Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

When Kerrie Littlefield found a rental property for herself and her two daughters in the southern part of Canberra in late 2019, she signed the lease with the understanding that the renovation of the property would be completed within a few months.

The educator, who works with children with special needs, was happy to secure a lease after struggling to find something affordable near his friends and workplace.

But the renovations were never completed and the family lived in a home without a blanket, forced to buy blankets to ease the cold.

At the time, she was also expected to take care of the owner’s chooks, saying she was never compensated for the more than $ 400 she spent on feed.

Mrs Littlefield said she was also expected to cover the cost of removing wild bees.

After 12 months in the home, she left, but never received her tape after discovering that it had never been officially filed.

She is just one of about 150,000 tenants in the ACT, where lawyers and legal experts say not enough is being done to protect tenants from unfair agreements or financial losses.

‘Confronting and degrading’: When things get sour

An aerial photo of a new suburb with townhouses and apartments in Canberra
Vacancies in Canberra are rare, forcing many to accept terms they believe are unreasonable or illegal.(ABC News: Toby Hunt)

Mrs Littlefield said she was still recovering from the emotional stress of what she had been through.

She said she had sought support from the Legal Aid ACT, but eventually gave up the idea of ​​going to court because of the cost of attorneys’ fees.

“It definitely affected me, it was so stressful,” she said.

She said she now felt there should be stricter rules in place to ensure all parties were aware of the law.

“I think it’s going to be a little bit tighter – I did not want to see this happen to anyone else,” she said.

Like Mrs. Littlefield, Emma Collins found herself burdened with a non-standard lease.

“Things like repairing broken windows or light shades or putting felt pads on furniture, stuff like that,” she said.

By that time, she had already hired a moving car, and she knew how difficult it was to find a rental.

She signed the agreement despite her concerns.

IMG_7064
Emma Collins was faced with signing a lease containing non-standard terms or combating it through the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal.(By Holly Tregenza)

“When I have previously applied for properties, there have been questions about whether one has gone to the board, and that kind of scares me.

“I do not want to spend my personal time fighting against a real estate agent in court and money as well.”

Ms Collins agreed that more should be done so that tenants had opportunities without fear of retaliation.

“I’m not an inferior person because I rent, because I do not own a property yet or at all, and that’s how I think tenants are often treated,” she said.

Joel Dignam is the CEO of an advocacy group for tenants called Better Renting.

He said landlords and real estate agents were often unaware of the rules and their obligations under the relevant legislation.

This meant that tenants got a sense that they had to abide by what were essentially invented rules for getting a home.

A Better Renting survey found that renters in Canberran were asked to do everything from refrain from having overnight guests to accept outdated condition reports.

“It is certainly much more difficult than it needs to be,” Mr Dignam said.

He said he had heard some examples of housing situations where tenants were asked to limit their use of heaters all day in the winter or were forbidden to light candles.

“There are situations where the landlord might pay the electricity bills and that could lead to some pretty extreme restrictions,” he said.

Landlords, agents given ‘blank canvas’

Both tenants and advocacy groups have contacted ABC with detailed information on a wide range of additional clauses added to leases.

Large 'For Rent' sign outside a block of units
Paul Smith, of the Legal Aid ACT’s Tenants’ Advisory Service, says the ACT is the only jurisdiction that does not explicitly prohibit landlords and agents from entering into leases.(ABC News: Kathleen Dyett)

Paul Smith, of Legal Aid ACT’s Tenant Advisory Service, said he had seen some where the landlord had instructed that no overnight guests should be allowed on the rental property.

Others said they were expected to make repairs to the property even when they were not causing the damage, or were told they were not allowed to have sex in the home.

Sir. Smith said such terms were not allowed, and urged people to seek legal assistance for support and advice.

“There’s a fundamental difference in that ACT is the only jurisdiction that does not explicitly prohibit outsourcing,” Smith said.

The problem was that too many people were unaware of their rights, he said.

“I would say to renters that if they are ever faced with these issues, they should consult our service.”

But Mr Dignam said far too many people were afraid of the consequences of taking legal action.

“One of the things we’re heard from tenants is that they can have a number of different tenancies in ACT, and every time they’re asked to sign a different set of terms and conditions, and they actually do not know. is legally binding or not, it’s a bit unclear, “he said.

“It really ends up being a bit of a lottery what one is held to when the law should actually be consistent, no matter who one rents from.”

Better Renting is calling for a registration system for landlords.

“It’s not really good enough that you just get a blank canvas to go and make the law,” Mr Dignam said.

“I think part of it though is that landlords do not know their obligations and they might be thinking ‘oh, I do not want this tenant to use the heater, so I just want to put that word in the lease’, without be aware it’s not an OK thing to do. ‘”

ACT Attorney General Shane Rattenbury said he shared Better Renting’s concerns.

“We want to make sure tenants are not being taken advantage of,” Rattenbury said.

“My concern is that some people do not know their rights or do not know how to enforce them, so it is important that tenants are aware of their rights and obligations under their lease.”

He urged tenants to seek advice when something did not work right by a lease.

“This means that a condition that requires a tenant to grant access to an inspection with 10 hours notice, or a condition that prevents parties or friends from staying overnight, would not be enforceable by a landlord unless it had been approved. by ACAT.

“We know tenants may not enforce their rights for fear of retaliation. This underscores the importance of stopping deferrals without cause, a policy that the ACT Greens led to the election, and I move on as a state’s attorney.”

Encourages more independent supervision

Peter Christensen, a lecturer in tenancy law at the Australian National University, said more could be done to ensure the rules were enforced.

In NSW, tenants can file complaints to Fair Trading, and Tasmanian tenants can turn to the housing rental commissioner.

Sir. Christensen said there was nothing similar in the ACT that let tenants fight the courts.

“The law provides for an administrative supervisory role in relation to tenancies – it does not exist properly,” Christiansen said.

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