Signatures on a rental agreement have created life-threatening situations for Bridie Flaherty’s clients.
- A parliamentary committee is in the process of considering a bill that aims to regulate the NT’s residential tenancy databases
- Under the proposed change, bad tenants could only be kept on a database for three years
- But welfare groups want to see specific provisions in the law for domestic and family violence victims
In the Northern Territory there are no laws that allow victims of domestic or family violence to break a rental lease early in order to escape the perpetrator.
If they leave, they can be blacklisted — put on a database of bad tenants, effectively cutting off their ability to rent somewhere else.
Ms Flaherty, a housing support worker at Darwin women’s shelter Dawn House, said this had led to experiences for her clients that she could only describe as “horrific”.
For example, when a real estate agent disclosed where a domestic violence survivor was living in front of her abuser, the woman had to flee with her children once again.
Ms Flaherty said that in her experience, issues arising from blacklisting and not being able to be removed from a lease were the main things stopping Darwin renters from leaving an abusive household.
“It’s almost every client that is coming out of a private rental, this is the main issue,” Ms Flaherty said.
“This is a lot of the time, what’s keeping them in the relationship.
“Financially they can’t remove themselves from that. This is something that’s holding them back.”
The only way many of them could escape their lease obligations was to apply to the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal to be released on the grounds of financial hardship, Ms Flaherty said.
There are no grounds to be released because of domestic violence.
Yet even when Ms Flaherty’s clients were eligible for a hearing, she said the process was “horrific”.
At one hearing, she said an abusive partner had addressed her client directly, and the former landlord had revealed where her client was living.
“We were required to move them from the shelter immediately because it wasn’t a safe place [anymore],” Ms Flaherty said.
“For my client hearing the perpetrator’s voice was very distressing.
“And the whole trauma of the experience was just, it was horrific.”
While victims went through similar experiences in the Family Court system, Ms Flaherty said it was unacceptable they be forced to go through such an ordeal simply to be removed from a rental lease.
Miriam Bevis, program manager for the Kunga Stopping Violence program at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, believed it should be mandated that real estate agents and landlords be given training in ways they could support domestic and family violence victims.
“Given how housing is so intimately tied in with domestic violence, I think those frontline workers in real estate need to be able to pick up the signs that something’s wrong and work out what to do about that,” Ms Bevis said.
Dawn House housing support worker Bridie Flaherty said issues with blacklisting impacted at least a quarter of her clients. (ABC News: Emily Smith)
Change coming for database operators
A parliamentary committee is due to compile a report by May 1 on a bill that aims to bring the NT into line with all other Australian jurisdictions by regulating these tenancy databases.
As it stands, there are no regulations to guide the practice, which welfare groups have said leads to the unfair listing of many people, particularly those who are vulnerable.
They say this has exacerbated homelessness, and contributed to the current wait for public housing — which can be as long as eight years in Darwin.
Under the proposed change, tenants would only be able to be put on the list for specific breaches and renters must be notified they are on a database.
They must also be given time to review and refute the listing, and only be kept on it for three years.
The NT’s largest database operator TICA refused the ABC’s request to comment on the issue.
However Equifax, formerly known as Veda, which operated the National Tenancy Database, supported the changes and said they were in line with similar legislation in other states.
Real Estate Institute of the Northern Territory chief executive Quentin Kilian also supported the changes.
Law fails to protect victims of violence
But many welfare organisations were concerned the draft legislation had not included protections for domestic and family violence victims, as other states had.
Rachel Athaide and Myles Brown from Darwin Community Legal Centre said they had dealt with victims of domestic and family violence who had been blacklisted and barred from securing housing in the private rental market.
Darwin Community Legal Centre’s Myles Brown and Rachel Athaide said current database practices had “huge impacts” on the safety of domestic violence victims. (ABC News: Emily Smith)
Ms Athaide said this had “huge impacts” on their safety, and put them at greater risk of continued abuse.
She called for the NT Government to bring in laws similar to those in South Australia, which ensured victims were not placed on blacklists because of damage that occurred through a perpetrator’s actions, or for breaking a lease to escape domestic violence.
“There are better protections in South Australia and NT currently is pretty insufficient with protections,” she said.
NT Shelter, NT Legal Aid Commission, North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, Top End Women’s Legal Service and Anglicare NT all also called for Parliament to better consider the case of domestic and family violence victims.
Protection may be ‘beyond the scope’ of real estate
Real Estate Institute of the Northern Territory chief executive Quentin Kilian said he supported the changes to the Residential Tenancy Act. (Supplied: REINT)
While Mr Kilian supported changes to the Residential Tenancy Act, he believed it was beyond the scope of real estate legislation to enforce protection for domestic violence victims.
However, he suggested the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal was well placed to mediate real estate matters that related to domestic violence.
“I do believe that there should be good protections and very sound protections in place for victims of domestic violence,” Mr Kilian said.
“I’m just not sure that any of this really has a place in the Residential Tenancy Act or a real estate-related act.
“I think that’s an area that needs a lot more specialist care and attention to it, and certainly a different group of people.”
Christine Churchill, property manager at boutique firm Churchill Real Estate, supported a move to release domestic violence victims from lease agreements if they presented a domestic violence order.
She said it was a concession the sector already made for Defence Force personnel, by allowing them to break a lease if they were moved out of the area.
But she was concerned the proposed legislation could shift an unintended burden of responsibility on the real estate sector.
She disagreed with the idea that only specified breaches would result in a database listing.
“I’m just worried if they’re going to change these databases they might water them down too much,” she said.
“There are people that are really rude and nasty, and deliberately destroy things and hide destruction and do all those sorts of things, that maybe don’t cost a lot of money, but it’s a lot of work for a property manager to rectify.”
However, she said she also believed there should be a database for tenants to list poor landlords.