people FEEL POWERLESS TO CHALLENGE LANDLORDS

A common theme in the stories was the relative power landlords have over tenants -  how this impacts renters’ lives and their ability to speak up in case of problems.

As shown throughout this report, landlords have considerable power over tenants. Multiple factors - insecure tenure; the lack of affordable alternative properties available - have combined to limit renters’ power. This dynamic was particularly evident in the numerous stories that mention neglected maintenance and repairs, landlords abusing power, and how renters responded.

The power is all in the landlord’s hands and tenants have almost none.
I am at risk of being evicted if I try and apply any kind of pressure.
I was stuck in a bind, complain too much and have my lease not renewed or live with the leaking house and actually have accommodation.

 

Neglected maintenance and repairs

A high proportion of stories mentioned renters’ experiences living with the consequences of neglected maintenance and repairs. As the stories show, this neglect impacted renters’ quality of life, mental health, physical safety and in some cases imposed additional costs on renters.

Landlords have a legal obligation to keep properties weathertight and to provide and maintain properties in a reasonable state of repair. Many landlords fulfill these legal responsibilities, some even going above and beyond to provide good homes for their tenants. However, in this review the majority of stories mentioned some form of neglected or delayed maintenance that reduced their enjoyment of the property:

We were here for 19 months before 4 light [fittings] were replaced and working. It was inconvenient being without them all that time… We waited 19 months for a plumbing job to be done and the toilet was leaking for 10 months. I several times reported it…
My wardrobe ceiling has been leaking for the past month... The leak happens whenever the upstairs neighbours have showers... I now know [their] shower habits because at 6:30am and 5:30pm I am on guard with buckets ready!
The holes [in the roof] have now been there for 3+ months whilst the landlord and property manager ‘collect quotes’ to get them fixed…
When it rained outside, it also rained inside
and would usually come through cracks in the ceiling. The most concerning part was that the water would leak through the light bulbs... Any time I asked for anything to be done in my home, the landlords always said they would come, but never came.
… [The landlords] refuse to carry out any maintenance whatsoever. The back door lock is difficult to operate, both to unlock and lock, such that my children can’t operate it. Their response was that the front door works fine, use that. The back stairs and deck are wooden and covered in black mold. I had a nasty fall on them in the wet and when I asked for them to be cleaned, I was told all they would do was board them up so they are unusable…

Renters noted the stress, frustration and unpleasantness of chasing landlords. They noted:  

 

The frustration of requesting time and time again that easy fixes be carried out… is beyond belief.
I dread when things break as he always makes a big deal of it.

In some cases delayed repairs caused tenants to incur extra costs. Two renters shared stories of broken hot water cylinders that landlords failed to fix, which added hundreds of dollars per month to the renters’ power bills.

Neglected maintenance also left renters exposed to hazards:

I have asked for fire alarms and was turned down.
(Don’t worry I brought my own.)
I know it’s not even worth raising [these dangerous steps] as an issue with [the landlord]. So instead… we spend our own time and money trying to make the steps safer …  And worst of all I worry about my kids and my safety every time we go up and down.
My landlord told me he would put cladding on my room by the time we moved in. It’s been 7 months and all I have between me and the outdoors is gib and tinfoil (my landlord said it counts as insulation).

This final story probably refers to foil insulation, which according to Tenancy Services should not be touched without switching off the power at the mains as it is an electrocution risk.

Renters’ reluctance to speak up for fear of retaliation

Given the severity of these situations, it is worth questioning why renters did not pursue their legal rights by issuing a 14-day notice requesting repairs - the first step towards mediation or a case in the Tenancy Tribunal. Among the hundreds of stories, only five responders mentioned that they had issued a 14-day notice to their landlord. Only 12 stories mentioned tenants bringing a case against their landlord.

Based on the stories, there is a clear reason why renters did not assert their legal rights. In multiple cases, landlords interpreted renters’ requests for repairs or maintenance as opportunities to raise the rent or evict the tenants. As one renter noted:

Every time we ask for something to be repaired within a week our landlord notifies us that the rent will be increased.

