COVID-19 Tenants – What Emergency?

The Residential Tenancies (COVID-19 Response) Bill 2020 (let’s call it the COVID-19 Act) has been with us since the pandemic threat initially emerged in April. It was rolled out rapidly in response to the anticipated health and economic damage the pandemic would cause to renters of residential properties in WA.

Like most rushed legislation, the laws ended up being far from perfect and threw a blanket over all tenancies not just those where tenants were directly impacted by COVID-19. This is a problem because it encourages vexatious behaviours from an albeit small minority of tenants who seek to game the system.

The COVID-19 Act’s primary aim was to have coronavirus-impacted tenants and landlords come to a rent repayment agreement (RRA) outlining how any unpaid rent is to be dealt with after the end of the declared emergency period – currently 30th September 2020.

The COVID-19 Act attempted to limit the reasons why a tenancy can be terminated. There is a temporary ban on evictions but limited to only assisting those tenants that are experiencing financial hardship because of COVID-19. If the rent is unpaid, the landlord may still give notice whereby the tenant has 60 days to pay the rent and must also enter into an RRA.
There are significant benefits for both landlords and tenants to reach a rent repayment agreement and most have successfully done so during the emergency period. Without an RRA, the end of the tenancy and recovery of unpaid rents is a lengthy process that forces the parties to seek conciliation with the Commissioner for Fair Trading. Harsh financial penalties apply to those tenants or landlords that refuse to participate in conciliation to reach a rent repayment agreement. Failure to reach agreement for an RRA then leads to determination by a Magistrate.

Given WA’s swift reaction to the spread of coronavirus leading to zero community transfer for several months now, very few tenants (around 3 per cent) have been unable to fully meet their lease obligations. Federal government stimulus via Job Keeper and Job Seeker has also helped tenants meet their rent obligations.

With the end of the emergency provisions provided by the COVID-19 Act looming, the state government is considering extending it beyond 30th September. Given the relatively minimal impact COVID-19 has had on tenancies, it would be unnecessary to continue the emergency laws in their current form.

Whilst it is reasonable for those tenancies impacted by COVID-19 to continue to have some ongoing protections under the emergency provisions, those unaffected should return to the normal provisions as provided by the Residential Tenancies Act.

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