Monday, July 24, 2017

Renting with pets: a canary in the coal mine

To keep, or not to keep a pet? Ever since we raised the issue in our contribution to the review of NSW renting laws, debate has raged about whether this should be a decision for investors or homemakers to make. Unless you've got a particular love for, or an aversion to animals yourself, the side you come down on will perhaps be influenced by whether you spend your time talking to landlords or tenants.

Our views on this issue have been clearly and firmly put, and are a matter of public record. Today we're going to step back a little to explore what this discussion tells us about the state of our housing market. Our conclusion is that the "renting with pets" debate is a study in all that is wrong with our housing system, and a clear indicator of why it needs to change.


There are two stories to tell here. The first is how the private rental market has become the long-term landing place for a growing number of Australians looking to establish a new home, with limited prospects for debt-free home-ownership in the lifetimes of many. The second is how the residential property market remains dominated by small-time investors who are not motivated by the needs of householders, nor any broad sense of social responsibility, but by capital gains.

In New South Wales, there were 83,870 more rented dwellings at the 2016 Census than there were in 2011. Compare this to owner-occupied dwellings, which grew by 35,362 over the same period - with 19,649 more owned outright, and 15,713 more owned with a mortgage. The number of unoccupied dwellings grew by 19,403, which means any new dwelling built in the last five years, or established dwelling that changed hands during that time, is more likely to have become a rented home than anything else.

Of the 2.15 million renters in New South Wales at the Census, almost 90% were in the private rental market relying on so-called "mum and dad" investors for a place to call home. That's up from about 83% in 2011. The lion's share of renters are aged between 20 and 40, and a quarter are aged between 40 and 65. 41% of renter households are families with children, making them the single largest group of renters, while 20% are couples making a home together. 27% of renters are single and living alone, and 9% are sharing with others. Many would like to bring a pet into their homes.

Analysis from the 2011 Census confirmed that a growing number of households are renting for ten years or longer - not necessarily in the same home - and we expect to see this pattern continue as academics and researchers crunch the 2016 data. The proportion of dwellings that are owner-occupied is in slow decline, but those that are rented is rising more sharply, showing that fewer renters are now exiting the market to take on home ownership.


Critically, the number of people taking on debt to achieve home ownership has tapered off quite considerably. The growth of homes owned with a mortgage has slowed in each Census period since 2001. Compared to rented dwellings, for which that sharp rise has been recorded, this growth has been particularly slow in the last five years.


The number of homes owned outright has recorded similarly slow growth, which provides an ominous sign for the growing ranks of long-term renter households - even if you do manage to buy a home some day, chances are you'll never pay it off. In a nation that has defined itself as egalitarian and propertied, that's a source of frustration in its own right. Add the lack of agency Australia's renter households have over basic questions such as whether to plant a tree, paint a wall, or keep a pet, and it's easy to see why the "renting with pets" issue continues to flare up. For those who would write these frustrations off as mere indulgence, bear in mind that for the large numbers of tenants who are grown-up, pursuing long-term relationships and raising families in their rented homes they are simply the issues of the day. In another ten or fifteen years from now we may well be wondering why our aged-care and retirement systems - designed with a home-owning population in mind - have simply collapsed in a heap around us, but for now the "renting with pets" debate is a clear sign that all is not well and those most affected are not going to forget it anytime soon.

On the other side of this equation are our landlords, who by definition do not find themselves in the position of having "missed out" on property ownership. It's a little harder to get a handle on them, but we can use statistics from the Australian Tax Office to paint ourselves a picture. The last data we have available is from the 2014/15 financial year, and it tells us that the vast majority of Australia's tax-paying landlords own only a single rental property or two.


They're mostly one-off or small-time investors, "mums and dads" who are more interested in property for its capacity to generate wealth than providing homes for families. They'll hang onto a property for maybe five years or so then sell it, banking the gains or putting them towards their next investment. For the most part, Australian landlords are not interested in building large portfolios, and they don't want to concern themselves with the day-to-day workings of property investment. They tend not to engage with things like renting laws, tribunal procedures, or tenants' rights unless they have to. Many are happy to ignore these aspects of investment altogether, handing them all over to real estate agents who know only too well they won't have anyone looking over their shoulder as long as the rent rolls in and the outgoings stay under control.

Because they're not building economies of scale, landlords tend to stick to a simple and rigid formula. The tax data also shows that while they're holding property, almost two-thirds of Australia's landlords are operating at a loss.

They do this because they can count their investment losses against non-investment income, such as salaries and wages, for income tax purposes. By running at a loss, landlords can reduce their day-to-day tax liabilities, masking the expense of holding property. They also expect property to go up in value, providing tax-discounted windfalls when they sell. In a sense they're gambling - losing a little money today in the hope of making it all back and more in the future, and our tax system encourages this through negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts. But in the meantime the majority of Australia's landlords are still running at a loss, which makes them highly sensitive to unanticipated expenses.