Another renter shared that a leaking septic tank had formed a swamp in his backyard. He and his partner debated whether to report it, fearing a rent rise. They eventually did report it, the landlord did raise the rent, and they had to move.

Multiple responders stated that fear of rent rises and eviction prevented them even from reporting problems:

I no longer complain… because I do not want the landlord to make improvements and then use that as an excuse to raise the rent.
I am afraid if I ask the landlord to fix the rotten floor in the bathroom that they will increase the rent and I cannot afford this.

Several tenants explained how this fear left them “stuck”: 

If I complain, what happened last time will surely happen again… they sold [the place] and we had to move.
I was stuck in a bind, complain too much and have my lease not renewed or live with the leaking house and actually have accommodation.
The current process whereby I have to lodge a complaint to get basic maintenance carried out is completely unfair as doing so means I risk having my rent raised in retaliation until I’m forced to leave. The power is all in the landlord’s hands and tenants have almost none.

Besides fear of rent rise or eviction, other reasons renters expressed for not pursuing their legal rights included being busy with work or study, and having too little proof. Lack of education about their rights may have been another prohibiting factor.

These stories add weight to previous research showing that tenants often choose not to report problems. Research involving interviews with tenants and their advocates found that this is due to a lack of knowledge or confidence, high costs in time and effort to pursue a claim, the belief that reporting problems will not lead to resolution, and fear of eviction. This research showed that tenants have more success in asserting their rights when an advocate supported them; yet there are few advocate organisations nationwide. In reality, few tenants report problems. In the 2015/2016 financial year, only one in ten Tenancy Tribunal cases were brought by tenants, according to information received in an official information request.

Other forms of abuse by landlords

The stories also demonstrated a wide range of other abusive practices by landlords:

[Our] place was stuck on the side of a cattery and I was supposed to work in there full time for no pay so that we could have affordable rent. My landlady threatened to kick me out when I found a full time job…
My most recent landlord charged me $100 per week to live in an outside shed (I was obviously quite desperate at the time). She made me sign a boarding house agreement, despite it not being one, and then kicked me out with one week’s notice. I have still not received my bond back from this most recent landlord.
We were … forced to sign a “cat agreement” for our cat that included an extra week’s worth of bond and contracted to get the carpets professionally cleaned at our own expense once we leave the property, both things we’ve subsequently discovered are not legal.
I managed to find a place … Scared that other people might get the place we made the decision to take [it, pay over summer, and move in later]. ….[We later discovered] the cheeky scumbag had been renting out the place to some other people on a short fixed term contract over summer, whilst being perfectly happy to collect our rent…
They would take an obscene bond from us and do everything in their power to keep that bond… they would still want to charge $600 for ‘professional cleaners’. They would never get professional cleaners in…
The real estate agents… started bombarding me with texts wanting access, usually in direct contradiction to the times I said worked for me, and often with less than 24 hours notice…

Several renters shared examples of landlords lying in order to give a 42-day notice period, by falsely telling tenants that their family would be moving in:

They ended up ending my six year long tenancy with them due to ‘getting family in’ instead of fixing the leaking ceiling which was ruining my furniture. The neighbours confirmed that family did not move in, just other non-related tenants.

These sorts of behaviour are not surprising in an environment where landlords and property managers are not regulated, and renters are so reluctant to speak up.

Enforcing the law relies on renters - yet renters feel powerless

These stories emphasise the impacts of the power imbalance between landlords and tenants. As the examples highlight, renters feel powerless to challenge landlords’ behaviour that is illegal or harming their interests. This is highly problematic: the current means of regulation relies on tenants to proactively report problems in order to enforce the law. Local or central government inspectors will only intervene in the most severe breaches of the law.

Unless the power imbalance is addressed, the law that protects tenants will not be addressed. As so many renters shared:

 

I cannot tell you how disempowered we feel...
The power is all in the landlord’s hands...
I am at the mercy of people like her for the sake of affordable housing...
We are at the mercy of our landlords.

Leaving the wellbeing of renters up to the “mercy” of landlords is an unacceptable way to ensure that people’s right to housing is realised. And the stories show it is not working.