Why the new rental laws aren’t enough? How is Anika Legal filling the gaps?
In March of 2021, the eviction moratorium was ended by the Andrews government in Victoria. With rising eviction applications from landlords to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, the sentiment around most rental groups was concern relating to individuals in COVID-hit vulnerable job sectors. Months later with extensions of lockdowns, people are at their wit’s end trying to accumulate enough resources to get through this tumultuous period. Individuals in those vulnerable sectors are struggling to support their families with the $750 disaster payments. Tenants Victoria, the peak body for the state's renters, conducted a snapshot survey of renters from July 28 to August 3 — just after the fifth lockdown ended.
Of the 684 respondents, 69 per cent said they had been financially impacted due to the 12-day lockdown in July 2021. The report then suggested the government implement an eviction freeze.
The government instead revealed new rental laws that did not include plans for an eviction moratorium. A government spokeswoman said, “There was no gap in protections for renters once the eviction moratorium ended; Under our new rental laws, a renter cannot be evicted unless the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) decides that it is reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances”.
They now also provide a one-off rent relief payment of $1500 but the situation continues to remain dire, given the extended lockdown. Refugee communities and families are being affected the most.
Consumer Affairs Victoria received 107,621 “contacts” related to renting issues – 16,045 were related to eviction or termination. This was a 200% increase from the previous year, demonstrating the grave state of the public’s financial situation. In the case of a recent VCAT decision, the tenant, who had worked as a rideshare driver and was unable to pay the rent because of COVID-19, was evicted. Renters and Housing Union’s Mitch Alexander speaks to the effectiveness of the new laws, “It’s self-evident that the laws are not enough. People are not comfortable enough to negotiate with their landlord and with no eviction moratorium they fear the retaliation they could face later down the track”.
The rent relief grant seems to be extremely prescriptive in nature and leaves many people that do not meet the requirements of the grant in the dark. The efficiency of implementation has also been drawn into light, where Anthony Webb, chief executive of Philip Webb, says “The relief package had taken too long to be put in place. Tenants and landlords are both struggling through Melbourne’s sixth lockdown.”
With the evident gaps in the government’s policy, organisations like Anika Legal step in to graciously assist those in need. Providing free legal assistance to people who can’t access it, they do so through the help of student volunteers. What started as an idea by six friends at the Melbourne Global Legal Hackathon 2018, is now a team of 70 passionate people providing rental repair and rent reduction support. Anika targets its efforts to clients that face the biggest barriers to accessing justice - refugees, differently-abled individuals and single parents.
In the Financial year of 2020 alone, they were able to provide legal assistance to a staggering 213 cases. 52% of their clientele are in insecure work, underemployed or unemployed. They did not turn down a single eligible client.
Anika prides itself on the speed of its services while still maintaining an emotional connection with its clients to truly help them. They provide a 10-minute questionnaire to understand your situation and have a terrific turnaround time that averages to 1.3 days. In response to the state of evictions in Victoria, they also launched an eviction support service in March.
Noel Lim, Anika Legal CEO & Co-founder, says “Each year, over 600,000 Australians do not receive sufficient legal support, while VCAT hears around 20,000 cases of tenants being evicted for rent arrears. With the eviction ban set to be lifted at the end of March, we’re expecting these numbers to increase significantly. We’re hoping our new service can offer assistance in this extremely stressful time.” They have helped 16 tenants who have been evicted to stay in safe and secure homes.
To hear more about Anika Legal’s work and the people behind it, we sat down with Noel Lim. These are some excerpts from the interview:
What drew you to the idea for Anika Legal in the Global Legal hackathon originally?
The thing that drew us to Anika Legal was an insistent friend from University. Her idea was for us to go to the global legal hackathon and spend a weekend solving legal problems.
From the first round of the hackathon, they gave you a set of problems and asked us to solve one or more of them through an innovative solution. We then developed a pitch and went through to the second round. We had to submit an idea based on our pitch and won. The final round was in New York where we pitched in a gala with competition from different countries. We placed runners up in the world. That was how the idea of Anika was born- in a pressure cooker competition.
What are some of the complications you have faced with your new eviction service?
We launched the service in March, well expecting a huge overflow of people who were being evicted. People who had not been able to earn much money (if they'd been stood down because of the impact of COVID) could seek out legal advice on their situation. Our service helps them negotiate a payment plan, challenge an eviction, or find a place to stay. The service also aims to give them more time to find their next accommodation. What is often the difference between someone who will fight moving out or someone who will hit the streets, is the time they get to move and organise a new place of stay. The common issue we face with the service is the lack of knowledge to challenge the landlords, combined with a lack of information regarding the ability to challenge the eviction. Renters are often hesitant to ask for help or rock the boat with the landlord because of the power dynamic imbalance. People usually figure the landlord might make things difficult and increase the rent when they kick up some sort of fuss. They find it difficult to enforce their rights as a result. That’s where Anika steps in to inform and guide them to equitable outcomes.
Can you explain your pilot’s programs importance to the future of Anika?
We have a couple of exciting things on the horizon for Anika. We run a program with Deakin University and their students take up cases under the supervision of an experienced lawyer. We're looking to expand our university programs by working with other universities. The goal is to set up an infrastructure of learning and change. Apart from the pilot programs, we're aiming to launch new services as well. We’ll be launching our bond recovery service in the next months. New services mean we can help more clients and subsequently the running of more university programs to increase the number of students supporting renters. Our goal is to keep growing Anika and the impact we have.
How has your role specifically enabled you to give back to the community?
I was interested in getting involved in Anika because I see its potential to be able to provide access to justice on a scale that hasn't been done before using this unique service delivery model. We've helped almost 400 renters maintain safe and secure housing. I think that's something that the whole organization has really pulled together to make possible. My contribution is just a part of that help we’ve been able to provide. What I'll have to keep contributing to, is the ability to grow what we're doing and help people on a much larger scale.
As we can see, Anika Legal’s steps to educate the public about the need for legal service during their COVID-impacted time of need have saved many from sleepless nights. Noel and his team continue to grow and plug in any gaps left by the support system designed for the people. Their contributions are tremendously valuable to the livelihood of numerous individuals.