The federal government is considering what measures it will put in place to support renters and landlords during the coronavirus emergency period - but Tasmania has led the country with its legislation to prevent rental evictions during this time.
Tenant's Union of Tasmania senior solicitor Ben Bartl said calls to the union have doubled in the past two weeks, from renters concerned about their ability to meet rent after losing their jobs.
He congratulated the Tasmanian Parliament on passing "nation-leading" laws.
"While the rest of Australia's governments are grappling with how to protect residential tenants, the Tasmanian government has already passed nation-leading protections," he said.
The Tenant's Union Of Tasmania can provide specific advice for your individual circumstance, and can be reached on (03) 6223 2641. But here is your general guide to the landscape in Tasmania for renters during the Covid-19 period.
Can I be evicted if I can't pay rent?
No. The Tasmanian parliament has passed laws making it illegal to evict renters - for both residential homes, and commercial businesses - until June 30. There is also the possibility for that to be extended depending on need.
You can't be evicted for any reason during this period for failure to pay rent or end of lease, but you can be evicted if you are engaging in criminal activity or if you damage the property.
This also applies if you've been served a notice to vacate but you haven't actually left the property yet - you can't be forced out until June 30 at the earliest.
What should I do if I can't pay rent?
You should seek to negotiate lowering your rental payments with your landlord, via your real estate agent if you are using one. You should explain how you have been affected by Covid-19 and why you are unable to to pay the full rate of rent.
Most landlords are in a position to lower or waive rents because most banks have offered "mortgage holidays" to their customers. Many landlords use rental payments from tenants to pay off the mortgage on the property, but at the moment, they have the option of pausing their repayments if they have suffered a loss of income due to Covid-19 - including their tenants being unable to pay rent. Most banks have offered delaying mortgage loan repayments for either three or six months to their customers.
You should discuss with your landlord the amount of rent you are able to pay taking into your account your expenses against the amount of income you are receiving - whether that be through Centrelink, a wage subsidy, or the level of work you have during the Covid-19 period.
You - or your real estate agent - can then amend your lease agreement with what you and your landlord have agreed you will pay during the crisis.
"State and commonwealth governments have said both tenants and landlords are going to have to tighten their belts," Mr Bartl said.
"What we would like to see is a recognition that everyone is losing out here, so ideally, it would be the case that for the length of this emergency period, the rental agreement should be amended so that the tenant only has to pay what they can sustainably afford."
The only way to make changes to the agreements that were already in place is by mutual agreement - so your landlord can't raise rent without your permission either.
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What if my landlord says no?
If your landlord will not agree to either lower or waive your rent to meet your circumstances they will not be able to evict you. But you will owe them the money you have not paid in rent. You will be expected to pay the landlord that money back.
There are several options being discussed by the federal government which may be put into place nationally.
One is a HECS-style system where the government would immediately cover the cost of the rent you haven't paid, and you would be required to pay the government back over time. Another possibility is the government offering tax incentives for landlords who take into account their tenants' circumstances. But at the moment, this is just speculation.
What if I have somewhere cheaper to live?
If you know of somewhere you can live that would be cheaper for you - for example, moving in with family - you can apply to the Residential Tenancy Commissioner to break a fixed term lease due to hardship.
The commissioner will expect that you have attempted to negotiate with your landlord first, and says it should be considered a last resort.
You can apply for an order to break a fixed term lease via the Consumer, Building and Occupational Services website, at cbos.tas.gov.au You can also call the Tenant's Union of Tasmania on (03) 6223 2641 who can give you advice and talk you through the process.
Am I allowed to move into a rental property at this time?
Yes. But this is not advised unless it is necessary for your circumstances as it would make it harder to follow social distancing rules while in the process of moving.
Can the landlord or representatives of the landlord still come onto my property?
The only reason landlords, real estate agents or tradespeople can come onto your property are for: urgent or emergency repairs, if the owner believes there is a risk to the health and safety of the tenant, or if the owner believes that not gaining access will result in damage to the premises.
General inspections, property walkthroughs, and general maintenance and renovations are not permitted by law until the emergency period lifts.
Who is falling through the cracks?
With the federal government doubling the Newstart - now called Jobseeker - Centrelink payment as well as introducing a wage subsidy to help businesses keep paying staff, most Tasmanians should be able to afford to pay at least some of their rent.
The exception is people from other countries who had the legal right to work in Australia, but are not eligible for the Jobseeker payment or wage subsidies, and can not return home due to many international borders being closed. They can not be evicted, but there is the potential for them to accrue a huge debt if they remain in their rental properties and their landlords do not agree to waive their rent.
"The average rent is about $400 ... times that by three or six months, that's a lot of money," Mr Bartl said.
Mr Bartl also said that, as the law stands, there is the potential for landlords to serve notices to vacate en masse after the emergency period lifts.
"I think probably what's going to happen in a lot of cases is the landlord is going to say, 'I'm happy to reduce your rent, but I expect you to pay me back the difference'," he said.
"So, say $100, every week, for three months, that's going to be about $1500. And the law states that if you're in rental arrears the landlord can serve a notice to vacate, and you have 14 days to pay it and then the landlord can kick you out.
"So, there might be a rush of landlords seeking to kick their tenant out at the end of the emergency period, and the tenant being unable to pay it all back in those 14 days - if the state and federal governments don't step up to the plate and offer something to landlords to prevent evictions then."
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