The Guardian May 31, 2000


Are you or have you ever been a tenant?

There is an explosion of computer generated databases which many people 
do not even suspect exist. Tenants are being put on a data base which has 
existed for a long time. 

Its origin can be traced back to the early 1990s and arose from a demand 
from private suppliers of rental housing to keep tabs on prospective 
tenants. The information which is being traded for profit, is usually about 
"bad tenants" or "problem tenants" who have caused difficulties for agents.

Tenants, who for whatever reason are "blacklisted", find it extremely 
difficult (and costly) to prove that their blacklisting may have occurred 
for trivial matters which might include the "crime" of arguing with their 
landlord or agent, taking disputes to a tribunal, etc. 

The Tenants Union of NSW receives most complaints about two companies one 
of which is TICA (Tenancy Information Centre Australasia). Not surprisingly 
it is these same two companies that argue most strongly against any 
regulation of the industry.

Nick Warren of the Tenants Union of NSW explains how difficult it is to be 
a tenant in a dispute with a company which may have blacklisted you for 
whatever reason.

"To launch an action against these companies using current laws is 
prohibitively expensive for tenants. You need solicitors and barristers and 
it is not clear that the companies would be held responsible. What we say 
is that [databases] are such damaging practices and so invasive of people's 
private information that they deserve regulation in their own right. 

The current Federal legislation is not adequate. It relies heavily on 
industry self-regulation. If one goes to the Privacy Commission to lodge a 
complaint one has to go through self-regulation first. The Privacy 
Commissioner has only fined two people in its entire history. It heavily 
stresses consideration and settlement which is inappropriate when the power 
balance is so out of whack between landlord and tenant", said Nick Warren.

"If you want to appeal from that one has to go to the Federal Court of 
Australia which is even more inaccessible than the Supreme Court of NSW. 

Barriers

"We are talking about very significant barriers for tenants to be able to 
give any meaning to these regulations", said Mr Warren. 

The Tenants Union of NSW says that Federal legislation should be tightened 
and appeals made accessible and affordable.

The Tenants Union suggests that grievances and complaints should be dealt 
with by the Administrative Appeals' Tribunal which has a long history of 
dealing with unrepresented tenants. 

The Union had a discussion with the State Minister and pointed out where 
the legislation fails and suggested amendments to the Residential Tenancies 
Act to outlaw the bad practices, to regulate databases so that they will 
have to comply with a strong code of ethics giving tenants ready access to 
the Residential Tenancies Tribunal which is very cheap with no lawyers but 
which is very experienced in resolving disputes.

Mr Warren said that the Minister had given some initial positive feedback 
and has referred it to the Department of Fair Trading for advice.

"We do not expect anything in the short term. We are focusing on putting 
our points to the Federal Government at this point in time", concluded Mr 
Warren.

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