Huon Manningdale, of Braddon, wasn't sure if he would get a rent reduction when he and his partner applied for one last month.
"My partner got her hours reduced, her job is getting JobKeeper so she went to 80 per cent of her normal hours," he said.
"We decided we should ask for a 20 per cent reduction and really hoped to get that."
To Mr Manningdale's surprise his landlord came back with a 25 per cent reduction.
"I was a bit in disbelief... it was a really nice thing for them to do," he said.
With a 25 per cent reduction, Mr Manningdale's landlord would be able to claim a tax rebate, as part of the ACT government's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The ACT government's rent reduction scheme was announced as part of the government's second tranche of economic measures targeted at those financially impacted by the virus.
The scheme is targeted at landlords who receive rebates of up to $100 a week on land tax and residential rates if they reduce the rent of a tenant financially impacted by COVID-19 by at least 25 per cent.
A slow landing for take up
As of May 28, there had been 439 applications for rent reductions in the territory, an ACT government spokeswoman said.
Take up for the rent reduction scheme had a slow landing. It was announced on April 2 but three weeks later fewer than 100 landlords had signed up to the scheme. A select Legislative Assembly committee into the government's COVID-19 response heard landlords were reluctant to sign up as it could affect their insurance coverage.
However, a week later this number more than doubled as 203 landlords had signed up to the scheme as of May 1, Chief Minister Andrew Barr told a committee hearing.
Two weeks later, on May 16, 354 applications had been received.
Real Estate Institute of the ACT board member and Independent managing director of property management Hannah Gill said before a framework had been released many landlords were apprehensive.
"Until the framework was announced about what a COVID-affected or COVID-impacted household was there was a lot of confusion and owners were wondering whether claims were valid or warranted," she said.
"I think now there's a framework around measuring what's an impacted household, it's given an investor a lot of confidence to have those conversations and get good outcomes."
On April 15, the ACT government published a series of fact sheets, which outlined the obligations of tenants, landlords and real estate agents.
A household was deemed financially impacted by COVID-19 if a member had become eligible for the JobSeeker or JobKeeper payment on or after March 20 or where the household income had dropped by at least 25 per cent.
Along with the rent reduction scheme, the government has placed a moratorium on evictions related to rental arrears acquired from the economic fallout of the pandemic.
While there has been an uptick in the number of applicants in recent weeks, 8700 Canberrans lost their job in April, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures.
Some tenants hesitant to ask
Some tenants have been hesitant to ask for a rental reduction, advocacy group Better Renting had heard.
"A lot of these people don't feel secure enough that they want to bring up this issue with their landlord," Better Renting executive director Joel Dignam said.
"At this time a lot of people need ways to reduce their living expenses and rent is often the single largest expense, that model of negotiating with their landlord isn't readily available to these people."
Sarah* was one such renter who did not broach the topic with her property manager. She lives in a house in Canberra's inner north with her family.
"We decided against it, because we don't want to put anything at risk in terms of creating any concerns in the mind of our property manager or our landlords that we wouldn't be able to pay the rent," Sarah said.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic she was working two jobs but one was forced to close and she had to go on JobKeeper for the other one. Sarah said there was little prospect she would be able to return to the job forced to close.
Sarah is on a month-to-month lease agreement and while the ACT government has enacted a moratorium on evictions for people financially impacted by COVID-19, she was worried her landlord could give another reason, such as moving back into the home.
"Our landlord lives overseas but I am acutely aware at any time they could decide they want to return from overseas and move in, or they might have a family member who for whatever reason wants to move in," she said.
The moratorium in place by the ACT government only prevents tenants from being evicted due to rental arrears that are COVID-19 related.
Landlords have to prove genuine intention
If a tenant is on a periodic tenancy, a landlord can issue an eight or 12 week notice to vacate if they have "genuine intention" to move back in, Legal Aid ACT chief executive John Boersig said.
These could include to move back into a property, move a family member in or sell the property, all of which require eight weeks notice, or if they want to renovate, which requires 12 weeks notice.
But Mr Boersig said a landlord would have to prove their reason and the tenant would have a right to appeal via the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
"If a landlord is claiming a genuine intention to move back into the property, or to move a family member or interested person into the property, they must also provide a signed statutory declaring bolstering the genuineness of their intention," he said.
"Even if the notice to vacate is issued, the tenant can refuse to vacate and require the landlords to put the matter to a hearing before ACAT, at which time a tenant could call into question the genuineness of the landlord's intentions by providing that the notice to vacate was retaliatory for the landlord being asked to make a rent reduction."
There could possibly be a circumstance where a landlord may be able to sell a property if it is no longer financially viable due to a decrease in rent, Mr Boersig said.
"Even though the notice to vacate is linked to the rental reduction request, ACAT could find that there is a genuine cost-benefit analysis underlying the notice to vacate that isn't necessarily retaliatory in nature," he said.
Demand for services
Legal Aid ACT runs the territory's tenancy advice service. Mr Boersig said there had been an "exponential" increase in demand for the service.
Since February there had been a 400 per cent increase in tenancy-related calls to the organisation. Part of this was due to Legal Aid ACT taking over the running of a government-funded service in March but also there a 63 per cent month-on-month jump in April, with close to 400 calls to the service.
Earlier this month, ACT Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay announced the Conflict Resolution Service would provide a free mediation service for tenants and landlords who could not reach an agreement. Tenants, landlords and real estate agents had previously liaised discussions around a reduction.
The service had already received great demand just days after going live.
Both parties must agree to partake in mediation and the Conflict Resolution Service would explore other options such as a rental freeze agreement. This would mean any rental arrears accrued during this time would be required to be paid back.
Ms Gill said it was good to have other options on the table.
"The land tax rebate scheme isn't a one-size-fits-all, it won't suit every investor based on their financial circumstances," she said.
"In any sort of instance it's good to have multiple options so the individual can get advice on what best suits for their situation."
But Mr Dignam did not agree with rent deferrals.
"We don't think deferrals should be on the table as an option, it's not a good faith offer from the landlord and effectively it is just putting the renters into debt," he said.
Any unpaid rent during the moratorium is accrued and has to be paid back. If a rent reduction has been agreed to, a tenant would not acquire the difference in arrears, this would only apply to any unpaid rent.
In an interim report, the ACT Legislative Assembly select committee recommended the government develop a framework for the repayment of rental arrears accrued during the eviction moratorium.
As well, the committee recommended ACT government create a plan to prohibit a landlord from evicting tenants for these debts, when the moratorium has been lifted.
For Mr Manningdale, he wanted to urge tenants in a similar position to ask their property manager or landlord.
"If you don't ask for it, you can't get it so I would encourage people to see what you can get, landlords are a bit more reasonable then you may expect," he said.
* Not her real name.