Op Ed: Letter in the mailbox that sets my heart racing

By Jess Scully, City of Sydney Councillor

Any tenant will know the anxiety when you see a letter from your real estate agent. Every time I get one, I can hear my heart ringing in my ears. Will this be the letter that tells me that the apartment is up for sale and I have to leave? Will this be a rent increase?

When I’m lucky, I’ll find they’re letting me know it’s time for my annual smoke alarm test. But even so, that accelerated heart rate is a reminder that I don’t have any stability or certainty in the place I call home.

I’m 37 years old and I’ve been renting for almost half of my life. In Australia today, that’s the new normal: one in three Australians are renters, a third of all private renters have been renting continuously for 10 years or more and 83 per cent of renters are on no fixed term lease.

The instability that comes with renting means that half of all of renters say they’re afraid of being blacklisted for complaining about defects or asking for improvements – I live with a bucket under my leaky tap or a sliding door that lets in the cold winter air – in the hope that my landlord will forget about me.

There’s been a lot of talk about how hard it is to buy a home, but for a significant proportion of us today, it’s the unaffordability, unfairness and instability of the rental market that is the most urgent Australian housing crisis.

Renters deserve a fairer system. Recently, the NSW Tenants Union used the World Cup to chart how Australia stacks up in the field of renters’ rights. We placed at the bottom of our group again, behind Denmark, France and Peru, but this time because of our unfair evictions, unregulated rents and low levels of public housing. Seeing our less-than-impressive stats, it’s clear that we’re exceptional, for all the wrong reasons.

So, what would renters rights in Australia look like? It would mean being able to sign a lease for two, three or five years, rather than the six- or 12-month leases that are standard now. Imagine how that could help a family with school-aged children and how it might inspire people to invest more time and energy in the communities in which they live.

You would arrive at an inspection and know that it is illegal to offer above the advertised rent or to be discriminated against in the selection process. You would know your rent could not be increased more than once a year and that you could not be evicted without cause. You would know that you would not have to deal with the door that doesn’t lock, the suspicious mould – because there would be minimum property standards to make sure all homes were liveable.

A new national campaign supported by a coalition of social service organisations calls on all governments to make this a reality and change tenancy laws to protect tenants against evictions, unfair rent rises, discrimination and landlords who refuse to maintain properties.

It doesn’t sound like a big ask but right now there is no national standard for renters and a lack of leadership on an issue which affects so many of us. We deserve access to the Australian dream, too – if not as buyers, then as renters who have affordable and liveable places to call home.

Jess Scully is a City of Sydney councillor and is part of the Clover Moore independent team.

Read the story as published by the Sydney Morning Herald

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