Advocates push for states to scrap rental debts during pandemic to prevent homelessness

A man walks past a sign saying 'Stop the Rent' in Sydney. Source: AAP

An advocacy group is calling on governments to buy and tear up rent debts caused by the coronavirus pandemic to prevent Australians becoming homeless.

Renters must be better supported to ensure they don't become homeless due to the coronavirus pandemic, an advocate group has urged.

Better Renting's latest report looks at rental negotiation data, finding five to 15 per cent of tenants may be in rental debt and could be at risk of eviction when moratoriums lift.

It equates to between 324,000 and 973,000 people who could be evicted.

Better Renting wants governments to step in to buy the debts and tear them up.

"Governments have a responsibility to ensure that people aren't losing their home because of the economic impact of COVID-19," the group's executive director Joel Dignam said.

"Keeping renters secure in their homes over coming months is essential to help our community stay strong and recover from the impact of coronavirus on our society."

The report also flagged concerns for renters who have avoided rental debt only by opting for other debts such as credit cards, as well as those who are at risk of running out of savings and may soon owe money.

This is the case for 47-year-old Andrea Maxwell.

She and her husband both lost work because of the pandemic and when it came to paying the bills they didn’t have enough to pay for rent, water and food. 

"Our renting situation was always a little tight, as I had just gone back to doing casual work when the pandemic hit," Ms Maxwell told SBS News.

"My husband and my son, who had just turned 21, both lost their jobs due to COVID, so that dramatically reduced our income - 80 per cent of our household income was gone in one week."

Andrea said the family had to spend more than half of the income they had coming in during the pandemic on rent. She said there was no negotiation to reduce their rent because she felt that her landlord held all the cards.  

"We owe our landlord around 4000 dollars and that's only been incurred since July," she said.

"It's not a matter of 'just move somewhere cheaper', but that's what we ended up doing.

"We've pretty much all gone back to work and as soon as we did that, we started paying our full rent again just to show our good faith."

Governments announced eviction moratoriums at the start of the health crisis to prevent Australians being kicked out of their homes as multiple industries were shut down.

Western Australia, NSW, Victoria and South Australia have extended their moratoriums until March next year, while Tasmania's will end in December.

Queensland's has expired, while the NT didn't introduce one.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Scherer.

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