Refugee Council of Australia
Family in front of house

The home stretch: Challenges and alternatives in sustainable housing for refugees and people seeking asylum

Housing challenges (pt 2)

Tenancy rights and responsibilities

Lack of understanding of tenancy rights and responsibilities among many humanitarian entrants was seen as a major hindrance to maintaining tenancies and establishing a positive rental history. Numerous examples were provided of tenants losing their bond, being charged for extensive repairs, developing a negative rental history or even facing eviction due to lack of understanding or misunderstanding of tenancy responsibilities.

Consultation participants noted that some humanitarian entrants lacked the knowledge and skills needed to maintain properties to expected standards or use appliances and equipment properly and, as a result, could inadvertently cause significant damage to rental properties. This could in turn have a significant impact on their rental history. In the words of one service provider, “if they wreck one house, no agent is going to give them another”. Some also noted that there was a general perception among some landlords and real estate agents that people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds “don’t have the ability to care for a house in the way you need to in Australia” and tended to make blanket assumptions about these groups, including many individuals who were perfectly capable of maintaining a property.

Limited understanding of tenancy responsibilities could also lead to some tenants inadvertently failing to pay their rent. As stated by a service provider in Western Australia: “They are not familiar with the rental system in a western country. People who are coming from camps never paid rent. The concept of paying rent is not there.” A service provider in Queensland reported that some humanitarian entrants have different expectations about rental processes due to experiences in their home countries, citing the example of a client who had expected his landlord to personally collect rental payments (as was standard practice in his home country) and, as a result, had gone into rental arrears. Some consultation participants raised similar concerns in relation to utility bills, noting that humanitarian entrants may be unfamiliar with the concept of paying separately for utilities and may unintentionally incur large utility bills through overuse of water and electricity.

Concern was also expressed that many humanitarian entrants did not fully understand their rights as tenants. As such, they may be unaware of the steps they can take to protect their rights (such as filling in condition reports) or may not realise when a landlord or real estate agent’s demands are unreasonable or even illegal. Some participants noted that even people who do have some understanding of their rights are often reluctant to raise concerns or request repairs due to fear of being evicted or tarnishing their rental history. One service provider in the Northern Territory, for example, reported that few of its clients seek advice on tenancy rights despite being actively encouraged to do so.

Whether the problem is lack of awareness or lack of confidence, the end result can be exploitation by unscrupulous landlords and real estate agents. Consultation participants gave numerous examples of exploitative, unethical and even illegal behaviour, including:

  • levying unlawful charges (such as charging additional rent to a tenant who had a friend stay over for one night);
  • leasing properties in places which have not been approved as residential areas;
  • failing to maintain safety standards (e.g. neglecting to replace broken fire alarms);
  • charging tenants for repairs which should be considered ordinary wear and tear or which had been caused by previous tenants;
  • demanding unreasonable compensation for minor damage (e.g. a family being asked to replace all of the locks in the house after losing one key);
  • failing to provide essential and urgent repairs; and
  • evicting tenants unlawfully or without notice.

On the more extreme end of the scale, one service provider in New South Wales cited cases of stalking and even assault of tenants by landlords.

Some consultation participants expressed frustration at the lack of accountability among real estate agents and landlords who violated the rights of tenants. A service provider in New South Wales reported that one real estate agent had on two separate occasions leased properties which were not approved as residential properties but had not faced any consequences for doing so. Another service provider in Queensland raised concerns about the ability of landlords and real estate agents to “blacklist” tenants through unregulated tenancy databases without any accountability.

Negative attitudes and discrimination

Negative attitudes among real estate agents, landlords and other housing providers were seen to have a significant impact on the capacity of people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds to secure housing. Participants reported that some real estate agents and landlords made an automatic assumption that people who were in receipt of bond assistance, who relied on Centrelink payments as their primary source of income and/or who were unemployed would not be able to meet rental payments. Given that many humanitarian entrants fall into at least one and possibly all of these categories, particularly during the early stages of settlement, this can pose a major barrier to securing housing. As noted by one specialist housing provider: “Every landlord is probably a little bit worried in the back of their minds about that. But there’s nothing we can do, because all of our clients do start on Centrelink until they can get their English up to scratch and find a job in Australia”.

Asylum seekers were seen to be particularly disadvantaged in this regard due to their exceptionally low incomes and the fact that many do not have work rights. Several of the people seeking asylum consulted for this project believed that they had been denied housing due to concerns that their incomes were insufficient to meet rental payments (see Section 5.8.2 for further details on this issue).

In other cases, negative attitudes were specifically directed towards refugees and people seeking asylum based on perceptions that these groups had complex needs or did not know how to uphold their responsibilities as tenants. In the words of a service provider in New South Wales, “I’ve had times where real estate agents have said to me straight up, ‘No, I don’t want to work with them. Too hard. It’s too complicated, I don’t even want to touch that’. [This] is unjustified because they’re basing that on nothing.” Another service provider reported that some housing providers refused to assist people seeking asylum: “We call up other boarding houses or hostels and they won’t take our clients. When they find out they’re people seeking asylum, they just absolutely refuse to.”

