 700 per cent spike in individuals accessing its tenant’s information and advocacy service website in March.

Although SYC CEO Paul Edington said visitations numbers had recently dropped, removing JobKeeper payments and JobSeeker supplements in September will “have a concerning effect for tenants on two levels.”

“One, ‘how will I pay my rent,’ and two, ‘how will I pay my accrued rental arrears with less money?’,” he said.

“SYC anticipates that if the Federal Government follows through with ending those payments there will be an increase in people requiring support.”

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