A Devonport private rental tenant has spent three years fighting for a solution to her home’s sagging and unstable floor, mould infestation and water damage, with a building report stating the premises “shows significant long-term neglect”.
But Sam Barnes and her two children – one of whom suffers respiratory problems – are still living in the house as their landlord would not provide funding for alternative accommodation while the repair works were carried out as they could take months to complete.
The matter was taken to the Residential Tenancy Commissioner which made a repair order, but it conceded it did not “have any authority” to order alternative accommodation. The repairs were at the discretion of the landlord.
With Ms Barnes unable to find another rental and the landlord not paying to house her during repairs, the order appeared set to be ignored, meaning the landlord could face a fine of $1720.
Ms Barnes moved into the house in 2014 and noticed the warped floor in 2017. She started to repeatedly raise the issue with the landlord via the real estate agent but no action was taken – except increasing her rent $10 per week – as the house deteriorated around her.
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“All of this would have been avoided years ago if he had just approached the situation properly then, but now it’s got much worse. They’ve shown that they just don’t care,” Ms Barnes said.
“My son has to take steroids due to allergies, there’s mould in the carpet that are constantly wet. We keep getting sick, I suffer from an autoimmune disease as well, and all of this taking a massive toll – I’ve lost 20 kilograms in the past few months from the stress.
“It’s so hard to find another rental, some get 150 applications. I don’t understand why I couldn’t get help, I’ve been a wonderful tenant. I’ve had to throw out thousands of dollars of my property due to the damage.”
Text messages from Ms Barnes to the real estate agent in March 2017, seen by the Sunday Examiner, highlight the “mouldy and wet” carpet, health concerns for her son and a mice infestation. Two months later, further texts show damage to property following rain.
Case highlights needs for strong Tenancy Commissioner: union
The Tenants’ Union of Tasmania took up Ms Barnes’ cause and paid for a building report in August, which found “excessive movement” of flooring in almost every room when weight was placed upon it and structural movement of internal wall finishings. It caused varying floor heights throughout the house.
The problems were blamed on moisture penetration to the subfloor, inadequate subfloor clearance and ventilation, and limited site drainage.
The landlord agreed to allow Ms Barnes to break the lease and offered to pay removalist costs.
Tenants’ Union solicitor Ben Bartl said this was a clear example of where the Residential Tenancy Commissioner needed to have more power.
“We believe the powers of the Residential Tenancy Commissioner need to be strengthened as has occurred in other Australian jurisdictions,” he said.
“When a landlord refuses to carry out repairs, we believe there should be the power to reduce the rent or to have the tenant put up in alternative accommodation until the repairs are carried out.
“We also strongly believe that the government should be able to issue larger fines against unscrupulous landlords who are deliberately flouting the law. A maximum fine of $1700 is little more than a slap on the wrist and will have no deterrent effect.”
The Residential Tenancy Commissioner can order repairs, determine whether a rent increase is “unreasonable” and issue fines for non-compliance, but the union found this was a rare occurrence.
When asked if she would consider increasing the powers of the Residential Tenancy Commissioner and increasing penalties for landlord non-compliance with orders, Building and Construction Minister Elise Archer did not respond.
Instead, she was reliant on goodwill between landlords and tenants to find solutions.
“The Office of the Residential Tenancy Commissioner encourages landlords and tenants to work together to ensure required repairs can be completed,” Ms Archer said.