Our Wellington rental crisis

Like many others, James Page has been unable to find an affordable home in this tight rental market. Photo: Liz Bell

Liz Bell

RENTING a home in Wellington Shire has never been harder, with rent rises and property shortages creating a ripple of despair for renters.
As revealed in last week’s Gippsland Times, house prices throughout Wellington Shire have skyrocketed since the pandemic, causing a catastrophic domino effect on the price of rentals.
Several rental management agents in the shire have confirmed they have between 20 and 30 people on their books waiting for properties.
Housing experts say as household circumstances change in the current COVID environment, rental stress is being exacerbated by new tenancy laws that are causing a shortage of supply as landlords leave the market.
People searching for affordable rentals have inundated the Gippsland Times with personal stories of hardship and stress, with many at breaking point.
James Page, who currently rents a small two-bedroom unit in Sale, said his fruitless search for a property after his landlord decided to sell had pushed him “to the brink of suicide”.
“I have a young son, so I need to be here for him, but it has been so difficult being knocked back time and time again,” he said.
“One of the biggest hassles is not availability; it is that demand is so high and rental managers don’t even call you back.
“You’re flying blind because you just don’t know what’s going on.”
Mr Page said he had applied for between 15 and 20 properties a week since being given notice to vacate four weeks ago, and had even sought legal advice to try to buy him some more time.
“I’ve even taken to approaching people through Facebook to see if anyone wants to break their lease, but the general consensus is that everyone is in the same boat.”
Mr Page said he was now looking at the Latrobe Valley where he feels there may be more availability, but has so far had no luck.
One young mother who lives in a rundown house in Sale said she laughs now when she remembers expecting a bit of “loyalty” from her landlord after years at the same property.
“I have been here for three years and there has never been a rent increase, then a few weeks ago he slugs me with an $80 a week rise,” she said.
“My feeling is he knows the rental market is so tough that he can get more money, so that’s what he’s doing.”
With two young children, aged three and 11, the prospects for her in this rental market would not have been good if she hadn’t been able to turn to her parents.
“I’m so lucky that my parents have a rental property that I can move into soon, because there is no way I could pay that much rent,” she said.
If the property she currently rents was in a good state and she was allowed to make minor changes the rent rise could possibly be justified, but the young mother said that was far from the case.
“The oven doesn’t work properly and he won’t install a new one…I have asked to install baby gates and he said no, I have asked for a front gate on the fence and he said no — I ask for simple fixes and he says no.”
Another local renter who did not want to be named said she and her husband had applied for about 30 properties, and in one case were up against 80 others.
Eventually, the couple and their three children were forced to move into a two-bedroom unit that was leased to her sister-in-law.
“I feel so bad that we have caused her to move back to her mum’s place, but we had no choice and would have been homeless,” she said.
“We have to be in this area because of my children and their needs, but we just can’t afford to buy in this market.”
To make the situation more distressing, despite good rental references, the family has never been given a reason why its applications were not approved.
The woman said she had been told by one agent that people moving from Melbourne were “cashed up” and able to offer up to 12 months rent in advance.
“Who could compete with that?” she asked.
Another said she heard that there were about 800 people on the priority waiting list for public housing in Gippsland alone — and no houses.
“It is such a sad time for those already battling — welcome to the caste system and great divide between the haves and have-nots,” she said.
Sale-based support service Quantum, which has been overwhelmed in recent years by requests for housing-related support, is calling for more government spending on affordable housing.
Executive director of client services, Cindy Pullar, said there had been a remarkable increase in housing stress throughout Gippsland.
She said multiple factors needed to be considered to ensure that any investment in housing provided the best outcomes and benefitted people who were the most vulnerable.
“We are seeing an increase in families and individuals needing support,” she said.
“We believe this is a result of wages essentially stagnating and rental prices increasing, which is creating additional housing stress.
“We have seen some families and individuals receive advice from their landlord of rental increases as high as $70 per week.”
Quantum believes recent changes to the Residential Tenancy Act introduced in March 2021 could deter people getting into the property investment market, and thus further impact people moving from crisis or emergency accommodation into more medium to longer term arrangements.
However, Consumer Affairs Victoria says the new laws made it fairer and safer for everyone, and included a ban on rental bidding, new rental minimum standards, no eviction without a reason, and allowing modifications by renters and urgent repairs.
They also require rental providers to ensure two-yearly electrical and plumbing safety checks are undertaken by qualified tradespeople.
One former investment property owner said there were two sides to the rental story, and many people unfairly blamed landlords for the rental shortage.
She and her husband sold their Sale rental property because their tenant repeatedly refused to pay the rent and “trashed” the property.
“As landlords we had no rights to the house or to remove him from the property,” she said.
“His pets had destroyed the brand new carpet and backyard.
“We had to spent almost eight months waiting on a VCAT hearing to give him a two-week eviction notice.
“I am not surprised that no one wants to be a landlord anymore.
“Who wants to own a property that if they rent out the tenant can do whatever they like in it and it just be ‘wear and tear’, just so the tenant can feel like it’s their home and not a rental?”
The homelessness sector is pressuring the government to improve its plans for new housing builds in the region, and has highlighted flaws in the Victoria’s Big Build project.
Anglicare Vic said COVID-19 had crushed rental affordability in regional Victoria, with the availability of affordable new housing for low income earners at its lowest level since 2000.
Its Rental Availability Snapshot report analysed 33,710 Victorian rental listings from March 27, 2021, and found that less than half the number of rental properties were available in regional Victoria compared to the same time last year.
A state government spokesperson said the Victorian Budget 2020-21 delivered $5.3 billion to build more than 12,000 new homes throughout metro and regional Victoria during the next four years.
But Wellington Shire was the poor loser, with no direct funding from this pool and $60 million allocated to assist social and affordable housing across the neighbouring municipality of Latrobe City.
Quantum is also concerned about the “likely timelines” for implementation of the state government’s Big Build scheme.
“Our community needs secure and affordable housing options now,” Ms Pullar said.