Recently I was lucky enough to buy my own home. And boy, does it make me angry. Because only after I became an owner did I realise how much I was missing out on as a renter.
This surprised me. I run Better Renting, a tenant advocacy organisation. I should know what renters are missing out on. And in theory I did. But, to thoroughly misquote Joni Mitchell, "You don't know what you didn't have until you have it." And it's only now I am not renting that I realise what I was being denied all that time.
The biggest difference is the confidence of remaining in my home. My efforts to buy a place kicked off due to a forced move when my landlord intended to sell. Now, with the security of ownership, I have a different connection with my neighbourhood and community. I can put down roots, confident that I won't be forced to tear them up. With hindsight, I can see how much I missed out on this sense of rootedness. Every home I lived in, I was wary of getting too settled, because I knew that it wasn't up to me whether I would get to stay.
This security also enables me to tailor my place to make it into my home. A home isn't just walls and a ceiling: it's a reflection of our identities, and how we want to live. As a housewarming gift, my dad bought me a cordless drill. Since moving in I've put up art, wall-mounted a vacuum, and installed new shelves. These practical measures also have intangible value. Beyond how we present ourselves,our home is the next biggest expression of who we are. After a decade of renting, I was finally free to make my home my own.
These realisations make me angry. They make me angry because these benefits of ownership could also exist for people who rent. It is possible to have laws so that people who rent can have secure, stable homes. It's possible to have laws so that people who rent can tailor their homes, live how they want to, and express themselves. Currently, these are privileges that laws limit to owners. But there's no reason why renters couldn't also benefit.
This is part of the promise of the ACT government's Consultation Paper on proposed rental reforms. One of the key areas of reform is ending unfair "without ground" terminations. This wouldn't go all the way to provide secure homes for people who rent, but it would at least ensure that a property investor needs to give a reason to kick renters out of their home. It would also go some way to stopping retaliatory evictions, thus making it easier for people to exercise their other rights as renters.
But is this enough? My lease was terminated early this year for an intention to sell. This was a genuine termination, but it's too easy for a lessor to lie and give a fraudulent reason to end a tenancy. This undermines other tenancy laws, it's expensive for the tenant and - most importantly - they lose their home.
What if lessors had to compensate a tenant when they end a tenancy and the tenant isn't at fault? The compensation could be in the form of waiving the last four weeks' rent - the lessor wouldn't actually spend their own money. This would also help with the costs of moving for a genuine termination. But more so, it would deter illegitimate terminations, by making a landlord think twice.
Before I bought my place, I had an elaborate spreadsheet to compare the costs and benefits of ownership versus renting. Now I see this analysis missed so much, because renting was costing me more than I realised. Not just the weekly contribution to someone else's retirement fund, but the insecurity, the alienation from the place I lived, and the restrictions on my freedom and privacy and self-expression.
These costs are social negatives imposed on renters and the community by our current rental laws. If these laws change, these costs will change. In Canberra, more people are renting, and renting for longer. They are raising children, growing old, and retiring in rental properties. These people can't all own a home but, with some action from our government, it is possible that the place they rent could be their home.
- Joel Dignam is executive director of Better Renting, a community of renters working together for stable, affordable, and healthy homes.