For many, this sensitivity is built into their investment strategy, such that they will be overly concerned with the type of household they will rent their property to - and just as importantly, who they wont. Tenants with pets are seen as a risk, even though they are clearly liable under renting laws for any damage their pets might cause. Our renting laws are less clear on whether a landlord can over-rule a tenant's decision to keep a pet, but many take this as a given. It is common practice for tenancy agreements to include a "no pets" clause at the insistence of the landlord or their agent.

The "pets and renting" debate helps us identify key changes we need to make to our inequitable housing system in order that it may provide greater equality of experience. At the federal level we need to rethink the way property is taxed, and find ways to foster a view of investment that delivers homes for families rather than just bricks and mortar. At the state level we need to revisit renting laws, and give tenants greater agency over the decisions they may make, and the responsibilities they take on, as householders.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Australia's 10 million spare bedrooms

This morning The Guardian published an article using recent data released from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. It was a good piece, but it had a somewhat misleading headline. The Brown Couch's founder had this to say:


If the vacancy rate in public housing is only 3% what was the headline trying to say? They were measuring the use of bedrooms in public housing and noting that one in six bedrooms is "under-utilised."

As it happens, this year the Census data introduced a specific measure of "Housing Suitability" which measures whether a household has spare bedrooms, or needs extra. Let's take a look at the state of bedroom use.

Not the typical use of a bed
The data shows about 75% of our spare bedrooms are in owner occupied housing. It isn't just that a majority of Australian homes are owner-occupied - 87% of homes owned outright have at least one spare bedroom, and almost 60% have two or more. Mortgaged homes are slightly better, as only 77% of these have a spare bedroom. 41% have two spare rooms or more.

Australia wide, the story is the same. There are more than 10 million spare bedrooms in Australia. Around two thirds of our mortgaged homes have spare rooms, as do 80% of homes that are owned outright.

Social housing looks very different. Not only do less than a third of tenanted social housing properties have a spare room, there are more in this tenure type that are mildly overcrowded. 2 in every 5 social housing dwellings are in need of at least one extra bedroom.


Renters both in the private rental market and social housing are much better at utilising their bedrooms than owner-occupiers. There are different reasons for this - where private renters are pushed to efficiency by price signals and competition (ie you generally only rent as many rooms as you need, unless you're either bonkers or rich), social housing renters are pushed by the allocation strategies of their landlords. Social housing tenants who do have a "spare" bedroom do so because they need it, and are entitled to it under the policies of their provider. For example, households may be given an additional room for a live-in carer, for family members who reside with them part-time, or for cultural reasons.

Of course, the other major reason we hear of social housing tenants ending up with a spare bedroom is that their allocation is not really suited to their needs, or their needs have changed since their allocation  made. You can't really blame a household for so-called "under utilising" if they're occupying the only property that is available to them - our failure to build enough social housing properties throughout the ages means many people have nowhere to downsize to as their needs change.

Despite this, social housing tenants are clearly putting their part of the nation's housing stock to the most efficient use, relative to the rest of the population.

Well done to you all!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Economically viable supply

Speaking at a Sydney Alliance assembly on housing affordability last night, the NSW Minister for Planning and Housing, the Hon. Anthony Roberts MP, dismissed targets for affordable housing in new residential developments as a simplistic and unrealistic housing solution. "In reality all these targets do is reduce the supply of affordable rental housing because it makes many developments economically unviable." Instead, he talked up the Government's intention to solve Sydney's housing affordability crisis by rezoning large swathes of the city and fast-tracking new supply.

Inclusionary zoning is like a box of chocolates...?
This is a curious position for a Housing Minister in the Berejiklian "housing-affordability-matters" Government to take, given the overwhelming evidence suggests a single-minded focus on new supply is a simplistic and unrealistic housing solution.

Since the beginning of 2017 - dubbed "the year of the renter" by Domain as there will soon be more renters than homeowners in Sydney - we've discussed the issue of housing affordability and supply many times on the Brown Couch.

In late January we released a Rent Tracker report, which highlighted how rents have gone up even in suburbs where large numbers of properties are being added to the rental market. In February we discussed how Sydney's new housing development is producing the wrong kind of supply, driven by the demands of investors rather than householders and home makers. In April we noted the findings of Anglicare's seventh Rental Affordability Snapshot, showing that rental affordability is as bad as it has ever been and still gets worse every year.

In May the latest Rental Affordability Index was released, confirming what Rent Tracker and the Rental Affordability Snapshot had already suggested about deteriorating rental affordability despite increasing residential development activity. We dug in a little to look at exactly what's going on, exploring how the wrong kind of supply has changed the shape of the rental market. It produces higher rents rather than improving rental affordability.

