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We should never lose our homes in an emergency



In times of crisis, home is the safest place to be. The nature of the COVID-19 crisis in particular means that to keep ourselves and our communities safe, we must stay at home. The UN Special Rapporteur for Housing says our homes have become the ‘front line defence against the coronavirus’.

Main image: Woman in house (Getty Images/Basak Gurbuz Derman)

But as up to a million jobs disappear and the people who worked them struggle to access Centrelink in person or online, our homes suddenly don’t seem so safe. A third of private renters are already in housing stress and 30 per cent don’t have $500 in savings. For many, the next rent payment is past due, their landlords won’t negotiate, and there’s a sense of panic in the air.

Governments have been unable to avoid enacting measures to support people to keep their homes. In Australia, following pressure from a from a community coalition led by tenants’ unions and homelessness organisations, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that states and territories will be imposing a six-month moratorium on evictions of tenants impacted by COVID-19. A number of states, cities, and counties in the United States led by mayors and governors from both major parties had already suspended evictions, as had the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

So it would seem that many of us, on all sides of politics, agree that evicting someone from their home because an emergency circumstance beyond their control has affected their ability to pay their rent on time is morally questionable at best. And yet, before COVID-19, this was something we allowed to happen all the time.

We have an epidemic of evictions in Australia. ‘Housing crisis‘ — which includes events like evictions and sudden rent increases causing rental arrears — is the third most common cause of homelessness in Victoria and the fastest growing cause of homelessness nationwide, rising 32 per cent between 2015 and 2017.

Tens of thousands of eviction applications are made by landlords every year, and the vast majority of these are not for damage, nuisance, or use for illegal purpose, but for simple rental arrears. In 2017-18 in Victoria and New South Wales alone, landlords applied to evict 47,962 households. 37,772 — nearly 80 per cent — of those eviction applications were lodged because the household had fallen behind on their rent.


'If we agree that no one should lose their home when a global health crisis has cut their hours, then let’s agree that no one should lose their safe place to shelter because they’ve been made redundant, or because they had a series of unexpected healthcare expenses.'


Even worse, many of those evicted are people who will find it hardest to find homes again. Public housing authorities are two to four times more likely to try and evict their tenants than private landlords. As a result, the number of people being evicted directly into homelessness has more than doubled over the past five years. In Victoria, some of the most shocking cases have included the Department of Health and Human Services evicting a woman with an acquired brain injury because the sound of her partner abusing her represented a ‘nuisance’ breach.

Like so many of the other social norms exposed by COVID-19, it doesn’t need to be this way. Australia’s private rental market has been progressively deregulated since the 1950s, but other countries have started to demand more from private landlords.

In Scotland, for example, landlords have to satisfy a ‘reasonableness requirement’ for evicting a tenant. As part of that process they are required to complete a ‘pre-eviction checklist’ that shows they considered alternatives to eviction, spoke to the tenant about the issue to which the planned eviction relates, worked with the tenant to consider alternatives to eviction such as payment plans or a temporary rent freeze, or referred the tenant to support services or financial counselling. The checklist reduced evictions by 33 per cent in its first year.

If we agree that no one should lose their home when a global health crisis has cut their hours, then let’s agree that no one should lose their safe place to shelter because they’ve been made redundant, or because they had a series of unexpected healthcare expenses, or because their social security payment was frozen through no fault of their own, or any one of the countless other emergencies that deplete our savings and make that next rent payment harder to meet. Let’s extend protections against eviction past the COVID-19 crisis into a future where we recognise that our homes are more than a financial asset for our landlords.



Abigail LewisAbigail Lewis is a Research Associate and Communications Manager at public policy think tank Per Capita. Her policy research areas include social policy, social security, social housing, and social justice. She tweets at @AbigailLLew

Main image: Main image: Woman in house (Getty Images/Basak Gurbuz Derman)

Topic tags: Abigail Lewis, housing, evictions, rent, COVID-19



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Existing comments

It does seems PM Morrison's announcement of moratorium was either ill-timed or ill-conceived; there are too many property ownership models for a "one size fits all" solution; the various States have difficulty implementing associated laws; the hiatus gives landlords the opportunity to act in different ways, some of which will seem evil. Frequently landlords own several properties and rely on these investments for income so a cessation of rent can put them in dire financial situations, particularly if welfare is means tested; grey nomads who rented their homes while they travelled are now faced with being displaced despite that they may own a home. The Federal government can assert pressure or give incentives to property owners through negative gearing; it's directly under Fed jurisdiction and can be applied to all states and territories through the ATO... back to your court Scomo.

ray | 23 April 2020  

When I retired a couple of years ago from Toowoomba I chose to live in Darra, a lower socio-economic suburb within 15 kms of the Brisbane CBD. A number of factors played a role in my decision: affordability, the state of my health, proximity to care facilities, family and friends, and the vibrancy of a multicultural community with eating houses and a lovely reserve. The neighbouring suburbs were more expensive as well as only affordable for those with the income to invest in home-improvements unaffordable on my limited, post-divorce, income-source. Moreover as a social scientist of colour, I could see beyond the superficial niceties that typecast residential address, and typical of the remark of a Vice-Chancellor friend, who, when I told her where I had bought, exclaimed; "Oh, Michael; you didn't!" Little did I realise that my home would be surrounded by five others at least one of which was statistically likely to constitute a problem. When new neighbours moved in I greeted them with a gift and within seconds their ghetto-blaster was turned on. Fourteen months and 50 police calls later they chose eviction rather than turn their amplifier down! While I deeply empathise, you paint a one-sided picture.

Dr Michael Furtado | 24 April 2020  

Michael Furtado: “While I deeply empathise, you paint a one-sided picture.” The arc of the geographical universe (from Alipore to Darra, via Oxford ---- and perhaps even Tiperrary?) is long but, if it is also a moral arc, it must bend towards justice. How is a noisy tenant equivalent in justice to a penurious one?

roy chen yee | 26 April 2020  

Shelter, (a home), food, clean water and weekly income are basic human rights. Until governments around the world including Australia, neglect facilitating these basic human rights. How can each politician justify his/her very high income and privilege life style (even if going to overseas for holidays, is not on for the moment) without feeling ashamed? There are some things that money can’t buy, one of which is integrity.

AO | 27 April 2020  

Wealthy politicians show the homeless their scars, when they say, "we are all in this together", and in return pretend the homeless have none.

AO | 28 April 2020  

A critical question, Roy, and one that I have contemplated deeply over the history that you traverse, especially to confront the plethora of gaps in my discourse. When I was compelled by force of circumstance to live in Darra, it dawned that I was one of 'them', different only (and, even then, 'perhaps') in respect of my qualification profile and the wealth of opportunity, as well as failures and misfortunes and also the injustices as well as the consequences of my many misdoings, indeed the totality of my life-experience encountered. After my third consecutive sleepless night, with windows shut and the air-conditioner on full blast occasioned by the curious behaviour of my neighbour, I took the precise quandary you so exquisitely pose to my mentor, Garry Everett, social justice practitioner extraordinaire, whose son is a police officer and who himself is a bastion of Vinnies Ipswich, where the housing crisis is acute and he houses at least three families a week. Garry helped me discern that it was the noise factor - not the intention to evict - that was my focus. I corroborated this with my daughter, Camille, who works for Crisis Care, Scotland. Thanks for your necessary interrogation.

Michael Furtado | 28 April 2020  

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