It has been a big week for rental campaigning in Australia:
- A Greens MP from Queensland has called for an end to unfair evictions and a 1% cap on rental increases.
- On Wednesday, the NSW Parliament passed changes to NSW tenancy law. The changes don’t go far enough, but they are something.
- In the ACT, a Greens MLA has proposed that certain minor modifications shouldn’t require landlord consent; a round of government reforms is expected in the next fortnight.
- And WA’s parliament is moving to keep children safe in rental properties.
Wow. You’d almost be forgiven for thinking that the balance has swung too far in the other direction.
This action is definitely promising. Clearly governments feel a need to at least seem to do something. They haven’t missed the growing number of renters and the growing outrage about the housing affordability crisis.
But governments are moving slowly. Ending unfair evictions (evictions where the landlord isn’t required to provide a reason) would do little more than bring Australia into line with other countries. And even that was too far for Victoria’s government (which retained unfair evictions at the end of a fixed-term lease) or for the NSW Coalition.
As for other changes, they’re so obvious the true horror is realising that they weren't already in place. Like, why was it ever illegal for renters to try to make sure their furniture wouldn’t crush their children?
In "Poor People’s Movements", Frances Fox Pivens describes how disruption can create political impact but also the limits of that impact.
"The measures promulgated by government at times of disturbance may be designed not to conciliate the protestors," Pivens writes, "but to undermine whatever sympathy the protesting group has been able to command from a wider public. Usually this is achieved through new programs that appear to meet the moral demands of the movement...without actually yielding much by way of tangible gains."
Perhaps this is what we are seeing now. Governments are responding to disruption or the anticipation thereof. And some things are improving. But while we should measure a policy response by what it does, we should also consider what remains to be done.
All over Australia, despite recent developments, people who rent still face the risk of arbitrary eviction, unpredictable rent increases, and inefficient, shitty homes, that make them and their children sick.
Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery to campaign against abolition. He knew that positive change wasn’t inevitable, but that it must be earned. "If there is no struggle there is no progress," said Douglass. "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
Things aren’t changing. We – renters and community organisations – are changing things. And we still have a lot to do.
By Joel Dignam, Executive Director, Better Renting.