For many Australians, these past years of COVID-19 and lockdowns have changed lives and ended careers. Financial hardships and family stresses have become routine experiences for many across the spectrum. Many people in this country will never own a home, and face ever increasing and exploitative rental markets.
Canberra is one of the very worst, not only for exploitation, but for its disregard for the distress and social impact it causes. The precarious reality of renting becomes apparent when agencies prioritise maximum profits and their own comforts over the lives and human rights of tenants. It is well known that the standards for repairs and cleanliness mysteriously rise when an owner is to take possession of their property, whereas for tenants they can accept the situation - be it long delays for repairs, aged interiors, rent increases, or someone being turned out into the street.
The threat of becoming homeless is now a reality for many working families renting in Canberra. High rents, high demand, few houses, and agencies eager to cash in on the social and financial vulnerability of others. Empathy for the financial hardships or family difficulties caused by lockdowns is not a priority. This is a sad state of affairs, and a terrible reflection of a society rotting from within.
Prior to receiving a notice to vacate (by December 2) my family had paid between $80,000 and $90,000 in rent on an older property. There was no warning, no real concern about what would happen to us. Get out. We applied for dozens of properties. The reality of being without a home became very real. We could not afford to store our belongings and accommodation. By pure luck we got a private rental, but an expensive one. I have been needed as a carer for my elderly mother who lives with us, and have not been working. The move took us three difficult days, and we cleaned and scrubbed the property. Both our sons took days off school each to help us. My elderly mother had to stay with a relative near Sydney for over a week.
Some areas were found by the agent to need additional cleaning and attention in the final inspection, all areas we could have addressed. We were told we would be provided information on what to remedy. We were not afforded the opportunity to do this, nor notified as to why. We had received no invoices, but the agency/owners wanted 100 per cent of our bond. This was the last pot of money we had for Christmas.
We voluntarily offered a deduction of money from our bond to meet reasonable costs (without seeing so much as an invoice), but this was rejected out of hand.
Throughout all of this, it has not gone beyond my notice that I, in monetary terms, was worth much more to my family dead than alive. No one should have to think like this. Situations like this are common, and they are evidence of a decaying society. A society where those that can most afford to have empathy - and the savings to not take more than they need - not only demand that they should have more than others, but that they should be entitled to take more than they could ever reasonably require.
This story is not sadly unique, nor is it isolated to renting. It is rampant across our society. It is in our politics, our universities, our offices and our financial institutions, and is the beating heart of corporations, lobbying and government. The wealthy and powerful do not suffer such indignities; only the vulnerable and those deemed too weak to resist are subjected to the blowtorch. This is renting in Canberra. But this is also a symbol of what our country has become, a place where increasingly the working and middle classes experience only debt, indignities, and an ever-growing diminishment of opportunities that no amount of hard work and effort can wind back. This is life in Australia.
In coming years, the wellbeing and health of citizens will need to be recentred at the core of our economic policies. Instead of profit being the first and only consideration, our economic policies need to place human rights (particularly those related to wellbeing, education and opportunities) in the most prominent position. This does not preclude the idea of profit, but does preclude the idea of ruthless profit at the expense of human rights. In housing, this could mean a radical reconsideration of what a home actually means. Working families can no longer afford rent, let alone purchase a home. There is ample room for reform.
A human-centred approach to renting, or even buying a first home, would mean reconsidering the endless ways citizens are undermined by crippling debt, and would encourage landlords and rental agencies not to exploit fellow citizens as cash cows and throw them away like rubbish when they are no longer useful. The time has come where some percentage of ever-increasing rents paid to owners and ruthless agencies will have to benefit those renting.
Agencies and owners could be made to set aside contributions (not dissimilar to superannuation) from the rent. This money (like superannuation) could be built up into savings with compound interest. If one pays $800 per week, this means a crippling $41,600 in rent for the entire year. Across three years, that is a staggering $124,800. If we deducted 15 per cent a year from this king's ransom ($6240), and placed it into a tenant opportunity fund that agencies and owners could not touch under any circumstances, this still allows both to plunder $106,080.
More than enough.
And we could let agencies/owners have the choice about whether they participate in such a scheme or not. Guess which rental agencies tenants will be more likely to choose? This will be the sacred market acting at its holiest level.
With compound interest of 5 per cent across the same three years, with an initial deposit of $0, the tenant would walk away with $19,672 at the end of three years of tenancy. If similar amounts were contributed to the opportunity fund in subsequent years, after six years (at $800 a week), a regular and reliable tenant could have accumulated over $42,444. In addition to superannuation, this could help transform the way we live, and change the way we view renting. Profit, sure, but people and ethics coming first. This would be a revolutionary and life-changing opportunity for millions of Australians now almost completely locked out from the so-called Australian dream.
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