Lockdown has shown the Western Australian community once again the importance of having a home to stay safe and well and to reduce the spread of transmission of COVID-19.
The Residential Tenancies (COVID-19 Response) Act 2020 put into place a moratorium on evictions and other measures relating to residential tenancies to address the financial impacts of COVID-19. On Sunday, 28 March 2021 the COVID-19 emergency period ended, meaning the ordinary tenancy laws under the Residential Tenancies Act 1987 apply again.
On Thursday, 1 April 2021, Shelter WA in partnership with the Real Estate Institute of Western Australia (REIWA) convened a cross-sector roundtable to discuss the impact of the moratorium ending on people in the private rental market; and to develop immediate and longer-term solutions to mitigate impact and harm during this period of market adjustment. The meeting was attended by government and industry representatives, community services providing private tenancy support services, a selection of community housing providers and regional services.
The Housing Emergency Response Group
On the day of the roundtable, a Housing Emergency Response Group was created to initiate and drive immediate solutions to the rental crisis.
The Housing Emergency Response Group (HERG) held its first meeting on 20 April 2021, with the purpose to prevent a new wave of homelessness and address the severe levels of housing insecurity in the community.
HERG members identified and agreed on the following points:
The emerging housing crisis demands a whole of government response.
- The immediate priority must be:
- Supporting people (financially) to remain in their rental homes; and
- Ensuring people who have had to leave their rental home are not exiting into homelessness.
- Services are seeing increasing levels of requests from people who cannot pay their rent and/or are being evicted and cannot find an affordable home.
- There is acute concern for the welfare of children and women living in a family and domestic violence situation which they cannot escape.
- The current situation is placing an increasing number of renters and renter households, including children, at greater risk of mental ill health effects.
- Services have significant concern about the ongoing mental health impacts on staff who are unable to provide housing options for people who are presenting with acute levels of stress, and a sense of hopelessness responding to an overwhelming increase in demand.
- An urgent government response is needed to prevent a new wave of homelessness, housing insecurity, and increased mental health issues, due to the stress placed on individuals and families not being able to find a place to live.
The Evidence Base
The HERG has collected new data on the impact of the moratorium lifting, including:
- Centrecare’s Entrypoint service that provides assessment and referrals for people experiencing – and at risk of – homelessness has reported a significant surge in calls (well over 1200 a month answered e.g., 1,235 in March 2021 compared to 1,013 in July 2020) and online enquiries (684 written enquiries involving 538 children from 1 January to 8 April 2021).
- Circle Green Community Legal, who provide tenancy advice, have recorded a 500 per cent increase in calls from 30 to 200 a day, the majority of which are for tenancy related issues, which is having a huge impact on staff as they respond to people in absolute crisis and presenting with suicidal ideation.
- REIWA, the peak body for real estate, reported a significant number of investors leaving the market and a record low vacancy rate, with zero vacancies in some regional areas.
- Anglicare WA, who provide private tenancy support services, reported demand for emergency relief and food assistance has tripled this year to 950 requests. State-wide they are observing severe overcrowding, people living in cars, and women experiencing family and domestic violence having nowhere to leave to.
- Department of Communities reported the waitlist has increased to 15,825 applicants and the priority list has increased by 46 per cent.
- Department of Commerce reported increased calls relating to notices to terminate leases or substantial rent increase, with callers unable to find somewhere else to move, as well as significant inquiries for rental relief grants and conciliation with landlords.
Our Call to Government
The Housing Emergency Response Group is calling on government to take immediate action. To mitigate the impact of the residential moratorium ending and prevent a new wave of homelessness and housing insecurity, people must be financially supported to remain in their rental homes or for those who need to leave, ensuring they do not exit into homelessness.
The only provider that can fix the immediate supply gap is government, in partnership with the community sector.
We are calling on government to focus on four priority areas:
1. An Emergency Welfare Response to the impact of the ending of the rental moratorium.
We are calling for:
- A constructive, open and evidence-based dialogue by government with the community sector which includes sharing of evidence, information and solutions being progressed to mitigate the impact of the ending of the moratorium on housing stress.
2. Surety of emergency relief funding to support people to remain in their rental homes.
The Residential Relief Grants Scheme is a positive initiative, but eligibility requirements mean people are falling between the cracks. Emergency Relief funding provided by Lotterywest and the Federal Government whilst welcome, funds have not been sufficient to clear arrears and only provide a small contribution to existing rent pushing families into further arrears and poverty.
Families without secure income such as temporary visa holders are in crisis. Emergency Relief Funding is limited and will run out and Department of Social Service Emergency Relief funding will be effectively halved on 1 July, returning to pre COVID levels.
We are calling for:
- Expansion of the Residential Relief Grants Scheme and/or expansion of and surety of ongoing Emergency Relief funding that enables services to support households to clear rental debt and pay current rent for a six-to-twelve-month period.
- Increased service delivery to people who need assistance of assessment and direct referral to housing and support services, financial support and accommodation options that might be available.
- Urgent investment in mental health support and mental health tenancy support for tenants and tenant households, as well as for those who work with tenants to enable them to respond more effectively to mental health issues.
3. Urgent identification and provision of housing and short to medium term accommodation options to ensure people who have had to leave their rental property are not exiting into homelessness.
There is a chronic lack of social housing and affordable private rental stock.
We are calling for:
- A list and access to suitable, available government housing and accommodation options that could be utilised to provide immediate accommodation for households. This could include camp schools, vacant student accommodation, vacant hostels, and vacant social housing, and resources to co-ordinate the utilisation of these facilities.
- Surety of funding over the next six to twelve months of Emergency Relief funding to support people into medium-term housing options, with support from services as required, including the development of an exit strategy into permanent housing.
- The spot purchases of vacant apartments for use as affordable rental homes, managed by the community housing sector.
- The utilisation of suitable, vacant government land and the rapid construction of modular homes to immediately increase affordable housing options, in partnership with the community housing sector.
- Further reforms to planning and zoning to allow the private sector to more speedily provide a variety of housing options in locations where people can access employment, which will allow for more housing at a more affordable price.
4. A joint meeting with the Ministers for Housing, Communities and Commerce to discuss a co-ordinated housing and service response during this period.