OPINION: Renting in Australia is a sh*tshow – and real estate agents are the ringleaders

The cost of rent is on the rise. The number of Australians renting is on the rise. The number of disputes between renters and landlords is on the rise – Amy Gray says it’s time “renters rise up”.

Recently, as I stood in queues to view properties that seem to get smaller but more expensive and talk with real estate agents who pivot from friendly to ferocious in .07 seconds, I became acutely aware of just how lowly renters are viewed by the real estate agents who depend on them for income.

Not long ago, when a friend of mine was following up on basic repairs at his rental for the umpteenth time, the agent barked down the phone, “Look, mate, you’re not my client – the landlord is.”

What compels someone to be so utterly shameless? Well, Domain has pointed out that a barista selling a $4 coffee currently undergoes more training than a real estate agent managing a $4 million home. That’s right; you can get a license to print money to practice as an estate agent in just three days

You can get a license to practice as an estate agent in just three days

Fortunately, NSW Parliament recently passed a series of training reforms for aspiring agents. But cultural change often lags long behind reform – and we need to correct the power imbalance now. Devon LaSalle, the official spokesperson for Tenants Victoria, says rental tenancies have almost doubled since 2003 – just under one-third of the state’s population is now renting. And According to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), there has been an alarming increase in the number of cases initiated by tenants – up 27% between 2016-2017.

Every tenant has a rental horror story – agents claiming inflated repair and cleaning fees from bonds; surprise evictions; agents ignoring requests for repairs as a property literally festers around their tenants – but only a fraction of tenants lodge an application with a Tribunal. It’s a daunting task. It costs time and money most people don’t have and, in a dangerously overcrowded rental market, tenants are scared to complain.

According to a new national study co-authored by CHOICE, one in seven Australian tenants haven’t asked for repairs because they’re afraid of paying more rent or getting evicted. NSW Tenants Union’s Leo Patterson Ross says, the threat of eviction “has a real chilling effect on people's willingness to push back when repairs aren't carried out.”

In a dangerously overcrowded rental market, tenants are scared to complain.

The upshot of this is: people who rent put up with rank living conditions. The Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community used HILDA data showing tenants in private and public rental properties were three to six times more likely to live in poor or derelict buildings. 

Victorians were momentarily excited when their premier Daniel Andrews proposed legislation to give tenants greater rights: an end to ‘no reason’ evictions, allowances to hang artwork on walls and keep pets; and even a register for dodgy landlords! But after the social media congratulations died down, so too did the proposed legislation and there’s little likelihood it will appear ahead of the upcoming state election.

PART OF MY BEDROOM CEILING CAVED IN AND A KITTEN FELL OUT OF IT AND WE’RE KEEPING HIM WE’VE NAMED HIM ASBESTOS

So what does a rental utopia look like? Well, enshrined in German law is the line: “Property comes bound with duty. It must also be used to serve the public good.”

In Germany, the average lease goes for 11 years. But unless tenants break a law, they can pretty much stay there indefinitely and sometimes even pass on their lease in an inheritance. Rent increases are strictly monitored and Germans don’t have to hide their pets during a rent inspection. They can also do some of their own home repairs and renovations – and send on the bill to the landlord.

In Germany, the average lease goes for 11 years. But unless tenants break a law, they can pretty much stay there indefinitely and sometimes even pass on their lease in an inheritance.

There are two big differences between renting in Germany and Australia. The first point of difference is the large amount of high-quality public housing in Germany. Unlike Australia (where public housing is at its lowest in 40 years), Germany doesn’t seem to sell off its public housing to developers.

The other difference? Rental rights is a big issue with German voters. Seventy-five percent of Germans renting on the private market are registered voters and three million of them belong to influential tenant lobby groups. That makes renting a major focus of the national agenda.

So, if the number of Australians renting is on the rise… when will we see renters rise up? With a third of all Victorians renting and still waiting on legislation, renters’ rights should be the hot issue leading up to Election Day.

None of this suggests that there aren’t bad tenants. Gil King, CEO of the Real Estate Institute of Victoria (REIV), believes tenant already enjoy “substantial protections.” He staunchly defends the rights of landlords because “they have a significant financial asset at stake.”

But someone else’s “financial asset” will never be a home until you can afford one of your own – something statistically improbable for more and more of us. The time has come for renters to rise up, to know the rights we have, and campaign for the rights we demand.