An open letter on rental housing reform

The right of landlords to terminate a lease with no grounds is the most serious deficiency in residential tenancy laws in New South Wales. Shutterstock

Following a review of the New South Wales Residential Tenancies Act 2010 in 2016 and extended consultations, the NSW government has introduced a number of reforms to parliament. Debate is expected to occur this week. However, without reform to current eviction proceedings, many housing advocates have expressed concern that these generally good proposals will have little effect. Today, 45 housing researchers from a range of disciplines have signed the following open letter.

We are academics who research and teach about housing. We come from a range of disciplines – for example law, economics, social sciences, planning – and many of us have worked variously with housing providers, tenants’ groups and government agencies on housing issues. We have in common commitment to the principle that everyone should have a secure, affordable home of decent standard, whether they own or rent.

Too often, however, our rental housing sector fails to deliver on this principle. There are numerous reasons for this; one of them is the legal insecurity of tenants under current New South Wales residential tenancy laws. In particular, the provision for landlords to give termination notices, with no grounds, at the end of a fixed-term tenancy or during a continuing tenancy is contrary to genuine security.

“No grounds” termination notices give cover for bad reasons for seeking termination, such as retaliation and discrimination. The prospect that a “no grounds” termination notice may be given hangs over all tenancies, discouraging tenants from raising concerns with agents and landlords and undermining the legal rights otherwise provided for by their leases and the legislation.

The deficiencies of our current laws are becoming worse, as more households rent, and rent for longer into their lives. About 32% of NSW households rent and this proportion is growing. Over the five years to 2016, 63% of the net growth in the number of NSW households was households in rental housing. And 42% of NSW renter households include children.

Our deficient current laws are also increasingly out of step with tenancy laws in comparable jurisdictions. Many European countries, as well as most of the Canadian provinces and the largest US cities, do not provide for “no grounds” terminations by landlords.

Last year, Scotland reformed its tenancy laws to remove provisions for “no grounds” terminations and replace them with prescribed reasonable grounds for termination. In Australia, Tasmania has for some years not allowed “no grounds” terminations of continuing tenancies. This month, the Victorian Parliament amended its residential tenancies legislation to remove provision for “no grounds” termination notices for continuing tenancies and for fixed-term tenancies, except at the end of the first fixed term.

We call on the NSW state government to improve security for renters, by legislating to end no-grounds termination by landlords and providing instead for a prescribed set of reasonable grounds for terminations.

These reasonable grounds would include grounds already in the legislation, such as rent arrears and other breaches by the tenant, and sale of the premises, as well as new grounds, such as where the landlord needs the premises for their own housing, and where the premises are to be renovated, demolished or changed to a non-residential use.

The prescribed reasonable grounds should have different notice periods, reflecting their different degrees of urgency and priority. Proceedings on notices should go, as they currently do, to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, and the tribunal should determine whether the ground exists and whether termination is justified in all the circumstances.

This reform would make all tenants feel more secure, without unduly restricting landlords in reasonable uses of their properties. The only inconvenience would be to the retaliators, the discriminators and those who cannot cope with even a modest level of accountability. If the reform prompted these landlords to leave the sector, they would sell to a new home owner or to a more professionally minded landlord – either of which is to the good.

There is more to be done across a range of policy areas to improve the functioning of all aspects of our housing system. We need more accessible home ownership, a differently structured and more professional market rental sector and a revitalised social housing sector. These changes require a comprehensive housing policy, coordinated across areas and levels of government and carried out over a long term.

But, in tenancy law, the single most important reform is ending “no grounds” termination by landlords. And the parliament could do it now.

Signatories

Dr Chris Martin, Research Fellow, Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales

Professor Brendan Edgeworth, Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales

Professor Chris Gibson, Human Geography, University of Wollongong

Professor Keith Jacobs, Director, Housing Community Research Unit, University of Tasmania

Professor Alan Morris, Institute for Public Policy and Governance, University of Technology, Sydney

Professor Kath Hulse, Director Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology

Professor Hal Pawson, Housing Research and Policy, University of New South Wales

Professor Pauline McGuirk, Director Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Wollongong

Professor Peter Phibbs, Urban Planning, The University of Sydney

Professor Bill Randolph, Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales

Professor Eileen Webb, Faculty of Business and Law, Curtin University

Adjunct Professor Michael Darcy, School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Western Sydney University

Associate Professor Hazel Easthope, Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales

Associate Professor Daphne Habibis, School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania

Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, Urban Geography, The University of Sydney

Associate Professor Kristian Ruming, Department of Geography and Planning, Macquarie University

Associate Professor Judith Yates, School of Economics, The University of Sydney

Dr Gareth Bryant, Political Economy, The University of Sydney

Dr Nicole Cook, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Wollongong

Dr Louise Crabtree, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

Dr Laura Crommelin, Research Lecturer, Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales

Dr Tanja Dreher, Associate Professor, School of Arts and Media, University of New South Wales

Dr Christina Ho, Senior Lecturer, Social & Political Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney

Dr Justine Humphry, Lecturer in Digital Cultures, Department of Media and Communications, The University of Sydney

Dr Edgar Liu, Senior Research Fellow, Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales

Dr Sophia Maalsen, IB Fell Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, The University of Sydney

Dr Daniel Ooi, Research Fellow, Victoria University

Dr Justine Lloyd, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Macquarie University

Dr Jean Parker, Research Associate, Department of Gender and Culture Studies, The University of Sydney

Dr Madeleine Pill, Researcher, Department of Government and International Relations, The University of Sydney

Dr Emma Power, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

Dr Dallas Rogers, Program Director, Master of Urbanism, The University of Sydney

Dr Ben Spies-Butcher, Senior Lecturer, Economy and Society, Macquarie University

Dr Adam Stebbing, Director of Bachelor of Social Science, Department of Sociology, Macquarie University

Dr Amanda Tattersall, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Henry Halloran Trust, The University of Sydney

Dr Lawrence Troy, Research Fellow, Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales

Dr Robert Mowbray, Older Persons Project Officer, Tenants’ Union NSW

Deb Batterham, Researcher, Launch Housing

Zahra Nasreen, Researcher, Department of Geography and Planning, Macquarie University

Pratichi Chatterjee, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Science, The University of Sydney

Sophie-May Kerr, PhD Candidate, University of Wollongong

Craig Lyons, PhD Candidate, School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, University of Wollongong

Gemma McKinnon, Researcher, University of New South Wales

Bill Swannie, Academic, College of Law and Justice, Victoria University

Alistair Sisson, PhD Candidate & Research Assistant, School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney