News: The hidden tax that hurts renters: why we need a revolution in tenant rights

Published in the SMH, 22 July 2016

The astounding finding that home-owning adults will soon be in the minority marks an important tipping point and demands a change to prevailing attitudes about renters and landlords.

Lower home ownership is not itself a cause for concern. Many countries, Germany being the best example, combine high living standards, vibrant economies and a low home ownership rate.

Housing should satisfy a basic human need for shelter and security. It should suit the needs of each individual. Whether that is achieved by owning, or renting, should not matter.

Renters deserve the same sense of "ontological security" as home owners: the security and peace of mind that a home brings and a sense of belonging to a certain place and community.

Renters also deserve the same opportunity to build their savings in a tax-preferred way.

In reality, we have a system that divides people into haves and have-nots by property ownership, that gives too much tax incentive to property ownership, rather than alternative vehicles for wealth accumulation like cash and shares.

We need a revolution in renters rights.

First up, the term "landlord" needs to get it in the neck. The language implies something altogether too feudal. I am lord of this land, and you shall exist here at my pleasure.

Many property owners would view their property rights as inalienable. But if you want people to live in a property that you own, and you are happy for them to pay you for it, you do give up some of your rights as owner, including the ability to sell up at the drop of a hat.

Investment property owners should think of themselves, instead, as "housing service providers". After all, we have internet service providers in this country, not "cablelords".

Similarly, it's time we stopped viewing renters as second-class citizens, generously gifted a home by the generosity of their lord. Tenants should have a higher status as "housing customers". Housing is, after all, the major part of most budgets. It's time renters enjoyed a better focus on customer service.

Australians get most of their utilities delivered by inefficient monopolists. When it comes to renting, it's the opposite problem: service providers are a cottage industry of mum and dad investors and amateur speculators.

Our tax laws, particularly the discount on capital gains, encourage excessive turnover of property for quick gain. That is antithetical to the needs of renters for stable accommodation.

Many say the answer is longer lease periods. But just as landlords can't be sure they haven't got a dud tenant, tenants can never be sure they haven't signed up with a dud landlord.

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