Below is a brief history of the Tenants Union of Victoria, from its grassroots beginnings in the mid 1970s to our ongoing work today.
In 1974 a group of disgruntled tenants in Royal Court in Parkville formed a tenants association to do something about their landlord. Rents were continually rising, despite the landlord’s failure to carry out repairs. The tenants at Royal Court soon realised that the basic problem was the archaic tenancy laws that still existed in Victoria at that time.
Prior to 1981, landlord and tenant relations were principally governed by the Landlord and Tenant Act 1958 and common law. The Landlord and Tenant Act was an arcane piece of legislation that had as much to say about standing corn and barley as the rights of contemporary tenants in an urban context.
At about this time, there was also a growing awareness of poverty in Australia. The Henderson Inquiry into Poverty
of 1972-1975 established that tenants were among the most likely to experience poverty.
The Royal Court tenants took their story to the media and in the process raised the issue of tenancy law reform in Victoria. Support and momentum steadily grew, leading to the formation of the Tenants Union of Victoria. The first informal legal advice service for tenants was established by Michael Salvaris at the Brotherhood of St Laurence in October 1974.
In these formative years, small grants funded the establishment of several smaller Tenants Union branches across
Of course there had been other attempts to organise tenants and change tenancy law but none of these had been sustained. The rights of tenants were continually frustrated by the property rights of owners. One factor that was crucial
to the success of this attempt was the marriage of tenants’ rights to the broader consumer rights movement. By the mid 1970s, consumer rights had gained acceptance and the idea that tenants, as consumers, are entitled to basic consumer protection became easier to support in public policy.
Once formed, the Tenants Union—with a number of other community organisations—was instrumental in having the Community Committee on Tenancy Law Reform established, which ultimately led to the Residential Tenancies Act of 1980.
Since its inception the Tenants Union has worked continuously to provide advice to as many individual tenants as possible while working towards long-term change for the benefit of all tenants. We successfully campaigned to have caravan park residents included in the 1987 legislation and rooming house residents covered in 1990. After a protracted campaign of more than ten years, an independent Residential Tenancies Bond Authority was established in 1997.
Since that first informal advice service of 30 years ago, we have assisted more than half a million individual tenants.
The need for basic advice and advocacy for residential tenants is as strong as ever and we are now assisting more than 30,000 public and private tenants each year.
While we have made some major steps forward, there are still significant issues to address. Private tenants are still more likely to experience poverty. General affordability for most tenants has declined over the last ten years as the amount of low cost housing has diminished. Public housing is in decline and cannot cope with the demand. There are still no real minimum standards for rental housing.
While the consumer rights movement was very beneficial in providing a framework for action, what is needed now is greater recognition of rental housing as a basic human need. Ironically, Victorians probably have more rights attached to their toaster or second hand car than their rental housing.
A major challenge for the next few years is to continue to raise awareness and understanding of tenants’ needs amongst government and policy makers.
From that small dispute at Royal Court bigger things continue to grow.
To provide a snapshot of the last 40 years, the table below compares housing data in Victoria at the time of the 1971 Census with data from the Censuses in 2001 and 2011.
|Number of households||1,015,616||1,667,687||1,944,687||+91%|
|Average household size||3.3||2.6||2.6||-0.7%|
|Number of private rental households||211,171||328,176||424,316||+101%|
|Number of public housing tenants/households||45,820 (tenants)||62,355* (households)||62,779* (households)||n/a|
|Number of people on public housing waiting lists||not available||41,958||44,204||n/a|
|Average gross weekly earnings||$86.20**||$714.60 (Nov 2002)||$1,033.30 (Nov 2011)||12-fold increase|
|Median weekly rent||$23||$185||$277||12-fold increase|
|Average house price||$16,476†||$267,000††||$475 000†††||28-fold increase|
|Average weekly mortgage repayment||$18.11†||$200.08***||$392.31***||21-fold increase|