In June we joined the dots on housing affordability, looking at how the NSW Government's housing affordability package is likely to impact upon the market for supply. We suggested it might be combined with both the NSW Opposition's housing affordability package, which includes targets for affordable housing, and some of the Australian Government's Federal Budget measures, which includes a method for funding new affordable housing, to help keep residential property developers afloat while ensuring at least some new supply is delivered into the affordable rental housing sector.

Also in June we discussed the release of data from the 2016 Census, which shows that the renting population is still growing faster than the population generally, and the stress of high housing costs affects renters far more than it does homeowners.

Something we haven't yet discussed is the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute's recent report into "Housing supply responsiveness in Australia". This report found that most of the growth in Australia's housing supply has been taking place in the mid-to-high price segments, rather than low price segments, and suggests "there seems to be structural impediments to the trickle-down of new housing supply". It also says that "targeted government intervention might be needed in order to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing." The report hasn't received a lot of attention other than a quick report in the Guardian when it was released earlier this year. It could do with some more, so we'll take a closer look at it when we can.

In the meantime, let's get back to the Minister's words from last night. "In reality all these targets do is reduce the supply of affordable rental housing because it makes many developments economically unviable."

On the other hand, current developments are causing rental affordability to deteriorate again, and again, and again. So at what point do we stop and wonder - if we still can't afford to live in them, what is the value of an economically viable development after all?

The answer to that question might make more sense to someone who values housing as nothing more than a financial asset, rather than a place to call home.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Caveat Rentor 2 - Tenancy Economics

Today's post is a guest entry from our Principal Solicitor, Grant Arbuthnot. Grant has more than 20 years experience advising tenants, their advocates, and has worked for the Tribunal and community legal centres as well as the Tenants' Union. Here are his thoughts on tenants as consumers.


Economists and accountants both agree this joke stinks. 
The assumption a healthy consumer market has suppliers competing on price, quality and service for the business of consumers allows another examination of our rental market.

At present, there is a shortage of supply of affordable premises for rent. Competition between prospective tenants for available premises is understandable.

Consumers competing for the business of suppliers is not healthy. Consumer competition means that pricing favours the suppliers, and that quality and service are not significant issues.

Tenants might expect that once a tenancy has been secured the competition will cease. However, this is not the case. Sitting tenants compete with prospective tenants to retain their tenancy.

In a fixed term tenancy, tenants are aware that they can be required to leave at the end of the fixed term. Fixed terms are rarely greater than a year. In a periodic tenancy the vulnerability is present and constant.

This is because the law allows landlords to dispose of tenants without having to give a reason.

Tenants who demand contract performance by the landlord risk being replaced from the surplus of prospective tenants.

This is usually about repairs. It is the most popular breach of contract by landlords. The likelihood of receiving a termination notice (without grounds) is increased by demanding repairs.

It is not surprising that many tenants put up with expensive and substandard premises to avoid the stress, cost and inconvenience of having to move house.

Amending the Residential Tenancies Act cannot undo the problems of supply and demand. But abolishing no grounds termination can relieve sitting tenants of the constant competition with prospective tenants. They might even get some repairs done.

To find out more about how tenants are affected by unfair evictions, visit Make Renting Fair.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

NAIDOC week 2017 - Our languages matter

This article written by the TU's Legal Officer (Aboriginal Support), Jessica Hall. Jessica works closely with the Aboriginal Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services across NSW.

It’s NAIDOC week, and once again the TU is reflecting on and recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture, talent and resilience, and the contributions that Indigenous Australians make to our country and our society.

This year’s theme is Our Languages Matter. The 2017 theme aims to “celebrate the essential role that Indigenous languages play in both cultural identity, linking people to their land and water, and in the transmission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, spirituality and rites, through story and song”.


From the earliest days of European contact there was often an assumption that Indigenous Australian languages were of less value than English and this view soon hardened into government policy, reinforced through education and employment practices. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were discouraged from speaking their languages, so that many children had little or no knowledge of their traditional languages.

This year’s NAIDOC week theme comes at a time of important discussion and proposed NSW legislation to review treatment of, and to recognise and protect, Indigenous Australian languages, with NSW to become the first state to pass a law protecting Indigenous languages. The recently released draft Aboriginal Languages Bill 2017 seeks to implement measures to protect and revive NSW Aboriginal languages by a focused and sustained effort, including a Strategic Plan and a new Centre for Aboriginal Languages of NSW.

Aboriginal languages also became available as a HSC subject for the first time in 2016. Prior to this, students were only able to take Aboriginal language courses from kindergarten to year 10. The moves towards education reform will aid Aboriginal young people to become the future custodians and caretakers of their languages. This renewed focus to support and maintain Aboriginal Languages is a step in the right direction.

Dhubany by Millmullian, 2015
Indigenous languages and oral storytelling are integral for linking Aboriginal people to their lands, and maintaining cultural identity through the passing of stories through generations. Historically, colonial relocation was a significant contribution to the disruption of Indigenous language and storytelling. According to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, over 250 Indigenous Australian language groups covered the continent at the time of European settlement in 1788. Today only around 120 of those languages are still spoken.

This historic relocation and the effect it had on Indigenous languages is being echoed today by a continued forced relocation of Aboriginal people - by the use of no grounds notices, which force Aboriginal tenants from their homes without reasonable cause. The Aboriginal Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services across NSW are now consistently quoting no-grounds evictions as one of the major issues facing Aboriginal tenants, both in social housing and private tenancies. There should be legislation in place that allows the Tribunal to refuse such notice by taking into account an Aboriginal tenant’s cultural connection to country. The movement from dispossession and displacement to eviction without grounds draws worrying contrasts.

With reflection on the clear lessons that Indigenous languages must be recognised in Australia, we hope that the government will also move towards bettering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights in all areas, including Aboriginal housing. Here at the TU, we will celebrate NAIDOC week at a number of events, including a stall in association with CLCNSW at WEAVE’s annual NAIDOC Woolloomooloo festival on Saturday 8 July.

Happy NAIDOC week!

Monday, July 3, 2017

How will your tenancy end?

There are over two-dozen ways your legal interest in property - aka your tenancy - could end if you're renting in New South Wales; even more if you're in social housing.


In most cases, your tenancy doesn't end without you relinquishing the property to the landlord. In all cases, a trigger of some kind is required. A tenancy doesn't end simply because the fixed-term period concludes - after the fixed period your tenancy continues as a "periodic agreement" under the same conditions as before.

Some triggers for termination are less common than others. For instance, your tenancy might end if your landlord's interests become vested in you - perhaps if you were to marry, or form some other legal union under which all your property interests merge. Or it might end if a person with superior title, such as a mortgagee, becomes entitled to exclusive possession of your home. Similarly, your tenancy might end if a person succeeding title, such as the beneficiary of a reversion of your landlord's property rights, becomes entitled to the property at the exclusion of others.

Your interest in a tenancy ends if a final apprehended violence order that excludes you from the premises is ordered against you.

Your tenancy could end if you die.

Your tenancy could end if your home becomes unlivable through no fault of your own or the landlord's - for example a severe storm taking out part of the property.

Your tenancy could end by returning the property to the landlord by prior agreement. For that matter, it could end by returning the property to the landlord without prior agreement - although that method will generally always cost you something.

You could end your interest in a co-tenancy by giving notice and moving out. You could end your co-tenant's interest by taking them to the Tribunal and getting an order, in exceptional cases.

You could trigger the end of your tenancy by obtaining a Tribunal order for termination on hardship grounds. Your landlord could do the same.

You could end your tenancy because the landlord isn't keeping their part of the bargain. If you're not meeting your own obligations, your landlord could do the same.

Your landlord could apply to the Tribunal to end your tenancy if you've been using the place for an illegal purpose. They could also do that if you've threatened, abused, intimidated or harassed them, or if you've caused serious damage to the place or injury to them or a neighbour. They'd have to prove it, though...

You could end your tenancy if the landlord decides to sell. Your landlord could end your tenancy if they do sell, and the buyer wants to move in - but only if you're in a periodic tenancy.

You could end your tenancy if you need to move into an aged-care facility, or are offered a place with a social housing landlord.

If you're a social housing tenant, your tenancy could end if you become ineligible for social housing, or if your landlord wants to move you to another place and you decline. Strict procedures are to be followed in either of these scenarios.

You could end your tenancy because the rent is increased, if you're in a fixed-term agreement of two years or more (but hardly anybody is...)

You could end your tenancy without a reason, at the end of a fixed term or during a periodic agreement. Your landlord could do the same.

But there is always a reason to end a tenancy.

As a tenant, being able to end a tenancy "without a reason" is appropriate, as it allows you the basic freedom to relocate as your housing needs change. In general, there is no reason to justify those needs to your landlord, or explain to them how your circumstances have changed such that you now wish to move house. Your landlord should have no concern beyond knowing when the property will become available to them again, so that the comparatively simple process of finding a new tenant can be commenced.

On the other hand, landlords being able to end tenancies "without a reason" is bad public policy. It undermines tenants' abilities to establish their homes with any certainty. As we see it, landlords tend to use the "no reason" option in one of three circumstances: where they have a good reason that the law does not accommodate, where they have a good reason but would rather not be put to the trouble of proving it, or where they have a questionable reason that they'd rather not go into.

A fairer renting law would give landlords a couple of additional reasonable grounds, and remove their ability to end tenancies without a good reason. With this in mind the Tenants' Union of NSW, along with more than 40 allies and supporters, are calling on the Government to Make Renting Fair. Visit rentingfair.org.au to find out more.