International students in Australia encounter a range of housing problems that undermine their right to adequate housing and in many cases breach their legal rights under Australian laws.
According to a report published by UNSW Human Rights Clinic, international students are subject to bond issues, scams, a lack of tenancy agreements, unfair evictions, poor living conditions and harassment.
The study also found more than half of the students surveyed who live in shared housing encountered deceptive and illegal conduct.
Subsisting in these poor living conditions, international students have become the most preyed on targets in the housing market.
Advertisement showing no official lease for a period of stay on a real estate portal
International Students are the perfect ‘cows’ for exploitation
Board Member of the Law Institute of Victoria and Vice President of the Australian Asian Lawyers Association Molina Asthana says this phenomenon occurs because landlords have higher bargaining power.
“International students are worried about their visa status and are not aware of their rights fully, so owners usually have a higher bargaining advantage.”
“In most cases, a person is living with five other students, and one of them is the lead tenant. So that one student has a contract, others are just paying him/her, so that arrangement is not even recorded anywhere.”
“That becomes a problem because how can they get a solution to something that is not even produced on paper. I always advise students to have an official lease or sublease where they are recorded as a party,” says Ms. Asthana.
Lawyer Molina Asthana
Ms. Asthana also states a big problem is the lack of awareness within the international students community about tenancy issues and tenants’ rights; especially during COVID-19 times.
“International Students can go to a community legal center or Consumer Affairs to get advice but issues arise because firstly, international students don’t even know where to go, and secondly, they don’t know what their rights are in these circumstances.”
“During coronavirus, a law was passed called COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020, which states that for the next six months, landlords cannot evict tenants.” These laws have been extended to prevent certain evictions until 28 March 2021.
“Landlords also should not increase rent during this period and there is also a new dispute settlement process prescribed which tenants can use for free, but most international students don't know about this,” says Ms. Asthana.
Ms. Asthana also says that it is perfectly safe to report on your landlord in case anything illegal has occurred.
“You are well within the rights to report your landlord, the issue is that most students are on a student visa or temporary visa so they think it will get canceled if they get into a legal dispute, which is not the case,” says Ms. Asthana.
Let students help other students
A student at Monash University, Nishita Chavhan has started a Youtube Channel called StashCash to improve knowledge and awareness for international students.
Ms Chavhan claims herself to be lucky and was only a few moves away from making a wrong decision regarding her tenancy situation.
Now through her Youtube Channel, she empowers other students by creating explanatory pieces on how to survive Australia as an international student.
A video on StashCash comparing Aussie student housing options
"I was this close to making mistakes that would have cost me thousands, but I am doing this so that other students are getting the same directions that I got."
"International students don't know how things are, and the way the things work, and I don't want anyone to get scammed out of their money," says Ms Chavan.
Ms Chavan states that it is imperative to go and visit the place yourself and confirm the information in the advertisement.
"It is essential to go and visit the house so that you know the condition of the house, the safety of the locality and how safe the house is."
"It is also important to ask for pictures from the owner so that it shows how willing they to help you and they are not doing anything shady."
Ms Chavan also says that another key aspect that helps is to join your universities WhatsApp group.
"What this does is that it gives you access from other students and seniors from your university straight away."
"So you will have more dependable sources rather than Gumtree or the marketplace to get a house, helping you and making your search more reliable," says Ms Chavan.
Housing arrangements offered to international students where 3 people share 1 room. Source: Gumtree
The correct way to register an agreement
Mr Ben Cording, Principal Lawyer at Tenants Victoria, explains that most of the active crimes amongst international students are in the cybercrime space or unregistered tenancy bonds.
"We have seen significant cybercrime through students who pay rent only to find the premises doesn't exist, or is already occupied; or students who find the residence is an unregistered rooming house with large numbers of residents."
"We have seen operators who make threats against people's migration status, and large numbers of tenancy bonds unregistered because it allows the operator and premises to be more readily identified, and it's simply easier to keep people's money when they want to leave," says Mr Cording in a statement to SAARI Collective.
Mr Cording says that registering yourself with a written agreement will help you in case anything goes wrong.
"Often, international students who find themselves in unregistered rooming houses are scared that they have done something wrong. This is not the case at all."
"However, in most cases, for people to effectively protect themselves, they need to go to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). This is generally a free tribunal regardless of the outcome," says Mr Cording.
A spokesperson for Consumer Affairs Victoria told SAARI Collective that if an international student has renting issues that they cannot resolve with their landlord, they should contact Consumer Affairs Victoria, which will try to resolve the matter informally or refer it to formal mediation, or to VCAT.
"International students who need help can access a dedicated translation and interpreting service for renting matters on 1300 405 282."
International students can also receive a housing support rent-relief grant of $3,000 from Housing Victoria once they have lodged their rental agreement with Consumer Affairs.
For more help
If you are an international student experiencing an emergency or the threat of domestic violence, please contact the police on 000.
If you have any problem with your lease or landlord, you can contact Consumers Affairs Victoria free of charge. Tenants do not need permission from their landlord to contact Consumers Affairs Victoria.
Tenants Victoria also provides a range of Victorian Government measures to assist international students, and is pleased that students in Victoria may also access the state government rental subsidy that is being made available.
Nishant Kulkarni is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, and a regular contributor to SAARI.