Minimum standards and the Minister

Sunday’s media release from Minister for Housing and Public Works, the Hon Mick de Brenni cited the heart wrenching case of baby Isabella Diefenbach in outlining his support for the introduction of minimum standards in residential tenancies.

The introduction of minimum standards is not a cause for concern for reasonable investors but a safeguard for renters against those lessors unwilling to ensure their property is fit to live in for their tenants. A key to ensuring minimum standards are effective is taking away the responsibility from individual tenants to enforcing the law. Minimum standards should be enforced by a third party empowered to investigate alleged breaches, order rectifications, deliver sanctions, and provide public access to important records.

In 2012, following the sad and preventable death of baby Isabella in a rental property, the Queensland coroner made recommendations of a similar ilk – of particular interest are recommendations 4, 5, 6 and 11. Whilst the Property Agents and Motor Dealers Act has now been replaced by the Property Occupations Act 2014, the issues are the same. Now is the time to introduce some of these measures into Queensland tenancy laws.

The problem is that currently in-coming tenants often inherit properties in poor or inadequate standard, even if the previous tenants attempted to have the issues rectified. There is no real process or transparency linking repairs identified and what was done in response between ended tenancies and those which are prospective or just beginning. Once a tenancy has ended, there is no way for an exiting tenant to pursue the repairs they identified.

When a lessor or agent does not respond to the reasonable requests from a tenant regarding repairs, the responsibility rests entirely on that sitting tenant to pursue rectification orders in the Tribunal. It is well documented that many tenants are fearful of raising issues such as repairs for fear of being being asked to leave (without being given any grounds). Some live with the unresolved repairs as they have few alternatives, others move because they do not want to affect their tenancy record by making a fuss, don’t know what else to do, or are unwilling to live with the associated risk to their family. The repairs may remain unresolved and the issues start again with new tenants.

It is good to hear the Minister support the introduction of minimum standards in rental properties (an election promise and therefore a given for the current review of tenancy laws).  However these changes must include processes which give information to prospective tenants about the state of the property and take away the responsibility on them to ensure repairs are carried out to meet minimum standards.

The Minister released a second media statement on Sunday October 28, stating that 35,000 Queenslanders have participated in the review of tenancy law. It is heartwarming to hear a Minister so engaged that he is out door knocking and listening to people about their experiences of the rental market. To effect real change though there will be hard decisions to make. The industry will not give up power easily but a rebalancing of perspectives to consider the housing rights of renters is needed. We hope the Minister has the fortitude to follow through.

Read the full report from the coroner on the case of Isabella Diefenbach here.