International students have experienced terrible and sometimes illegal behaviour from landlords during the coronavirus pandemic, student representatives at Australian National University say.
In a submission to the ACT select committee on the COVID-19 pandemic response, the ANU Postgraduate and Research Students' Association (PARSA) said overseas students were especially vulnerable and often didn't know how to enforce their rights.
A survey of members found 65 per cent of international students had suffered financial hardship during the health crisis compared to 42 per cent of domestic students. Of those who had suffered financially, 28 per cent of respondents who lived off campus had their request for a rent decrease denied. Only 6 per cent had negotiated a rent reduction that would not need to be paid back.
For all students who rented off campus, 35 per cent had experienced a landlord or property manager doing or attempting to do something inappropriate or illegal during the pandemic.
PARSA president Utsav Gupta said international students faced a power imbalance as tenants.
"One key finding that we got throughout the survey is that there's a lack of awareness of various laws which are there to protect these tenants and I believe a lot of the time landlords don't share the relevant information with these tenants which can be a bit of a problem."
In one case, students believed a landlord who told them to not flush toilet paper down the toilet and instead take turns emptying the bin with soiled toilet paper because they mistakenly thought the tenants had to pay to fix any blockage.
Students reported instances where they were told to cover the rent of students who had moved out despite being on separate leases. Some rooms were rented out when a student was unable to return from overseas.
Some landlords had decreased rent temporarily but marked the tenant as being in arrears, affecting their ability to rent in the future. Other tenants felt bullied to move out and break their leases or were threatened with eviction as soon as the moratorium had lifted.
"Even if they do choose to pursue it with the tribunal, the actual options for them are very limited beyond terminating their lease, which would potentially leave them homeless in a pandemic," PARSA vice-president Elena Sheard said.
PARSA made five recommendations to the ACT government, including introduction of a service similar to the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria, fines for landlords and property managers who breach the terms of the lease and legislation to waive the right to compensation for landlords when tenants leave due to proven financial hardship.
Real Estate Institute of the ACT chief executive Michelle Tynan said the institute had not received any reports of this type of behaviour by its members, who represent 70 per cent of ACT landlords. The institute's data from May 29 showed in cases where tenants had applied for rental assistance, 87 per cent of landlords had agreed to a reduction in rent, 11.5 per cent agreed to a deferral of rent and 1.5 per cent of applications were unresolved.
Ms Tynan said establishing a dispute settlement centre would be a duplication of the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT) and that it was reasonable for some requests to take longer to resolve during the pandemic than under normal circumstances.
"To legislate the right to waive compensation for landlords when tenants are leaving due to proven financial hardship could very well see some landlords face a far worse financial outcome".