Surge in legal action against landlords over repairs

Tenants fed up with faults in their homes are pursuing legal action against landlords at record levels, with applications for urgent repairs almost doubling over the past three years.

New minimum rental standards and working from home are fuelling a rise in applications to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal as renters seek legal solutions to disputes with their landlords.

Renters are making more complaints against their landlords.Credit:Peter Rae

Data obtained by The Age shows the number of applications for urgent repairs increased from 654 to 1103 cases between 2019 and 2021, while the number of applications for non-urgent repairs rose from 234 to 306 cases.

Katie Valenta, a lawyer at Tenants Victoria, said tenants’ most common complaint was about repairs.

“Renters frequently tell us that they have been waiting for repairs to be completed for weeks, months, or even on occasion delays of years,” she said.

“Many renters do not know that certain types of repairs, known as urgent repairs, have to be completed as soon as possible by their rental providers.”

She said renters had a right to apply to VCAT and get a hearing within two business days if their rental provider failed to complete urgent repairs as soon as possible.

The new minimum rental standards, which came into effect at the end of March, require landlords to include deadlocks on external doors, a vermin-proof rubbish bin, a functioning kitchen, mould and damp-free rooms and hot water connections.

Renters and Housing Union secretary Eirene Tsolidis Noyce said the new standards had empowered tenants to request repairs.

“Over winter, we had a number of members who had to stay with friends or in hotels because the black mould was so bad their clothes were destroyed,” she said.

“Now that summer has come around, we see really bad insulation that leads to incredibly hot houses. Many tenants have no airconditioning and no ability to open and close their windows.”

Kathy Watts initiated legal proceedings against her landlord a year ago after they failed to replace a broken front fence

She said renters were spending more time at home than ever before owing to the pandemic, and many who were frustrated with their run-down surrounds were initiating legal action against their landlords.

Kathy Watts spent more than a year trying to get her landlord, the Director of Housing, to fix a collapsed fence in her front yard.

A motorist had crashed into the fence years before Ms Watts moved into the public housing unit in Broadmeadows, but no one had fixed it. She lodged a VCAT application for the fence to be repaired in November 2020, but it wasn’t replaced until last month.

Ms Watts said the absence of a sturdy fence made her feel unsafe and led to dogs defecating in her front yard. She said she had seen strangers enter her property and she was unable to enjoy her front garden, her only green space, during months of lockdown.

“It led to a lot of issues with my mental health,” she said. “I didn’t feel secure.”

Real Estate Institute of Victoria chief executive Gil King said he wasn’t surprised by the increase in applications initiated by tenants against landlords for repairs.

“The raised rental minimum standards are a factor in this increase, due to more matters now being classified as urgent,” he said.

He said confusion over the new standards was also fuelling the increasing number of cases ending up in VCAT.

“REIV worked closely with the Victorian government during the development of the rental minimum standards but was disappointed that such major change was introduced with immediate effect at the end of a 12-month moratorium, providing no respite to rental providers or property managers,” he said.

Renters are also inundating Consumer Affairs Victoria with complaints about repairs. The watchdog received 2919 complaints and inquiries about urgent repairs from April to November 30, compared with 1975 over the same period in 2020.

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