In a privileged country like Australia where so many of our behaviours are regulated in the name of safety, it is shameful that many people are forced to live in rental properties that are basically uninhabitable. This is because rental properties in Victoria are not subject to minimum standards – under the Residential Tenancies Act 1997 (the Act) a landlord must keep their property/properties in “good or reasonable repair”; but what this amounts to is unclear. Given that minimum standards exist for rooming houses, the government has accepted that minimum standards should be applied to people’s homes.
Minimum standards must be introduced for rental properties not just because it is unpleasant to live in a house with exposed wires, mould, or a rodent infestation – but because these conditions are dangerous to people’s health. When we talk about living conditions affecting health, we are also talking about the protection homes offer from heat and cold, including whether the home has insulation. Medical studies have found that due to poor insulation Australians are twice as likely to die from the cold as people in Sweden. In summer when temperatures reach beyond 40, often for many days, the picture is not much better, with over 370 people dying from heat stress in the two-week heatwave leading up to Black Saturday. Then in January 2014, paramedics in Victoria treated more than 500 people in one week for heat-related illnesses. Whilst some of these people would have been rough sleeping, the majority of them would have been housed.
This month the Supreme Court of Victoria ruled that rental properties must be maintained in “good repair”, even if the property was initially rented out in poor condition. The tenant in that case, Vikki Shields, suffered from a mental illness and was unable to find a rental property in better condition within her budget. Ms Shields as well as Victoria Legal Aid’s Dan Nicholson called for the minimum standards to be “spelled out” which is what those in the community sector, including CHP, are calling for in the review of the Act.
The reality is that the people who end up living in substandard rentals are those on low incomes who are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. On a low income you have few options, and limited avenues for recourse if your rights are violated. The government accepts that minimum standards are needed to govern homes, because minimum standards are in place for rooming houses. We have a duty to protect all people, and it is therefore essential that minimum rental standards must be put into the Act.