safe steps teams up with Justice Connect to advocate for rights in rental

Home should be a place of safety and stability, yet for many women and children the combination of family violence and housing insecurity means this is an ideal that is out of reach.
We need laws and arrangements for renting that enable women and children to be safe in their own homes, do not penalise them for actions they take to attain safety, and prevent victims of family violence from bearing the consequences for the perpetrator’s actions.
safe steps Family Violence Response Centre and Justice Connect Homeless Law have collaborated to recommend a range of changes to the current law which will enable victims of family violence to be safer in their own home.

young-girl-1478104_1920The homeThe Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) distinguish the property as the ‘victim’s home’ regardless of if the perpetrator is cohabitating or is listed as a co-tenant. This distinction is made to focus on the victim’s experiences. is the most common location for violence against women. 60% of assaults committed by a man against a woman, and 90% assaults against women by intimate partners, occurred in the woman’s home.ANROWS, “Violence against women: Additional analysis of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey, 2012,” Horizons: Research report, no.1 (2015a): 37.
ANROWS, “Violence against women: Additional analysis of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey, 2012: Key findings and future directions,” Compass: Research to policy and practice, no.2 (2015b), 4.

Relocation is the most common recourse for Australian women who leave violent relationships. Nearly two-thirds of women who had experienced violence from a cohabiting partner or ex-partner moved away from their homes at the end of the relationship.ANROWS, (2015a): 123.

The Royal Commission for Family Violence strongly recommends increasing options for women to stay in their own homes, but this is not always possible or safe. In the absence of this choice, and until more comprehensive support for women to remain in their homes is implemented, it is important that women who experience family violence are supported by the tenancy system and feel like it is possible to leave the relationship.

safe steps and Justice Connect have recommended several changes to the Residential Tenancies Act 2006 (Vic) (RTA) in response to the Issues Paper on the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants, to increase options for women and children experiencing family violence.

Many women experience difficulty with the competitive climate of the rental market, some even experiencing discrimination from agents and landlords. safe steps and Homeless Law have heard many reports from women that they face great difficulty with having rental applications accepted, as many women who have escaped family violence are sole parents with young children. Women who are leaving violent homes with children, often facing financial difficulty because of the abuse, are therefore ‘locked out’ of the rental market, making it very challenging to find safe accommodation away from the perpetrator.

Protection for survivors from liability for damage caused by perpetrators
Many women who experience family violence have had their rental history affected due to damages and rental arrears caused by the perpetrator. Some perpetrators use this to perpetrate economic abuse, knowing it will cause long-term financial hardship and housing insecurity.

Case study: Victim of family violence faces eviction due to rental arrears accrued by ex-partner
Mother and daughterShireen had 4 young children under the age of 6 years old, one of whom has a disability.
She made contact with safe steps as she has a significant family violence history that included financial abuse, and she was financially dependent on the perpetrator for several years.
The violent relationship ended, as the perpetrator was issued an Intervention Order and left the country.
Leaving the family house after years of controlling the finances, the perpetrator of violence left Shireen with rental arrears in her name resulting in an unstable home environment for her and her children.

Standardising the way rental references are supplied, combined with legislative protections against survivors of violence bearing the liability for any losses caused by the perpetrator, will assist many women with making sure they don’t carry a rental history that is marred by family violence.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) has the power to apportion liability for losses or damages between tenants, but these provisions do not adequately make exception for family violence.Wrongs Act 1958 (Vic) s24(a). This means some women need to accept responsibility for losses caused by the perpetrator before they can have their liability reduced. The Royal Commission recommended that this is changed by the RTA review, a provision which Homeless Law and safe steps strongly believe needs to be in place to protect women from bearing long-term financial consequences for the perpetrator’s abusive actions.

Improving provisions to change leases due to family violence
In recognition of the need to support women to remain in their own homes, the RTA includes provisions for VCAT to terminate a tenancy and create a new tenancy if a there is a final Family Violence Intervention Order (FVIO) which includes a condition to exclude the perpetrator from the home.

However, there are many barriers for women experiencing family violence to obtaining a final FVIO and using these provisions. In recognition of these barriers, the Royal Commission recommended that a final FVIO should not be required, and VCAT should be able to terminate a tenancy and create a new tenancy if it is satisfied that certain conditions are met, in keeping with provisions available under tenancy legislation in other States and Territories. Since this provision gives VCAT the power to make someone homeless, there needs to be further investigation about these provisions before finalising any changes, as there is the potential for unintended and adverse consequences for survivors of family violence.

VCAT has recently abolished fees for people seeking to use these arrangements, which is a positive step to reducing the hardship caused by family violence.

Protecting women’s right to safety through relocation
But we know that many women who experience violence need to leave their homes, and will continue to relocate to ensure safety and wellbeing for themselves and their children. However, the RTA does not include any provisions to terminate periodic tenancies – tenancies that continue after a fixed-term lease ends – in these circumstances.

This ambiguity means that many women are worried that they will be financially and legally liable for lease-breaking fees, rental arrears or damage caused by the perpetrator.

Case study: victim of family violence needs to terminate a lease she is bound to because of economic abuseWoman looking out window
After leaving a three-year abusive relationship, Sonia got involved with another man who was also abusive. He left her in an expensive rental property with $5000 in arrears. The perpetrator spent money that Sonia had allocated for rent on gambling.
Sonia came up with the money to pay the arrears, with the rent now up-to-date. However, the rent is not affordable for Sonia to pay on her own, and she wants to end the lease to find a more affordable home. The perpetrator’s name is also on the lease however he has left the property and will not contribute to the rent.
Sonia told safe steps that the agent has not been empathetic and is unhappy with terminating the lease early. Sonia is very unhappy with way the real estate agency has treated her despite being happy with a recent inspection.

In response to these gaps, safe steps and Homeless Law have made several recommendations to improve the application of these provisions in the RTA to situations of family violence by giving VCAT the power to terminate a periodic tenancy, preventing evictions where damage was caused by family violence.
Women and children who experience family violence in their homes should be given every opportunity to feel safe, recover and rebuild their lives. Currently, the tenancy system places obstacles in their way that prevent or delay this. safe steps and Justice Connect support the recommendations made by the Royal Commission to drastically improve the rental sector by responding to family violence, and we look forward to working with the Victorian Government and VCAT to make sure women and children have safe and stable homes to live in.