Fighting for the rights of Renters: Q&A With Joel Dignam
Joel Dignam is the founder and Executive Director of Better Renting. Created to improve the lives of tenants, Better Renting is a non-partisan community organisation focused on campaigning and changing the culture around the renting experience. Better Renting most recent campaign ‘Home Truths’ aims to help correct the power imbalance that comes with leasing your home. Although the organisation is young it is making an impact in the community, their Facebook community reach is at 1.7k and growing.
I was able to talk to Joel recently to ask him how Better Renting helps the community, and about their new campaign Home Truths, aimed at creating energy power saving solutions for renters.
Q: Can you tell me about your role?
A: I started-up Better Renting last year, after realising all the ways that people who rent in Australia are treated worse than homeowners. Housing is a critical issue that affects your health, your education, and your employment. If we can improve renting, we can make Australia a fairer and more equal society.
Q: Is the Canberra rental market tougher than other places in Australia?
A: Rental laws are rough on renters all over Australia. However, some places are different, because where you have more places available, it does give people who rent more leverage. In contrast, Canberra has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country. What this means is that it’s easy for landlords to replace tenants, and hard for renters to find a new place to live. This creates a power dynamic so, no matter what laws exist on paper, it’s hard for people renting in Canberra to stand up for themselves and feel secure in their home.
Q: Do you believe that the rights of Landlords are taken more seriously than the rights of renters?
A: In tenancy, there is a tension between two different sorts of rights. There are the property rights of the landlord, and then there are the human rights of the renters – the right to shelter. Weirdly, in Australia, the property rights of the landlord are often considered more important, even when this means that someone might become homeless. Some landlords also don’t understand that property rights aren’t absolute: when someone is paying you rent, they should get certain rights to be able to make a proper home.
Q: What is the Home Truths program and how has it come about?
A: Home Truths is a program to help more renters in Canberra understand and benefit from energy efficiency. As part of Home Truths, we’ll be doing home visits to a small number of renters to understand their experiences and help them to make their homes more comfortable and reduce their power bills. At the same time, we’ll be reaching out to other renters to enable them to diagnose and solve problems in their own rental homes. This program has been funded by the ACT Government through a community zero emissions grant. The program came about because lots of the energy efficiency advice out there isn’t suitable for the unique challenges that renters face. We wanted to make something more tailored, and we also wanted a program that would empower renters and help them to make changes themselves – not just do it for them.
Q: If someone wants to get involved with the Home Truths program or volunteer for Better Renting what can they do?
A: We are still accepting expressions of interest for a home visit, so if anyone would like free energy efficiency upgrades for their rental property, they can visit our website and sign up. We also have a Facebook group for people who rent in Canberra. In this group we’ll be sharing resources from Home Truths, and it’s also a place for anyone renting in Canberra to share advice and get support. And if you’d like to volunteer with Better Renting, come along to the launch event for Home Truths, which we are planning for June!