The pandemic’s toll on renters has been laid bare in a new survey that shows tenants are going without meals or medication to keep a roof over their heads.
Despite the improving economy, Victorian tenants who have been out of work are facing a mountain of rent debt that will soon fall due as the eviction moratorium ends and income support is cut. This raises the prospect that some could lose their homes.
One in three respondents struggled to buy food, according to a new survey by the Renters and Housing Union released on Tuesday.
About 37 per cent found it hard to meet healthcare costs, such as medication, and one in 10 are in rent debt. More than two in five said rent-related stress was affecting their wellbeing, while a quarter needed to move out or felt pressured to move out due to rent stress, mounting debt or that their home was being sold.
The union surveyed 132 respondents, largely in Victoria, from January 15 to March 15. Despite the small sample size, the survey paints a picture of the precarious situation for many tenants.
“When JobSeeker is cut again in March I fear it will coincide with current estate agent raising rent,” one respondent wrote.
“I’m literally gutted and anxiety is so bad I’m a nervous wreck,” said another.
One respondent has “never been more stressed and unsettled and scared”, while others expressed concerns for their children or partners.
It follows a separate November report that estimated up to 973,000 renters nationally were in rent debt and at risk of eviction once moratoriums end.
Rent relief measures introduced at the height of the COVID-19 crisis last year encouraged landlords and tenants to agree to proportionate discounts or deferrals, depending on the renters’ loss of income. The Victorian government also offered grants towards rent payments.
But with moratoriums soon to end, some tenants are facing bills they will struggle to repay, particularly if their income has not fully recovered.
Renters and Housing Union secretary Eirene Tsolidis Noyce is concerned some tenants were being left behind even as the economy recovers, with the jobless rate last week falling to a better than expected 5.8 per cent.
“While the economy is starting to recover, there’s an expectation on the lowest-income renters to pay for that recovery and we stand firmly against that,” she said.
“There’s no possible way we can get out of this economic crisis by continuing to lean on those most vulnerable.
“We expect to see a continued increase in evictions.”
Survey respondents were facing rent debts of between $720 and $9000. But Ms Tsolidis Noyce has worked with tenants owing as much as $18,000 – often temporary visa holders who were not eligible for income support when they lost work yet could not move back to their home countries as international borders slammed shut.
The group is calling for the cancellation of rent debt and an extension of rental protections to stop evictions.
Both the Victorian government and the Real Estate Institute of Victoria have recently pointed to new rental laws coming into force next week designed to support renters facing eviction.
The NSW government recently unveiled a process of rent repayment plans, where tenants with rental arrears agree to a repayment schedule and can only be evicted if they fail to meet that plan.
But any similar program in Victoria would not be enough for those most affected, Ms Tsolidis Noyce said.
“The idea that $20,000 could be paid off in a payment plan in six months is not possible for the thousands of renters who have had no income for six months, or just started to get back shifts,” she said.
“Payment plans have a place, absolutely. But it’s not intended to address the level of debt we’re experiencing.”
She warned the COVID-19 crisis compounded the earlier underlying issue of unaffordable rents for Newstart recipients, welcoming the Victorian government’s investment in social housing but calling for a broader expansion of public housing and a bigger increase in unemployment benefits.