Refugees face rent anguish
Paul Bibby, smh
August 29, 2008
UNSCRUPULOUS Sydney landlords are taking advantage of refugees with little or no experience of the city's tight rental market by getting them to sign exploitative rental contracts or evicting them in favour of richer tenants, community service workers say.
Some refugee families are ending up in refuges for the homeless.
Western Sydney migrant workers and tenancy advocates interviewed by the Herald said there was not enough affordable housing in the city's rental market for the 2500 refugee and humanitarian entrants - predominantly from the Middle East and Africa - who settle here each year.
They said the refugees - often placed in the market by Australia's privately run settlement services with little understanding of their rights and responsibilities - had become so desperate they were willing to pay almost anything.
Brij Datt, of the Campbelltown-Wollondilly tenant advocacy service, said the number of refugees and migrants accessing his service had increased by 30 per cent since 2005. Unreasonable rent increases were the most common complaint.
"Landlords are demanding one, two, sometimes even six months' rent, as bond, plus four weeks' rent in advance," Mr Datt said.
"Invariably when they leave they're not going to get their entire bond back and any little scratch mark or stain is picked up and they're just told, 'You did this, you pay for it'."
He said refugee families often arrived in rental accommodation to discover that they had not been cleaned after the previous tenant.
"They show up and the place is filthy but they're too afraid of reprisals to complain - in some cases with good reason."
In the Fairfield local government area, where 8106 refugees have settled between 2002 and 2007, the vacancy rate hovers between 1 per cent and 7 per cent.
"Low-income families reliant on Centrelink payments are provided with eviction notices because landlords want to reclaim properties … in order to raise rents which they think a Centrelink tenant will not be able to pay," the manager of the Fairfield Migrant Resource Centre, Ricci Bartels, wrote in a recent paper, Between A Brick And A Hard Place.
"Rentstart is only available every 12 months which leaves tenants who are evicted [unable to] get adequate, if any, assistance if they are forced to move within 12 months. Services … are faced with clients who present with high levels of anxiety, depression, homelessness and talking of suicide as their only solution."
In Blacktown, home to a number of African refugees, it is not uncommon for refugee families to spend extended periods in refuges for the homeless.
"After they exhaust all options, they get referred to Department of Housing emergency accommodation," the Blacktown Migrant Resource Centre settlement worker, Edward Massimino, said. "But even then there are long waiting lists - it's up to six months - and homeless shelters and crisis accommodation."
Others must squeeze into modest flats with their extended families.
Single mother Reta Dawood, her two children, her two sisters and her mother live together in a two-bedroom flat in Fairfield.
Her two sisters and mother have been unable to find anywhere to live since they arrived about six weeks ago.
The landlord has indicated he may put their flat on the market, leaving the family of Iraqi refugees facing eviction.
"I'm looking for somewhere for my sisters to live, but there is nothing there," Ms Dawood said.
Each fortnight she pays $460 of her $550 Centrelink benefit on rent, relying on the benefits her son receives as a TAFE student.
"Sometimes I'm just waiting for my benefit," she said. "All I can do is hope and pray."