Renters, landlords hope for government lifeline

Liz Bell

HUNDREDS of Wellington Shire property owners and tenants are pinning their hopes on a government lifeline to help them survive the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

As both groups wait for an announcement of help from the federal or state governments, who appear to be at a stalemate over whose responsibility rental relief is, the prospect of many people losing their jobs and being unable to keep up with mortgage or rent payments increases.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is expected to announce some kind of rental support on Thursday night, however exactly what that may look like is unclear.

And the Andrews state government is being asked to deliver land tax credits for property owners who provide rent relief to tenants affected by COVID-19 restrictions.

Sale real estate agent David Wheeler said the pandemic was the biggest challenge facing the real estate industry in his lifetime, and that agents were the “meat in the sandwich”, as job losses were expected to hit tenants and landlords hard.

The once reasonably buoyant local real estate market has already begun to suffer, as social distancing restrictions continue to impose more limitations of the way people do business.

But Mr Wheeler said renters and landlords – now to be referred to as ‘residential suppliers’ according to a government edict – were the most affected.

“We are just waiting to hear what help there will be available to people renting, because if people can’t pay their rent and property owners can’t pay the mortgage, it is so hard to know what the outcome will be, but we believe most clients will cut tenants some slack if they lose their jobs.

“Agents are in some ways are the meat in the sandwich, because we try to provide a service to both.”

The latest social distancing restrictions mean that auctions and open house inspections are banned.

And while sales enquiries are dropping because of the current pandemic, Mr Wheeler said agents had a social responsibility to maintain and be seen to be practising good social distancing and hygiene practices.

“We are going to meet clients with face masks on and with social distancing in mind, but we also have clients who come to the office to pay rent in cash, and so we have hand sanitiser in our office for clients and for staff, and it is used after every transaction,” he said.

“It is our responsibility to model the requirements the government has imposed.”

Agent John Elliman was optimistic that the banning of auctions and open houses could be “managed”.

“I have been on the phone all morning advising vendors of the new rules, and letting them know their properties previously going for auction can still be on the ‘for sale’ list, and in that way its is business as usual,” he said.

Mr Elliman said the real ‘hit’ was likely to come in the next few months, as more tenants lost work and vendors chose to delay selling until times were more certain.

A spokesperson from Wellington Real Estate said the situation was “a work in progress”, as agents braced for more changes expected to be announced in the days ahead.

Real Estate Institute Victoria president Leah Calnan said the industry was disappointed there had been little indication from the government about what support might be offered.

“We really have no idea what the government might offer, but we hope that any rental support payments will be paid to property owners, rather than directly to tenants, to avoid the small chance of misuse of funds,” she said.

State opposition leader Michael O’Brien said landlords who did the right thing and lowered rent for commercial tenants who have had to shut their doors or residential tenants who had lost their jobs should have that amount credited to their land tax.

This should apply to those currently on the list of businesses forced to close by the national cabinet in response to the COVID-19 outbreak or those residential tenants who were without a job because of closures, he said.

“We know that many renters are doing it tough right now.

“Where a landlord offers rent relief, it’s only fair that there should be land tax relief as well,” he said.

“We are all in this together.

“If tenants and landlords are playing their part, so should the Victorian government.”