Albany braces for rental crisis as COVID-19 moratorium ends amid lowest rental vacancy rates in WA

Sarah MakseAlbany Advertiser
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Pivot Support Services chief executive Ian Neil.
Camera IconPivot Support Services chief executive Ian Neil. Credit: Laurie Benson/Albany Advertiser

With Albany’s rental vacancy rates the lowest in WA and the end of the State Government’s COVID-19 emergency rental protection laws just days away, the message from support services is clear — seek help now.

On Sunday, the WA Government’s emergency rent moratorium, which has stopped landlords from raising rents or evicting tenants during the COVID-19 crisis, will end.

In a double blow for some, those relying on the Federal Government’s JobSeeker payments will also lose $150 a fortnight when the emergency subsidy comes to an end three days later.

These changes could force vulnerable people into a highly competitive market with few public housing options to fall back on.

Albany Community Legal Centre principal solicitor Tameka Brown said some landlords and agents would be “champing at the bit” for the moratorium to end, with the need for assistance from renters expected to peak over the next one to three months.

“If anything, during this emergency period we have experienced a small decline in the demand for our services as landlords, and agents have been playing mostly by the rules, though we are expecting this will change quite quickly after Sunday,” she said.

Albany’s rental vacancy rate was sitting at 0.5 per cent in February.
Camera IconAlbany’s rental vacancy rate was sitting at 0.5 per cent in February. Credit: Andy Dean/Getty Images/Hemera

Rent increases and 60-day notifications to terminate tenancies would be more common from next week, Ms Brown said.

“The flow-on effect will then see those whose tenancies do come to an end struggling to find other or affordable housing,” she said.

“And inevitably it will be people on low income and Centrelink who are the most affected.

“We would ask landlords to look beyond what the market rent rate is and to take into consideration the quality of the tenant and the length of their tenure.

“A good tenant can be worth more than a weekly rent increase.”

Albany’s rental vacancy rate was 0.5 per cent in February — the lowest in WA alongside Bunbury, according to the Real Estate Institute of WA.

Despite Albany sitting on the lowest rate, it only represented a drop in 0.4 per cent compared to this time last year. Regional centres like Bunbury and Geraldton recorded a drop of more than 3 per cent in the same period.

REIWA Albany branch chairman Barry Panizza said he had not seen Albany’s rental stocks this low in more than a decade.

But the Wellington and Reeves director stressed the market was cyclical and would bounce back.

“There are many more people inspecting properties,” he said.

“Where we’d have probably seven or eight inspections, we are probably now up to about 15-20 people inspecting properties.”

REIWA Albany branch chairman Barry Panizza.
Camera IconREIWA Albany branch chairman Barry Panizza. Credit: Supplied.

Mr Panizza said he had seen a recent rise in investment property owners looking to move on from the rental market.

“Owners of investment properties have struggled to be able to sell them over the last few years because the market has been tight,” he said.

“Now that there is more demand for property, they can sell their property and get a reasonable price for it.

“They can now sell and move on.”

Despite property insiders predicting rental prices could climb by 20 per cent in Perth once was the moratorium was lifted, Mr Panizza said he estimated Albany rentals would only rise by about 10 per cent.

“Obviously, landlords will be able to increase the rent, and rent will increase,” he said.

“Bearing in mind that WA is the most affordable place to rent in Australia, and Albany is even more affordable than the metropolitan area.

“It is all about supply and demand, and with the stimulus packages for building new properties, eventually there will be more houses available than there will be tenants.”

A Shelter WA report released earlier this month found 77 people were experiencing homelessness in Albany, with 35 per cent of Albany renters in rental stress and 20 per cent of homeowners in mortgage stress.

Pivot Support Services chief executive Ian Neil said “demand is ahead of us, not behind us”.

“I think the peak of disadvantage and crisis will probably be in two or three months time,” he said.

Albany from Mt Melville.
Camera IconAlbany from Mt Melville. Credit: Laurie Benson/Albany Advertiser

Pivot’s COVID-19 relief fund, backed by $500,000 from the State Government through Lotterywest, has been offering three streams of support to people in crisis across the Great Southern since August.

Among the support options available are funds to keep people facing housing distress or debt in their homes.

“What we anticipated last year was that people would be going into significant housing stress and the people that would be going into housing stress would not have necessarily contacted any community services before,” Mr Neil said.

“What we have been seeing, particularly in the last six weeks, is just that.

“There has been a steady stream of people coming into the office who are in significant housing debt. It is a whole new profile.”

Mr Neil said he only expected these numbers to increase.

“When people feel that they are getting themselves into difficulty in relation to paying rent or household expenditure, we want them to contact us sooner rather than later,” he said.

“We are finding people are waiting until they’ve got a substantial debt and the stress has built up.

“We will work with them to try and reduce that debt.

“We want them to develop a plan back to sustainability.”

Ms Brown encouraged anyone who was facing eviction or a rental increase, or who was worried about how they could be affected to contact the Albany Community Legal Centre or Circle Green Community Legal.

“The important point is tenants need to be proactive and seek out early advice and assistance,” she said.

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