Trina Jones is on a mission.
Just a few weeks into her role as NSW’s first rental commissioner, Trina is crystal clear on one thing – she wants to foster a better balanced, more mature rental sector, where all parties work together.
Because, while a key part of her role is to provide a voice for renters, that doesn’t mean ignoring landlords.
“Landlords need tenants and tenants need landlords,” Trina says.
“And I’m very attuned to the delicate supply balance that we have right now and very keen to ensure that the partnership efforts are a number one priority, and that any changes we do make are made and informed by people who will be impacted because this is people’s lives and their livelihoods.”
Creating better balance
Appointed rental commissioner at the beginning of August, Trina hit the ground running, with the recent response to proposed changes to NSW’s rental laws blatantly laying bare the main issues of the rental crisis, as seen by the people living them.
“We recently had the improving rental reforms consultation and we’ve broken records in terms of the response – over 16,000 people completed the survey,” she notes.
“And we had over 400 long-form submissions, so that’s given me a wealth of knowledge to begin to shape my recommendations to strengthen our Residential Tenancies Act, but also to start to think about how we get better balance in the rental market.
“My role really will be to provide a voice for renters and also to work alongside property providers and others in the rental market to ensure that we can create a future in NSW where renting is fair, quality and affordable.”
Trina says one message that really stood out in the ‘Have your say’ component of the consultation process was that both tenants and landlords were doing it tough and often felt as though they were pitted against each other.
That’s a mindset she’s determined to change.
“What we saw in the feedback from the ‘Have your say’, was a lot of fear,” Trina says.
“Fear on both sides and a lot of stress.
“We know that renters are really doing it tough, but we also heard from property providers who are under a lot of pressure.
“What was really helpful for me was getting an insight into their views about how we can make renting fairer, but also giving me a deeper insight into where we need further work.”
Listening to all stakeholders
On the back of the ‘Have your say’ feedback, Trina has since coordinated roundtables with industry experts, advocates, academics and thought leaders, to discuss potential changes to the NSW Residential Tenancies Act and the potential unintended consequences and opportunities that could come from amending the legislation.
She says over the coming weeks she will also be meeting with renters and landlords to dig a lot deeper into the issues, as they see them.
Two of the key priorities at the moment is ending no grounds evictions and making it easier for tenants to have pets.
“That’s really about security and it’s about being able to make your house a home,” Trina says.
“Currently in NSW, a property provider can end a tenancy for any reason.
“The Residential Tenancies Act allows the landlord to end periodic tenancy agreements and fixed-term agreements after the term has passed.
“What that means is the tenant can be paying their bills, can have no issues in the tenancy and still not be able to keep their property, and that property can be leased out to someone else.
“So no grounds evictions really undermine protection for renters.”
But Trina recognises property providers also need a level of certainty and she says establishing ‘reasonable grounds’ for ending a tenancy would provide that.
“Getting reasonable grounds right creates certainty for property providers and simplifies things for real estate agents and NCAT, and it also means that the clearer and simpler it is, it can mean better relationships with the tenant as well,” she notes.
“It’s like, ‘We all know what we signed up for here, this decision’s been made based on X’ and this can help build those relationships.
“This is also a win, because there’s a bit of mistrust between tenants and landlords and that comes from the power imbalance, but also some of the narrative that they’re somehow pitted against each other.
“I don’t agree with that, and I really want to see us better working together.”
The plan is to bring the changes through cabinet before Christmas.
Looking at the rental market differently
Trina, who grew up in a social housing community herself, says another element she’s keenly passionate about changing in the NSW rental market is the current view that renting is a stop gap solution for people on their way to buying a home.
She said the recent Intergenerational Report predicted a significant reduction in home ownership and a rise in lifetime renters into the future and now was the time to prepare for that.
But to do that would mean “treating the rental market in a different way”.
“Something I’m very passionate about discussing is the opportunity to mature the rental market and to have more diversity of suppliers,” she says.
“I really believe that a viable and sustainable rental sector is a key building block for a modern economy and strong communities.”
Trina says her goal is for tenants to view the rental market as one that offers security, quality and genuine choice of tenure in the right locations.
But also that landlords see it as one they can invest in with certainty and viability.
Institutional investment, social and affordable housing and build-to-rent will all have roles to play in this regard, Trina says.
“I’m very interested in institutional investment, thinking about how we can get a better deal for smallholding investors,” she notes.
“But I’m also very engaged in the discussions across government and industry about investment in housing supply and supply of social and affordable housing.
“We need our smallholding landlords, but we also need to be thinking about a more resilient rental market that has more diversified investors, including institutional investors and government.”
Trina says there are about 20 build-to-rent developments in the NSW planning system at the moment which, if approved, will provide more than 6600 homes.
“I’m meeting with build-to-rent providers and I’m very engaged in the opportunities for build-to-rent to deliver outcomes,” she says.
“And we know it can do that, but we also have to bear in mind that just more supply won’t necessarily deliver affordable supply, so we have to think about the original build-to-rent, which is social and affordable housing as well.”
Trina also praised Victoria for its bold housing statement, which was announced last week, noting that the state had taken on NSW’s ideas for a portable bond scheme and banning rent bidding.
She says she meets weekly with Victoria’s Commissioner for Residential Tenancies Dr Heather Holst, and the pair were also working alongside the Federal Government.
“Even though there’s only two rental commissioners in the country, we’re trying to create a bit of a movement to say, ‘What are the lessons that we’re learning from the two bigger states, and how can that influence the national agenda, and how can the national agenda influence the different state agendas as well in an appropriate way, to make sure we’re working together’,” Trina says.