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Residential tenants in Victoria should soon be able to sign leases for more than five years. But as Queensland moves to strengthen building standards for rental properties, concerns have been raised that Victoria risks lagging behind.

The Victorian government said its Residential Tenancies Amendment (Long-Term Tenancy Agreements) Bill 2017, introduced into parliament this week, would “pave the way for new long-term tenancy agreements and an online matching service for landlords and tenants”.

The current Act only allows for leases of up to five years, but the changes will allow landlords and tenants to enter into longer agreements.

The move comes as the latest Census data reveals a jump in the number of renters in Victoria to 1.5 million, or 28.7 per cent of the state, and demographic change and a housing affordability crisis meaning that renting can be long-term or lifelong. Numbers of renters have grown by 20,000 a year each year since 2011, and by 220,000 over the past two decades.

“Long-term leases will give tenants the stability, certainty and time they need to make their house into a home,” Premier Daniel Andrews said.

Consumer affairs minister Marlene Kairouz said there were too many families having to move house-to-house because they could not find a long-term lease.

“The new online matching service will connect tenants and landlords, making it easier for people interested in long-term leases to get the certainty they want,” she said.

Changes could further erode rights

Further rental law reform is expected to be implemented by the government as part of its Fairer Safer Housing review of the Residential Tenancies Act, and could include introducing mandatory minimum property standards; removing “no reason” eviction notices; allowing reasonable modifications; and introducing a “reasonableness test” for all evictions.

However, a group of 54 community, legal rights, council and consumer advocate organisations, coming together as Make Renting Fair, have signed an open letter to the premier and consumer affairs minister warning that some changes on the table could further erode rental rights.

They include:

  • making evictions quicker and easier in many cases
  • new enforcement of arbitrary and potentially onerous lease terms
  • allowing owners and agents easier access to visit and photograph dwellings
  • implementing an additional bond payment for pets
  • placing restrictions on guest stays

Minimum efficiency standards need to be included

The open letter also calls for minimum efficiency standards to be imposed for rental dwellings.

“Failing to commit to minimum efficiency standards will also continue to leave renters exposed to significant and increasing energy hardship and health impacts,” it states.

Environment Victoria, one of the signatories to the letter, said the government’s focus on rental rights represented a chance to help lift vulnerable renters out of fuel poverty.

“While many home-owners are beating rising energy prices by improving efficiency and cutting waste, there’s little incentive for landlords to do the same because they’re not responsible for paying the energy bills,” Environment Victoria efficiency campaigner Anne Martinelli said.

The government’s option paper released earlier this year did reference imposing mandatory minimum standards so that rental properties satisfied “basic levels of safety, amenity and sustainability before they are leased out”, and Environment Victoria is pushing to have energy efficiency as an explicit requirement in any reform.

Ms Martinelli told The Fifth Estate that standards could be introduced at a “reasonably low level and progress over time”, and could involve “tick-the-box” exercises such as making sure a dwelling had insulation and energy efficiency lighting.

Queensland sets higher targets for energy efficiency, ventilation and insulation

She pointed to Queensland as a state that had earlier this month introduced legislation to enable minimum housing standards, which explicitly mentioned energy efficiency, ventilation and insulation.

Queensland housing minister Mick de Brenni said the changes would protect people from exploitation and substandard accommodation.

“It’s a concern that people can rent a property where the amenities don’t work,” Mr de Brenni said.

“I’m concerned that this creates a system where vulnerable Queenslanders can be forced to live in homes where basic services and amenities don’t work, and they have little recourse to do anything about it.

“Our amendments will enable new minimum standards to be set around ventilation, cleanliness, protection from damp, the dimensions of rooms, laundry and cooking facilities and privacy and security amongst others.”

Additional regulation would determine at what level those mandatory standards were set.

Ms Martinelli said the Queensland example showed that having minimum energy efficiency standards for rental accommodation was “do-able”.

“The only way to fix this problem is to require rental homes to have basic efficiency measures like insulation, draught-sealing or a low-flow shower head in place before they can be rented.”

The Fairer Safer Housing reforms are set to be introduced into parliament in early 2018.

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