TRUE OPINION: The COVID-19 pandemic has given landlords and agents a great opportunity to improve the long-standing reputational damage they have suffered over the years. All they have to do is be humane for a bit, writes Tom Tanuki.
You know what’s really novel about coronavirus? It provides asset-owners like landlords and corporations like real estate agents with a huge opportunity. One they’re rarely afforded. The pandemic has led to this great call to solidarity, one that excludes no one from pitching in – just as COVID-19 itself spares nobody. Flatten the curve. Mutual aid. Protect the community. Spare the vulnerable. Have you seen the reports of the gentleman who went to Centrelink with a wad of $100 bills to hand out to the queue? Judging by social media commentary he’s now in line for an Order of Australia medal. We’re so motivated to lend a hand to each other that acts of kindness are being held up as examples of the behaviour that will get us all through this. We need those with means to lend a hand to those without.
In this climate, landlords and real estate agents have an opportunity to show solidarity with tenants while we’re all pulling together (albeit remotely). What they have to do is suspend business as usual. In their case, business as usual is rent. Just as everyone else with a non-essential business has had to suspend activity, property owners must do the same. What about their mortgages? Well, banks have been reluctant to come to the party but some of them already have, and the rest will soon be likely compelled to offer expanded mortgage suspension provisions by the government. The point is, we’re all being asked to press pause. This is gradually becoming enshrined in policy, as the Morrison government just announced a moratorium on evictions for six months.
Landlords are not, generally speaking, very popular among the working class. ‘Kill all landlords’ is an oft-repeated line in some of the activist circles I’m around; I’m sure you’ve seen it said online recently. I’m sure they must be very hurtful words for these people to read. So! This is a great opportunity for them to improve their reputations.
Powerfully, many of them are eschewing that opportunity and instead using this time to openly contemplate the murder of their tenants. I admire this unwavering dedication to one’s bank balance! Let’s all take a moment to honour these economic pandemic heroes.
You may have seen recent Australian real estate agency letters posted online which feature them politely threatening tenants that non-payment will lead to evictions. It’s important to remind your tenants that horrific viral lung death doesn’t negate their primary purpose in life as a big, floppy cash-teat. Why? Because it increases the chance that you will get more money. It is important to always do whatever gets you more money.
Some agencies are warning paid-up tenants that they will be evicted if they don’t pay in future. Even though they have already paid! They understand the usefulness of instilling a good, lingering sense of panic in the cash-teats that inhabit their properties. Animal-agricultural research shows that when pigs are stressed, the quality of the resultant pork meat reduces. Not so with human tenant-udders! In fact, stress and misery can induce more money from the teat. It’s simply good business.
Some agencies have been kind enough to offer options to their tenants in these kind letters. One option I have seen reminds tenants about increased Centrelink Jobseeker payments. You know, the payments that won’t come for at least another month, to pay rent that’s overdue right now. Another option offered by a real estate agent was… direct debit. So that tenants who’ve lost their income can automatically pay their rent with their empty bank account. How convenient!
Let’s set letters aside, because some landlords and agencies are already trying to turn the dream of murdering a tenant into a reality. Before Morrison’s moratorium announcement, we were yet to see actual eviction threats because not enough time had passed since everyone lost their income. What we did begin to see, however, was landlords trying to sell off the properties that had tenants living in them. Sometimes convinced into the act by real estate agents, these landlords were either acting on old plans they had since before the pandemic hit, or were attempting to panic-sell as the property market seizes up.
Hey, I know what you’re thinking. Cash-teats can just pop on an N95 mask and find a new place in their own time! Well, no. One reason is that the rental market is rapidly rising in price and shrinking, accelerated by the shutting down of short-term rentals like Airbnb. So it’s harder to find anywhere for tenants to go. The other reason is that chronically ill, elderly or otherwise at-risk tenants can’t house-hunt at all. Because they now must stay at home to avoid any chance of getting infected by a disease that they’re most endangered by.
But who cares! You’d rather just sell your property than jump through all these hoops just so some dole-bludger can breathe properly, right? Last week, the government introduced a ban on inspections and auctions to try and stop this kind of situation from occurring. Before that was announced, I spoke to one chronically ill tenant who was to be kicked out in early May. The landlord wanted to start holding open inspections. The tenant was not thrilled at the prospect of letting one hundred corona-riddled viral hosts parade through her living room, so she refused the inspections. Fair enough! What did the agency do?
In exchange for the inspections going ahead anyway, they kindly offered her one free week’s rent.
Nice. That’s about enough to buy the cheap cremation capsule she can move into afterwards!
I’ve heard about many situations like that. Sick, vulnerable, broke people being threatened while they hold on for government assistance that won’t arrive for another month. I’ve heard of real estate agents trying to sneak through unlawful rent increases of $200+ per month with tenants. Landlords trying to trick tenants out of their properties by lying about coronavirus emergency measures. It’s chaos.
But there’s plenty of nice landlords and agents. Sure. They’re often the first to tell me how nice they are, but nonetheless, they exist. Some proactively offered their tenants a halt on rent while waiting for the banks to prepare emergency measures on mortgages and loans. Others are directing their energies into the correct venture: campaigning for banks and government to offer relief so they can easily suspend tenant obligations, without having to worry about their credit rating. I also understand that there are instances where considerate landlords are undermined by the ruthless conduct of real estate agents (and vice versa). I want to acknowledge all of the above, so before I am again assailed by an army of nice landlords asking me to look at how nice they are, yes, I’m sure you’re nice. Good job. I don’t have a medal to give you for not wanting to evict people and then watch them choke to death in an alley, but it’s great that you don’t.
Now there’s a moratorium on evictions themselves for six months, as the government edges with reluctance towards steps that might actually protect tenants. But a ban on evictions is only the start. Landlords and agents still hold the bulk of bargaining power here. They can still accrue rental arrears that will be impossible for a tenant to pay off after the pandemic ends. They can blacklist a tenant so they may never secure another rental property again. They could begin the eviction process in six months and one day. They could cut off or stop paying for the utilities that they own (many landlords pay for the water bill, for example). They could make requesting repairs a nightmare. So while a tenant is offered some protection by the knowledge that they won’t be evicted for now, a ruthless property owner could still make their life hell.
Are you a humane landlord? Great. If you’d like to protect tenants against the callousness of your peers, don’t worry about me being rude – worry about demanding the following:
- A streamlined process for bank suspension of mortgage and loan repayments where hardship can be demonstrated, including a ban on credit rating reductions and interest. Extending hardship to include ongoing tenants who can demonstrate that they cannot pay due to coronavirus.
- Ends of residential leases only to occur through the mutual consent of tenants and landlords for the period of the pandemic.
- Suspensions of rent where residential tenants can demonstrate that they’ve lost all of their income for the period of the pandemic. Scaled down rental payments where tenants can demonstrate their income has scaled down.
- Protections for tenants against blacklisting and the like to accompany the moratorium on evictions.
To the rest of you landlords and agents: what a great opportunity you have to improve the long-standing reputational damage you have suffered. All you have to do is be humane for a bit. I know the ‘Kill all landlords’ thing hurts the feelings, but it’s not the same as actually dying and the only group of people whose lives are really endangered here are the tenants wondering if you’ll evict them into Lung Death Virus Hell. Why wait until the government extends these protections beyond a moratorium on evictions? Why are you waiting to be forced by the state to show compassion? Suspend rent where you can. Write nicer letters. Show some concern and compassion. Pretend to, at least. Work with your tenants. If your mortgage can already be suspended, there’s no question that you should immediately suspend it and pass the relief on to your tenant by suspending their rent. You should already have done so. Shame on you.
Need money? Well, apply for Centrelink like your cash-teat just did. Draw some early super out like many Australians will have to. These emergency stimulus measures aren’t just for working-class plebs. Suck it up. Stay at home. Wash your hands. Stop fantasising about murdered tenant lungs.