Inquiry into biotoxin-related illnesses in Australia

One of the most common issues Tenants Victoria is contacted about is mould.  These queries tend to increase during the colder months of the year as increased humidity wreak havoc on many buildings.

According to a survey conducted by CHOICE and the National Association of Tenancy Organisations last year, 20% of renters said they have experienced mould growth in their homes that was difficult to remove or reappeared.  The survey also found that 21% of tenants had experienced water leaks and flooding issues in their homes, a known catalyst for mould growth.

Unfortunately, mould too often leads to a range of illnesses – including asthma, dermatitis and Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome – for the renters who are forced to deal with mould issues.  The relationship between biotoxins such as mould and respiratory illness has been confirmed through multiple studies both here and abroad.

That is why, when the Federal Government’s Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport commenced an inquiry into biotoxin-related illnesses in Australia, the team at Tenants Victoria was happy to respond to the call for submissions.

A number of factors contribute to the prevalence of mould in residential tenancies.

While little statistical data exists relating to the prevalence of ageing housing stock in the rental market, it has been our experience that the age and general condition of rental properties is a significant contributing factor to mould growth.  A disproportionate number of renters live in housing of a poor standard, particularly those from low income households.  This issue is no more apparent than in the rooming house sector, where a range of maintenance issues are commonplace.

National building codes also play a role.  Building codes are not uniform across Australia; each State and Territory is responsible for setting their own standards.  What’s more, these standards are not retrospective, only applying at the time of building or major renovation.  This lack of uniformity and forward planning also means that new buildings such as apartment complexes are not immune to the risk of mould growth.

One of the biggest factors for renters in particular is a lack of legislated protections in place for helping them overcome mould issues.  Currently, landlords are not required to follow any minimum health, safety or energy efficiency standards in Victoria’s private rental market.  While certain standards exist for rooming houses, they are not sufficient to provide ample protection against mould and other biotoxins.

For residents in all types of residential tenancies, renters face a complex and often time consuming repairs process to get mould issues rectified, which places the onus on the tenant to prove that mould growth is dangerous and requires immediate action.  This is further exacerbated by landlords, property managers and maintenance staff who don’t understand the health implications of mould growth or how to properly remediate it.  More often than not, quick and cheap fixes that do nothing to resolve the issue are selected over more lasting solutions.  Additionally, renters who are unable to achieve an adequate resolution to mould issues are left powerless due to a lack of adequate sanctions when landlords and property managers don’t respond effectively.

Tenants Victoria has recommended that the Australian Government leads and facilitates a series of changes by States and Territories to reduce biotoxin-related illnesses experienced by tenants, and lead to safer and healthier rental housing across the country.  These include:

  • development of mandatory uniform minimum rental housing standards that reduce tenants’ exposure to biotoxins and demand on the Australian health system from biotoxin exposure,
  • standardisation of statutes and regulations relating to repair of rental properties, including defining mould as urgent repair, developing sanctions for failure of duty, and ensuring it is investigated and repaired by appropriately qualified tradespeople,
  • creation of mandatory uniform disclosures about health and safety matters including asbestos, previous flood damage or mould occurrence, and
  • better education through professional practice requirements to upskill building professionals, tradespeople and property managers about mould issues.

The Victorian Government has already started the process of legitimising mould issues in residential tenancies by classifying mould and pest infestations as urgent repairs in the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill introduced to Parliament on 7 August.  Find out more about this bill and how you can help in the effort to get it passed before the state election by visit the Make Renting Fair website at: www.makerentingfair.org

Tenants Victoria’s full submission to the Inquiry into Biotoxin-related Illnesses in Australia can be found at: www.tuv.org.au/policy-research/submissions

 

Tenants Victoria would like to thank the enters whose case studies are featured in this report, and the teams at the Tenants Union of Tasmania, the Tenants Union of New South Wales and Tenants Queensland for their contributions and support in developing this submission.

 

Related links:

Advice: Repairs

Advice: Giving your landlord a breach of duty notice

Advice: The Tribunal (VCAT)