Other participants noted that the negative political debate on refugee and asylum seeker issues had an impact on the attitudes of housing providers. One service provider working with people seeking asylum, for example, noted that Iranian people seeking asylum in particular had recently experienced greater difficulty than other groups in securing housing due to the tenor of the political debate at the time and negative media coverage:

I think a lot of that has to do with the conceptions that the media has put up… and political conversations in relation to economic refugees. That has impacted on people’s willingness to rent to that particular group. Also, when the Nauru riot happened, it was young Iranian guys that participated from the media’s perspective and there was a bit of flak after that… There is a link with the cultural group that the media is bashing at the time.

There were also numerous reports of discrimination against particular racial, ethnic or cultural groups. Perhaps the most blatant example was provided by a participant from the Sudanese community: “Once we called to ask for the inspection dates and he asked, ‘Where are you guys from?’ Once we said, ‘we are from Sudan’, he said ‘no thank you, I don’t want Sudanese’.” More commonly, however, participants reported that discrimination was occurring in far less explicit ways. Indeed, a significant number of participants were confident that they or their clients had been discriminated against but felt that it was too difficult to provide proof that discrimination had occurred. A typical example was provided by a service provider working with people seeking asylum in New South Wales:

There’s a lot of discrimination. Not direct but it’s clear when they relay what happened, that’s what it was. Or they’ll make an appointment to go and view a property and the person will literally take one look at them and say ‘sorry, the room’s gone’. That happens all the time.

Another service provider in Western Australia felt that:

This [discrimination] could be a hidden item. It never came up in our communication with real estate agents but it seems when they have got an unfamiliar name or the colour of their skin is different, it has an impact… I can’t say no and I can’t say yes, because nobody says, ‘Yes, we are discriminating’ but in fact you can see.

Shared accommodation

Sharing the costs of accommodation between several people or living with family, friends or other community members was reported to be a common response to housing challenges among humanitarian entrants. A number of consultation participants, however, noted that this strategy was often unsustainable and could lead to further housing insecurity.

Insecurity

There were numerous reports of humanitarian entrants providing accommodation to family members, friends or people from the same community on an informal basis. These arrangements carried risks both for the original leaseholder and their informal tenants. For the leaseholder, housing additional tenants could place them in breach of their tenancy contract and lead to eviction. A participant from the Rohingya community, for example, cited a case where “one man had 10 people staying with him in [suburb] and the real estate agent terminated his lease”.

For tenants, informal housing arrangements could place them in a precarious position: one asylum seeker in Brisbane who was staying with friends expressed fears that he could be asked to leave and thereby be rendered homeless, at any time. Such arrangements also prevented tenants from being able to develop their own rental history and, in turn, improve their chances of securing housing in the future. However, even people sharing accommodation on a formal basis could still face housing insecurity due to financial interdependence. For example, people living in shared arrangements may find that they can no longer afford to remain in their accommodation if one of their housemates leaves. If one person does leave without paying their share of the rent or utilities, the remaining residents become liable for that person’s share.

Privacy

Several participants cited lack of privacy as a major shortcoming of shared accommodation arrangements. This was a particularly significant issue for groups who tended to spend a significant amount of their time at home, such as those on low incomes (who often could not afford social activities or transport) and those who did not have the right to work or study in Australia. An asylum seeker couple living in shared accommodation in Brisbane described their situation thus:

We were looking for a house with one bedroom and we could not find it in the price range that we wanted because of having low income support. So we finally decided to move into a share house. We face a lot of problems. We are not really comfortable. We are at home all the time and we don’t have things to do outside. We don’t have the right to go and work. We don’t have the right to go and study, so we are at home most of the time.

Relationships

Several participants reported that shared accommodation arrangements could be a source of tension and place considerable strain on relationships. It was noted that many humanitarian entrants share accommodation with people they barely know or who they have known for only a short period of time (such as people they have met in detention) and may struggle to successfully negotiate shared arrangements. In the words of a service provider in Tasmania, “It doesn’t always work brilliantly… The reality of sharing a house is much harder for them than they thought it would be.” Living under insecure informal arrangements or in overcrowded conditions could further compound this tension. Additionally, some participants noted that it was not always appropriate for people to share accommodation with their compatriots as in some cases “a person from the same country may be seen as a threat, rather than a source of support”.

Overcrowding

Overcrowding was seen as a common consequence of shared accommodation arrangements, particularly those that are informal. Numerous reports were received of often severe overcrowding, such as a modest property being shared by up to 15 people. In many cases, overcrowding was closely related to lack of affordable housing. A service provider working with people seeking asylum also noted that overcrowding could be “both a symptom and a driver” of housing insecurity, as living in overcrowded conditions increased the likelihood of relationship breakdown.

However, some participants noted that overcrowding could also result from different cultural understandings of accommodation standards and may not necessarily be problematic in all cases. In the words of a service provider in Western Australia, “the western view [is] that if you have a three bedroom house, only three can live in it, whereas people from overseas are quite happy to have two sharing a room”. Another service provider from Queensland felt that there needed to be more flexibility in definitions of overcrowding to take into account cultural differences.

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