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Renters must be helped through the crisis


Many solutions have been put forward but it seems likely that all will start with a temporary ban on evictions. The ALP and other opposition parties have proposed this and many countries have also enacted similar bans.

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Since, under the constitution, states have responsibility for tenancy law, they will have to take the lead but the federal government will have to step in to help share the burden fairly.

Suspending evictions resolves the immediate problem but it will foist all the burden on to landlords who will have to accept a loss of rent.

That could strike the 2.1 million individuals who depend on income from rental properties and also many property developers who have rented out apartments.

Banks can help by rescheduling loans for property investors using the $100 billion they received from the Reserve Bank of Australia’s quantitative easing last week.

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Yet suspending evictions carries another risk because it only delays the crisis. Very few households will be able to catch up if they fall three or six months behind on rent.

Billionaire Solomon Lew, who closed his network of Smiggle and Just Jeans stores, has declared he will stop paying rent but ordinary homeowners have less bargaining power.

The federal and state governments should step in to prevent this pile up of rental arrears. This could take the form of a big increase in existing rental assistance for the unemployed, or cuts to property and income taxes to reward landlords who take a flexible approach and reduce rents.

It will be very hard to target the payments in an efficient way to the most needy renters and kindest landlords but in this crisis the government should err on the side of generosity.

The government still has lots of budget firepower left to help ride out this crisis. The $84 billion emergency stimulus package passed by federal Parliament this week is still much smaller as a share of the economy than the $2 trillion which the US Congress is now debating.

The details will take time but the principle of not throwing people out of their homes should come first.

Of course, many homeowners with mortgages are also worried they will fall into arrears. That is why the government must insist that banks honour their promise to reschedule mortgages rather than evict customers.

As well as those who already rent or own houses, state and federal governments should also make sure that the tens of thousands of homeless are able to socially isolate themselves. Increased public housing is urgently needed.

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The financial consequences of the pandemic will drag on for years but ensuring Australians have a roof over their heads must be one of the top priorities.

Herald editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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