Turning the tables Know Your Landlord project challenges rental application practices in Australia
Researchers question the need for extensive data collection, highlighting problems in the rental application process. Image: Canva.
  • 'Know Your Landlord' spotlights inequalities and privacy concerns in rental applications.
  • Project urges conversation on data concerns, more tenant protections and industry reforms.
  • Sydney researcher argues more tenant protections will not affect housing supply.

A rental crisis is raging in Australia, and it is not likely to get better any time soon.

Research from the 2023 Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot has crowned 2023 the worst year for affordability yet. According to the report, a mere 15.9% of Australian properties were affordable for a family of four working full-time on minimum wage.

Only 0.7% were affordable for a single parent working full-time on the minimum wage. Meanwhile, individuals on Jobseeker payments could only afford four properties across the country.

National weekly rents

The unceasing rent increases have seen many Australians being pushed into shared accommodation, and others, into the streets.

With rental vacancies on an unending downward spiral and talks about stimulating property investment taking centre stage, less attention has been paid to the everyday challenges renters face when securing a property.

National weekly rent listings

In response, urbanism experts from the University of Sydney’s School of Architecture, Design, and Planning have unveiled Know Your Landlord, a creative project comprising a fictitious website depicting a future where renters have more control over the rental process.

Parodying rental apps

Created in the style of rental websites and smartphone applications popular in Australia, the researchers, head of urbanism associate professor Dallas Rogers, research fellow Dr Peta Wolifson, and senior lecturer Dr Sophia Maalsen, the creative project highlights inequities in the rental application process.

Specifically, the researchers spotlight the invasive nature of applying for rental homes by illustrating a rental market where renters can access an equivalent amount of background information on their landlords that landlords often ask for.

“Australia’s rental landscape is disproportionately skewed in favour of landlords. Renters often give up an alarming amount of personal data just to secure a place to live; our project seeks to recalibrate this imbalance and show that a fairer future is possible,” Rogers said.

Data collection dilemma

Maalsen explains that property technology regulation has fallen behind its development, creating privacy concerns regarding the use of data and data breaches in an era where substantial data is being collected.

“It brings into question how much data is necessary to make an assessment of a tenant. These platforms can ask for and harvest a lot more data than the old manual forms process did, and they can analyse this data in ways that can generate biased assessments,” she told The Property Tribune.

“We want people to begin a conversation around how much data is actually necessary to collect on tenants. If we don’t collect this on landlords, why do we need such detailed data on tenants – a CHOICE report earlier this year reported people being asked for medical records and marriage certificates, which ostensibly should have little relevance to your appropriateness as a tenant.”

Sparking conversation and change through incremental steps

While spreading awareness about the unfair nature of the rental application process is a noble pursuit, it is futile if not backed by meaningful change.

As vacancy rates hover at historic lows and the rental market remains heavily landlord-skewed, the idea that renters can meaningfully change the state of play seems like a faraway dream.

Particularly, tenants often avoid challenging landlords on issues like repairs and rent rises, fearing that doing so could place one at the risk of being evicted or denied a future lease renewal, typifying the inequitable nature of the tenant-landlord relationship.

“We know that renters have relatively limited agency in addressing this imbalance in the current context, particularly with such low vacancy rates. There are a few things we can do to start shifting the debate,” Maalsen said.

“Having a conversation with your friends, colleagues, parents, family (some of whom may be landlords) can help.

“Write to your local member to help get these issues on the agenda. Vote for a party that takes these issues seriously.

“These are all small and long-term changes, but to get some material changes, we need to bring this discussion into the public domain in a productive way.”

Taking the heat out of the property market

Alongside the project’s focus on property technology privacy concerns is a call for more tenant protections.

Boldly affirming that housing is an essential service, the website argues that no-cause evictions must be phased out and that further reforms are necessary to protect renters from frequent and excessive rent hikes.

Though more protections for renters may sound like a good idea, some contend that tenant legislation can create an investor exodus, lowering demand for more property and, therefore, more stock being built.

Nevertheless, Maalsen maintains that the market will be better off with more protections.

“If the heat were taken out of a property market in a certain region because it was less investor friendly and investors pulled out, then those properties would potentially become more accessible to people to buy as a home (because we know investment drives up the market) and that in turn would take the pressure off the rental market.

“We know, for example, that developers blame regulations for slowing down the delivery of housing stock, but it is well known that developers land bank so they can build at a time which will give them the best return – they release housing at a rate that benefits their market returns.”

“We also need to move beyond the idea that there is no onus on the landlord to be a good landlord.”

Sophia Maalsen, University of Sydney Senior Lecturer in Urbanism

“We often hear the argument that claims landlords are doing a service in providing housing – as a service provider, why then do we not have the same level of standards and expectations that we do of other service providers, or indeed other institutional housing providers?”

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