Sunday, 23 December 2012

Fighting the System: The Landlord’s Minions?

Despite Matt’s best efforts, problems with Wantirna 'Professionals' continued two and a half months after the original complaint was submitted to Ms Hunter. As I have discussed previously, Matt and his family had experienced major problems with the property they were renting. There were numerous issues including leaking gutters, broken stove, dripping taps, and broken fly screens.

Despite numerous phone calls and emails, repairs had still not been carried out. At this point, I think we can see that Ms Hunter is employing a deliberate strategy. Matt says, ‘Some repair issues have been solved after we repeatedly requesting the agent, but some are still remaining or suspending. The agent just simply sent their tradesman to check and then no follow-up, no result, and no feedback like the fly-screens (finally fixed). They also sent someone to do some tiny repair which doesn't really fix the problem like the gutters’.

Minor repairs are carried out so it looks like action is being taken to keep the property in working order. Or band-aid solutions are applied to major faults which don’t fix the fundamental problem. Or tradespeople are sent to obtain quotes for repairs with no real intention of following through. Or cheap and useless alternatives are offered so it looks like efforts are being made to negotiate a compromise.

I think I have a fairly good understanding of human nature. If you put enough roadblocks on someone’s path, most will simply give up. But Matt didn’t give up. He sought advice from the Tenants Union of Victoria and served the real estate agency with a Notice for Breach of Duty. Ms Hunter finally got her act together and sent a repairman to fix the flyscreens and gutters. But the burners were not fixed. And the gutters continued to leak.

And then the truth came out sometime mid-March. The property manager actually admits that the landlord does not want to carry out repairs because she is going to demolish the house and build an apartment block. Accordingly, the repair of the automatic ignition is an ‘unnecessary expense’. First of all, I can’t believe she actually puts this in writing. And secondly, it shows the level of respect this property manager has for tenancy law.

So I looked at section 68(1) of the Residential Tenancies Act 1997 (Vic). It clearly states, ‘A landlord must ensure that the premises are maintained in good repair’. I can’t believe I have to say this. A landlord should still comply with legal obligations despite commercial rationale. So in this situation, we can see that business considerations are at play. If premises are unfit for human habitation, then they should not be made available for lease in the first place. Tenancy is a business, and landlords should be held accountable.

In other situations, sometimes landlords say they can’t afford to carry out repairs. The rental market is dominated by ‘mum and pop’ investors but this doesn’t make tenancy any less of a business. Renting should not just be an easy way to make cash, it’s a responsibility. And quite frankly, if you can’t afford to comply with legislative requirements, then you should find somewhere else to invest. Attitudes need to change, and the law has a role to play.

The other day, I popped into my local council to apply for a parking permit. By the time I returned to my car, I had received a parking fine. I bitched and moaned. I said to the parking inspector, ‘Look, I can’t afford this'. And you know what. He didn’t care and I still have to pay for the damn fine. When it comes to tenancy law, if a landlord says they’re broke, they can get away with not maintaining properties. But if you get a parking fine, you know you have to come up with the money, or you will be penalised.

After Matt and his family vacated the property, he submitted a complaint about Ms Hunter to Victoria Consumer Affairs.
He said the property was ‘not fit for human habitation’ and the agent had ‘engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct’. The problem is that Consumer Affairs Victoria encourages voluntary resolution of a dispute and does not possess the power to make binding resolutions under law. The process is redundant when tenants give up and move out. There is nothing to stop real estate agencies from repeatedly facilitating breaches of residential tenancies laws.
Property managers and real estate agencies should be subject to enforceable duties under the Residential Tenancies Act 1997 (Vic). A central regulatory body should have the power to impose fines to punish and deter unethical conduct. So in this situation, Ms Hunter would be deterred from simply renting out the property again to someone else in the same condition.
The prevailing public perception of tenants is that of a ‘dead-beat’ with no job or prospects for the future. Clearly, Matt does not fit this stereotype. He is a dedicated IT professional with a young family. As the law stands, property managers and real estate agencies are mere minions. This needs to change. Mr Burns: 'Fly my pretties, fly!'

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