Tenants facing eviction as moratorium ends

Headshot of Lisa Favazzo
Lisa FavazzoGeraldton Guardian
Email Lisa Favazzo
Sulina Basto and Shayalina Khah, 12.
Camera IconSulina Basto and Shayalina Khah, 12. Credit: The Geraldton Guardian

A single mother and five kids facing eviction told to go to a women’s refuge, and landlords raising rents by as much as $70 a week — these are some of the harsh realities confronting Geraldton tenants amid a looming rental crisis.

This Sunday, the COVID-imposed moratorium on rent rises and evictions will be lifted, likely leaving some tenants without a roof over their heads.

Local social services say they are already hearing about exorbitant rent increases and “no-fault” eviction notices being issued as the March 28 deadline edges closer. Just three days later, the JobSeeker rate will fall, catching some people in a double-whammy of financial hardship.

But local property insiders say winding back the COVID-19 policy will bring much-needed relief for landlords who have done it tough through years of a depressed market.

Sulina Basto is one of many tenants facing an uncertain future.

She and five of her children must be out of their outer-suburban home by March 29, just one day after the moratorium ends.

She has been desperately searching for somewhere to live since February. If she can’t secure a home, the family of six will move into a caravan, which Ms Basto plans to park in her friend’s backyard.

“We are lucky we have the caravan and friends who can help us,” she said.

“I guess we will all just have to squish together on the bed and make use of the kitchen area.”

Ms Basto said in looking for another place, she had offered to pay higher rent or pay in advance.

She claims a real estate agent told her to go to a women’s refuge.

The comment was a hard pill to swallow as Ms Basto spent time in a refuge about a decade ago and has worked hard to provide her children with a secure home.

Ms Basto believes property owners are overlooking her because she is a single mother.

She claims one landlord, who was renting privately, said they did not think she would have the money to cover the rent.

“I have always kept the house clean and had a good relationship with my landlord,” Ms Basto said, adding she had enough income to cover rent.

Sulina Basto.
Camera IconSulina Basto. Credit: The Geraldton Guardian

Regional Alliance West principal solicitor Alison Muller said she had seen an uptick in tenants receiving termination notices, with many listing March 29 as the termination date. She also said she had spoken with tenants who were facing increases of up to $70 a week.

“A typical example of a request for support is from a mother with two dependent children who is on JobSeeker payments,” she said.

These parents are facing increased housing costs, but also a reduced income in many cases as JobSeeker is falling by $150 a fortnight just three days after the moratorium ends.

Ms Muller also reported a rise in clients looking for help accessing housing — with many facing homelessness — in recent weeks. Reception staff at the agency say about 75 per cent of calls are from people looking to access housing programs.

“The team used to be able to get people appointments for support within the week. Now, they’re booked out until the end of the month,” Ms Muller said.

She warned this was just the tip of the iceberg.

“Our client group tends to only seek help close to or after the deadlines they are facing, which means that people are only starting to make contact with us this month to try to address the problem,” she said.

Ms Muller recommends that tenants in troubling situations seek support, stay aware of their rights, and actively look for alternative housing. She said landlords required a court order to proceed with an eviction.

She also said assistance was available for people struggling with rent costs through the State Government’s Residential Rent Relief Grant Scheme. Real Estate Institute of WA Mid West branch chair Peta McKenzie encouraged landlords to stagger rent increases, saying holding on to and working with good tenants was always a good decision in the long-term.

But she said it was high-time rental prices increased in Geraldton, saying the low market of the last few years had left some investors unable to cover their mortgages.

According to Ms McKenzie, the moratorium meant rent prices had stayed stagnant while rates and insurance had jumped.

She said some landlords had “made real sacrifices” to pay their mortgages over the past few years as rents sank to the floor in Geraldton.

“I think the Government’s effort to buffer tenants from rapid changes ... caused by COVID-19 has done its best, but now the market will readjust,” she said.

Ms McKenzie said many homeowners were seeking to evict tenants so they could move in themselves or sell their properties, saying many people were only holding on to homes in Geraldton because they couldn’t afford to sell them before. The Geraldton rental vacancy rate in February was 1.2 per cent compared to more than 5 per cent around the same time the year before, while the city’s median rent price in the December quarter was $320 a week, up 3.8 per cent over the year.

John Carey, sworn in as WA’s new Housing Minister last week, has urged landlords to show mercy and “be sensitive” to their tenants before raising rents.

“A form of negotiation, I believe, is always better than simply an increase,” he said.

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails