Tenants reminded of rental rights amid the bushfire crisis

This article originally appeared on Domain.com.au. Written by Kate Burke.


Renters whose homes have been damaged in the bushfires across the country are being reminded of their tenancy rights, although those whose properties are destroyed may face little option but to terminate their agreement.

As residents of fire-affected communities return home and take stock of the damage, tenant groups are hopeful both landlords and renters will be able to work out a way forward with goodwill.

More than 2240 homes have been destroyed or damaged in NSW alone this fire season, with hundreds lost across other parts of the country.

Already more than 6.3 million hectares have been burnt, while at least 24 people have died. Federal and state funds have been pledged in response.

Penny Carr, chief executive of Tenants Queensland, said tenancy disputes which arose following natural disasters generally applied to properties that were damaged, not destroyed.

“It’s more those grey [areas],” she said. “If the property was burnt down it’s clear the tenancy is going to end. Disputes often arise when one party wants to [terminate the lease] and the other doesn’t [because they think the property is OK].”

“Most of the time people work it out,” she added. “There are some things tenancy law doesn’t help with … but when the Brisbane floods came through in 2010 and 2011, there was a lot of community goodwill. It’s not really a tenant’s responsibility to clean up but most got out there and did their things to clean up.”

In NSW, the Tenants’ Union of New South Wales has already received a couple of calls from concerned tenants and chief executive Julie Foreman expected queries would pick up in the coming weeks.

“Some of you may have lost your rental accommodation to the fires or may have had your accommodation damaged,” the group posted this week. “As a tenant you have rights …at times like these.”

However, Ms Foreman added: “People only tell us when they things go wrong … [and] I think people, you would hope, on both sides are wanting to be reasonable during these difficult times.”

Urgent repairs should be made to a property by a landlord or agent as soon as safely possible, and can be arranged by a tenant if they cannot be contacted or are unwilling – they are then required to pay the tenant back for any reasonable costs up to $1000 within 14 days of a tenant’s notice.

“We don’t normally encourage that but it is under the law, [but] it’s very specific the steps you have to do, so we would really encourage people to get advice from their local tenants’ advice services,” said Ms Foreman.

If properties are wholly or partially uninhabitable, either a tenant or landlord can give the other party an immediate termination notice.

Landlords are not obliged to provide or pay for other accommodation, but tenants returning to damaged properties that they will continue to live in may be able to seek a rent reduction.

“If people are moving out temporarily for repairs … there may be situations for rent reduction and people should talk to the real estate agent or landlord,” Ms Foreman said.

Those ordered out of a property during a state emergency could also argue the home had been uninhabitable during that period and seek a rent abatement, she added.

Tenants Victoria has received a handful of calls from those affected by the bushfires, according to chief executive Jennifer Beveridge.

In Victoria, tenancies for destroyed or seriously damaged properties can be terminated by either the landlord or tenant – but if renters have not been able to assess the degree of damage yet, they may need to contact the landlord to end the tenancy by consent or explore other options.

Landlords do not have to help tenants find another place to live, nor compensate them for any damage to belongings that was beyond their control. However, they should attend to urgent repairs without delay – even if awaiting an insurance payout – with tenants able to apply to VCAT for a repair order if they are not done within two to three days.

Landlords could be liable for compensation if repairs are not done urgently and a tenant, for instance, had to stay in a hotel. If they cannot be contacted tenants can get urgent repairs done by a professional, up to the cost of $1800.

If you need assistance with a bushfire affected communities, visit the NSW Service website for more information.