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Beware of Elizabeth!
Thursday 19th August 2010, 2:28AM
Boarders and Lodgers Beware – This Could Happen to You!
From the outside, the house at 91 Avoca St appears like a sleepy, well-kept, grand manor home. The ads touted it as the “International House”. The interior is newly renovated; the décor and furnishings are modern and well appointed. Accompanied by the landlady’s promise of wireless internet and bold assurance that she would only let to no more than 15 people, my sister, with the naiveté of a freshly minted international student, easily fell into the trap.
First, there was no wireless internet. When my sister moved in, Elizabeth – the landlady – said it would be ready by that weekend. Then she changed it to “next week”, then 10-21 working days. Finally, Elizabeth declared the internet was too expensive so she wanted to charge an extra $5 per resident.
Second, the third bathroom was physically blocked off, only to be open when there were enough residents. The weekly cleaning service was never begun, because again, the house was not full. Including my sister, the house already 11 had residents, but even then Elizabeth was not satisfied. She quickly changed the definition of “fully let” from 15 people, as she stated before, to 18 people. With so many people to be in the house, my sister was dismayed to learn that none of the bedroom doors could be locked. Elizabeth claimed that locks would disrupt the “family” feel of the house.
Then, when an officer from the fire brigade inspected the house, he discovered that within the entire house there were only two smoke detectors and none of them worked. The officer called Elizabeth, but instead of expressing remorse for endangering the physical safety of her residents, Elizabeth furiously demanded the name of the whistleblower. When he refused, she called every resident and threatened that she would find the culprit.
Lastly, everything had to be paid in cash and directly to Elizabeth.
Feeling cheated and dissatisfied with the living conditions of the house, all of the residents held a meeting at which they collaboratively wrote a letter detailing their complaints. The residents gave Elizabeth one week to respond and to carry out the promises she made. They asked my sister to email the letter to Elizabeth. One week passed, and nothing changed. The house mates once again tried, this time inviting Elizabeth to a house meeting, but Elizabeth ignored the invitation. Instead, the next day, she posted a long list of new house rules. At the top of the page, Elizabeth declared: “A Lodging House is NOT a residential Tenancy”, implying the resident’s lack of rights under the NSW tenancy laws as they were lodgers and boarders. Therefore, she could impose any rules she pleased, including prohibiting residents from organizing meetings with other residents or guests. That was Elizabeth’s first tactic to stifle the growing resentment within her house.
Her second move was to eliminate my sister and her roommate, who she saw as the principal opponents to her dominion. She blamed them for “coercing” the rest of the residents to complain and for causing “disharmony” within the house. Then she blamed them for not paying the rent on time, even though time after time she missed appointments she had made with my sister and her roommate to come pick up the payments. When she did finally show up on August 5th, 2010, with her husband and another unidentified woman, Elizabeth suddenly evicted my sister and her roommate. They were given one hour to leave the premises. When they objected, Elizabeth called in the police. My sister pleaded her case to the police officer, but was only told in gruff reply that she, the police officer, “had nothing to do about the civil law” and my sister had better “chuck your stuff in and get out”. The officer did not even allow my sister to ask for her name and badge.
In an instant, my sister, an honor pre-medicine student at Johns Hopkins University, USA, was rendered homeless, having been kicked out of her residence like a criminal, and her belongings chucked into trash bags.
When my sister sought the counsel of the Eastern Area Tenants Service, she learned that she was technically classified as a boarder/lodger. Therefore, under the Residential Tenancies Act, she had no legislative rights. Even under the new Residential Tenancies Act of 2010, boarders and lodgers are still omitted from the protection of the tenancy laws; an omission Elizabeth was keen to take advantage. On the other hand, Elizabeth is protected in her ability to affect “without grounds” evictions, a right that remains under the new laws.
My family and I have been dumbfounded by this discovery. How can such glaring discrepancies and inequality still exist in a democratic government like Australia’s? How can a woman who has lied, cheated, and intimidated her residents be afforded more legal protection and rights than my sister who has done nothing but demanded what was promised of her? How could this injustice be justifiable? Even in America, with their declining economy, government in-fighting, and social regresses, there are still politicians, lawyers, businessmen and citizens who are willing to fight to protect the safety, well-being, and rights of illegal immigrants. How could Australia and its government not protect the housing rights of their legal residents?
Through my sister’s experience, I have been severely disappointed in the inadequacy of NSW’s current tenancy laws. I cannot imagine why any legislator would support a law that denies a person the fundamental human right to safe, clean, and comfortable housing without fear of unreasonable eviction. Yet, I am not naïve enough to not understand the workings of government. Like a governor campaigning for re-election, a bill’s chance of success is determined largely by public support and the number of voters. Unfortunately for boarders and lodgers, who are most likely non-citizens and foreigners in Australia on a working or student visa, such as my sister, their lack of voting rights renders their cause inconsequential. Landlords and their representing real estate agents, however, are not only citizens, but have money and the power of the vote. Who fears the toothless dog when a landlord with a whip stands besides it? Sadly for the people of NSW, the whip has come down on the side of the landlords.
For now, my sister is free from the preying of unethical and unscrupulous landlords like Elizabeth. Her school has come to her rescue and has provided housing on campus for her and her roommate. But what of the fate of the countless other boarders and lodgers, whose cries for help may be stifled by intimidating landlords, rejected by the tenants tribunal, or deterred by the expensive and drawn out process of a civil suit? Who will stand up and say enough is enough?