What you need to know about the impact of coronavirus on rental accommodation, how to protect your legal rights and where to seek help.

The Study Melbourne International Students Accommodation Legal Service is a free, confidential and independent legal service to help international students with accommodation issues. Study Melbourne Ambassador Lily Li interviewed one of the service’s lawyers, Ebony Bake, to find out what students need to know about their rental rights during coronavirus.

Lily: For those international students who couldn't come back to Australia due to the travel ban, do they still need to pay rent if they are not living in the property? Can they terminate the agreement/contract under this condition?

Ebony: Once you have entered into a tenancy agreement with a landlord, you are obligated to pay rent and abide by the duties and terms under the law and pursuant to the rental agreement unless you follow one of the following processes to end your tenancy.

There are a number of ways an international student can terminate their lease early and with that end their obligation to pay rent. One of the options available to all tenants in this situation has been introduced in response to COVID-19 and is temporarily available.

If you gave the keys to the property back before you returned overseas you may have broken the lease in which case you are liable to the landlord for break lease fees and costs and the below options will not apply.

Options available depend on whether you have a month to month or fixed term lease.

It is simpler to end  a month to month lease, in this case you can give your landlord 28 days’ notice of your intention to vacate, or, if you are experiencing severe hardship 14 days’ notice of you intention to vacate, in both cases the notice must be in writing and include specific information (see below for more info about giving your landlord a 14 day notice of your intention to vacate).

If you have a fixed term tenancy, some options are:

  1. 14-day notice of your intention to vacate on grounds of severe hardship
    Under the new legislation introduced in response to COVID-19 (expires on 28 March 2021), if you are experiencing severe hardship you can give your landlord 14 days’ notice of your intention to vacate the property in writing. The notice period must not be less than 14 days from the date the landlord receives the notice, must specify the exact vacate date and include details of the severe hardship you are experiencing. At the end of the notice period, you can stop paying rent and vacate the property.

    This notice requires particular information to be included and must be served (given) to the landlord in a particular way. You should seek advice about what to include and how to serve this notice. If a landlord doesn’t agree that you served the notice correctly or doesn’t agree you are experiencing severe hardship, they might argue that you broke the lease and refuse to return your bond and/or submit a claim at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) for an order of compensation against you for break lease fees and costs. Break lease fees and costs include re-advertising fees, re-letting fees and the rent until the landlord finds a new tenant or the lease ends, whichever comes first.

    Note: If you are living with co-tenants one tenant alone cannot end the lease, you must all agree to end the lease. If you have co-tenants who are going to stay in the property, you can obtain both their consent and the landlords consent to transfer your interest in the tenancy to them, or find a new person to move into the property and take over your interest in the lease (see assignment below).
  2. Mutual agreement
    Negotiate with the landlord and come to an agreement to end your lease early. You do not need to agree with your landlord if you believe the terms they are proposing aren’t fair. You should ask the landlord to waive your liability to break lease fees and costs. Your agreement does not need to be a formal document, but the terms of your agreement should be clear and must be in writing.
  3. Apply to VCAT for a reduced lease period
    Apply to VCAT for a reduction of the term of your tenancy agreement. On application, VCAT can make an order bringing the end date of your tenancy forward if they agree that you will suffer severe hardship if your tenancy continues and that your hardship will be greater than the hardship than the landlord will suffer if the tenancy ends.

    If VCAT makes an order in your favour you can move out and stop paying rent on the date specified by VCAT.
  4. Assignment
    You can find another person to ‘take over your lease,’ in this instance the remaining term of the lease will be transferred to the person who takes over. You must obtain the landlords consent before the lease can be transferred and the new tenant moves in and starts paying rent. Your landlord cannot unreasonably refuse their consent. If they do, you should seek advice. If you do not obtain the landlords consent before someone takes over your lease you may be liable to the landlord for break lease fees and costs (see above).

Lily: Does the agent have the right to request student tenants pay an extra amount of money as the student security besides the bond? During coronavirus can students ask to get back the previously paid student security deposit to afford their rent and daily expenses?

Ebony: It depends on what the ‘student security’ is for. A landlord can receive a ‘holding deposit’ from the tenant as a sign of good faith to enter into a tenancy agreement. But they must refund this to the tenant regardless of whether the tenancy agreement was entered into.

The basic payment obligations of a tenant are generally to pay a bond and ongoing rent. The agent or landlord cannot demand money for the making, continuation or renewal of a tenancy agreement that is a premium, bonus, commission or key money. If you are unsure about a charge your landlord is asking you to pay first find out what the charge is for and seek advice.

If you pay a bond the landlord must lodge the bond with the Residential Tenancies Bond Authority. It is an offence not to do so.

Lily: As the current rental property market price drops, could you please provide some tips for international students to renegotiate the rent? 

Ebony: If you are struggling to pay your rent you should contact your landlord to explain your situation and request a rent reduction, you can include information about rental market decreasing to support you request. Here are my suggestions to help you renegotiate the rent:

  1. Call the National Debt Helpline. They can help you work out what rent amount is appropriate for you to pay going forward based on your income and expenses.
  2. If you were working and your hours have been reduced or you are no longer working at all, you should ask your employer to write you a letter explaining this.
  3. Write to your landlord explaining your financial position and ask for a rent reduction. If you need help doing this, you can contact Study Melbourne for an appointment at the ISALS clinic or refer to  the Consumer Affairs Victoria website and Tenants Victoria website where you will find template letters to assist you.
    Attach the letter from your employer and any other supporting material you can gather to your request letter. There is no obligation for you to disclose your private financial information but if you do it might help you reach an agreement.
  4. If you cannot reach an agreement with your landlord, you can submit a complaint form to Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV). They can assist you to negotiate with your landlord.
  5. If you cannot come to an agreement with CAV’s assistance, CAV may refer you to the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria (DSCV) for further mediation. If you still cannot reach an agreement DSCV may make an order, if you or the landlord do not agree this order can be changed or the matter may be referred to VCAT.

This process can take some time, so it is best to lodge a complaint with CAV at the same time you send your letter to the landlord. During the process, if you do not require help from CAV, you can let them know.

As a tenant you may be eligible for the Rent Relief Grant, a Government grant paid to your landlord to help pay your rent. You can find out more information and if you are eligible by going to the Department of Health and Human Services website.

Lily: If international students get into legal disputes with their agent or landlord, where can they can seek free legal advice?

Ebony: You can book with the International Students Accommodation Legal Service via Study Melbourne Student Centre. You can also contact WEstjustice on 9749 7720 or Tenants Victoria via their phone line 9416 2577.

Consumer Affairs Victoria can also provide you with relevant legal information, and if you need further legal advice, they can refer you to tenancy advice.


Disclaimer

The answers above may vary depending on individual cases. Please use it as a reference only. If you need accurate advice and support, please contact the legal service providers listed above.