Occupancy Agreements– Why they matter to women

30 January 2020

If you’ve ever rented privately in the Canberra housing market, chances are you’ve signed a Residential Tenancy Agreement. These agreements are a legal document outlining the rights and obligations of landlords, agents and tenants who are party to the agreement, the scope and enforcement of which is subject to the Residential Tenancies ActOccupancy Agreements Blog Graphics

However, while these agreements are enforceable and relatively straightforward for those in conventional tenure, for those living in shared crisis accommodation, campus lodgings, motels or even caravan parks this has not been the case.

Agreements covering these lodgings, known as Occupancy Agreements, have been a vague series of principles that have often not provided certainty to tenants about the nature of their tenure or how issues such as utilities, evictions or disputes will be managed.

Since 2019, the ACT Government has been progressively reforming the Residential Tenancies Act, and the amendments to date have included a formula for capping rent increases, greater rights for those with pets and changes to strengthen the ACT Administrative Tribunal’s authority to alter tenancy agreements in family violence situations.

In line with this reform agenda, the ACT Government has also been consulting on changes to existing laws around occupancy agreements. The proposed changes clarify the difference between an occupancy agreement and a residential tenancy agreement, strengthen the wording around the uses of occupancy agreements, outline obligations relating to bonds and charges and clarify the management of disputes and evictions.

In consultation with Canberra’s women’s crisis and refuge services Beryl Women Inc., Doris Women Inc. and Toora Women, YWCA Canberra made a submission to the ACT Government’s consultation on occupancy agreements. Between our services, we have decades of experience advocating for Canberra women and families and assisting them in accessing and maintaining affordable, safe and secure properties.

Occupancy agreements are currently in place across our services and cover our shared homes for older women as well as emergency accommodation for women escaping domestic and family violence.

Our submission urged those charged with drafting the amendments to appreciate our prioritisation of the safety of the women and children in our services and to value our input as specialists in this field.

We support moves to tighten the legislation around Occupancy Agreements.

For many in Canberra, living in a refuge, motel or caravan park is a last resort following violence or abuse and certainty around their tenure and rights as occupants is essential. Many of those who need this kind of accommodation are women who do not have the resources or support to draw upon during times of crisis.

Despite our support for the principles of legislative reform, our submission highlighted concerns with the draft namely our capacity to legally respond to domestic violence as it may occur in shared accommodation managed by our services. While violence in intimate relationships can present as physical violence it may also consist of financial control, verbal and emotional abuse, and coercive behaviours that can intimidate and restrict the target’s ability to engage in the economy or society. It is important that those who have jurisdiction over the enforcement of agreements understand the dynamics of domestic and family violence.

For those experiencing violence, the period of relationship separation is enormously dangerous. This is a time where women and children need specialist support and reassurance. We cannot perform that vital role if we are not able to uphold their right to domestic safety. For this reason, we highlighted concerns with the draft that outlined notice periods for evictions for those who use violence – periods during which violence may escalate.

As providers of transitional and emergency housing, we consider being able to evict those who use violence as a critical part of our service to the Canberra community. We also noted that procedures such as dispute resolutions or mediation are processes that can be misused by those who use violence, as a strategy to delay severance and to continue exerting control in a relationship.

Consultation on the draft legislation closed on 24 January. We will update members when the outcome of this consultation is known. In the meantime, to learn more about the ACT Government’s public consultation on occupancy agreements, visit https://www.yoursay.act.gov.au/occupancies

If you are party to an Occupancy Agreement and want to find out more about your existing rights and obligations visit http://www.tenantsact.org.au/renting-advice/occupancy-factsheets/occupancy-principles/

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