End of rental moratorium and pandemic assistance hits Australia’s poor

Fears of a homelessness crisis are growing with pandemic stimulus payments ending at the same time as rental eviction moratoriums.

Thousands of renters are dealing with the end of bans on evictions and rental increases at the same time as the expiry of pandemic JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments.

Some of the most vulnerable are older Australians who rent and rely on JobSeeker, and calls are intensifying for an increase in the Commonwealth Rent Assistance payment (CRA).

CRA payments increased in March by just $1.20 – to a maximum fortnightly payment of $125.80 for singles and $203 for couples.

Australian Greens housing spokesperson Senator Mehreen Faruqi says renters in multiple states are facing “uncertainty, mounting debt and homelessness”.

“We must extend eviction bans until the government has a plan for rental debt relief. Without one, our government is condemning countless people to homelessness,” Senator Faruqi said in a press release.

“It’s unrealistic to assume that people facing a decrease in JobSeeker and still recovering from a pandemic will be able to afford extra rent on top of their basic necessities.”

Read more: Time to address pensioners’ rental stress

Tenants Victoria CEO Jennifer Beveridge told domain.com she was bracing for a surge in ‘notices to vacate’ being given to renters on 29 March.

“Based on our experience working with renters, we expect these numbers to be significant.

“Many renters have not financially recovered in a state that had ensured no less than three public health lockdowns,” she said.

“These renters face being forced to leave their homes unless further protective measures are put in place for them.”

Business Insider says “increased evictions and further stress on the rental dispute resolution system are likely outcomes”. It expects Western Australia and Victoria to be hardest hit.

New figures from Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) and Homes Victoria reveal 4500 Victorians experiencing rental distress sought rental relief in the form of grants or rent reductions in January.

More than 70,000 rent reduction agreements were registered with Consumer Affairs Australia by 24 February.

Read more: Housing stress doubles due to COVID pandemic

Real Estate Industry Partners CEO Sadhana Smiles told The New Daily she hoped the end of rental assistance measures could spark “win-win conversations” between landlords and tenants.

“The biggest fear a tenant is going to have is they’ll be given 60 days to vacate … On the flipside, you’ve got owners thinking they can’t make their mortgage payments, and so do they need to sell the property or increase the rent?” Ms Smiles said.

“I don’t think we’re going to have this massive influx of vacancy notices. Most investors buying property do so to get rent out of it, and you’re not going to get rent if you keep kicking tenants out.”

Dr Chris Martin, from the UNSW City Futures Research Centre, disagrees.

“Governments should be taking evictions more seriously as housing problems worsen, and we should set up tribunals so they can scrutinise termination proceedings much more, with a view it’s only as a last resort and people aren’t evicted into homelessness,” he said.

“As far as rent increases go, Australia could follow what’s been done in Ireland and Scotland recently, where the rate of increase is capped in so-called high-pressure rent zones where rent cannot increase by more than 4 per cent per annum.”

Academics Simone Casey and Liss Ralston, writing for The Conversation, say more than 2.6 million people will be below the poverty line this week and many will face extreme rental stress.

Their modelling shows affordable rent goes down to $115 per week for full-time and part-time single workers. That’s about $110 less than the $450 median rent ($225 per person) for a two-bedroom share house in Melbourne.

This would leave renters with $17.57 per day to meet basic costs.

“They have a lavish $3.57 per day more than they did before the pandemic to pay for food, utilities and job-seeking costs such as mobile phone plans and travel cards ($4.40 a day in Melbourne).”

They back a 50 per cent increase to the maximum rate of CRA, an increase to the JobSeeker base rate to get it above the poverty line, the introduction of rental stress grants and a new approach to increase the supply of affordable housing.

Read more: Housing boom will increase inequality

Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) is launching its first paid advertising campaign targeting those in financial distress.

FCA director of community engagement Maura Angle told The New Daily that people in financial distress should seek support sooner rather than later.

“Don’t suffer in silence, pick up the phone and call someone on the National Debt Helpline because financial counsellors are qualified and will give you free, independent and confidential assistance to get through this tough time,” Ms Angle said.

“A lot of people (coming off JobKeeper) have never had to seek this sort of help before. They’re not used to being in financial hardship. They’re not used to facing these sorts of obstacles.”

Ms Angle said financial counsellors:

  • offer guidance on debt management
  • advocate on consumers’ behalf to arrange reduced payments or payment plans with banks and utility providers
  • help clients understand government grants and hardship provisions specific to their circumstances.

What to do if your finances are under stress (The New Daily)

  • speak to a financial counsellor – services such as the National Debt Helpline, which are free to access, can be a great starting point
  • negotiate with your utility providers – internet, phone and energy companies may provide you with a better deal or a new payment plan
  • talk to the bank about your mortgage – switching to a lower interest rate or an interest-only loan can be useful, but make sure your lender does not increase your interest rate
  • make budget cuts where possible – cutting or putting a pause on non-essential items, such as subscriptions or gym memberships
  • find out what government assistance you are eligible for in addition to JobSeeker, such as rental support and carer’s payments or the Youth Allowance. The level of assistance you can access will depend on your income, assets and living circumstances.

The National Debt Helpline: 1800 007 007, ndh.org.au

Is the rate of JobSeeker realistic? Do you support any of the suggestions for addressing homelessness in Australia?

Read more: Older Aussies over-represented in homelessness figures

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Written by Will Brodie

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