Real estate agency says it ‘strongly rejects’ any suggestion the notice was related to the request
Somehow, Karen Thorne knew she was about to be evicted.
She had been seeking repairs to the air conditioner in her home in Rosemeadow, Sydney, since 2020. A technician told her back then it was a quick fix, but she shouldn’t use it until he had got the sign off from the real estate agent to fix it.
He never came back.
In summer, without the air conditioner, the house reached 38C inside. In winter, it could fall as low as 6C.
Thorne claims the real estate agency disagreed that the air conditioner and other fixtures in the house needed further attention, and rejected her repeated requests for repair.
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Things came to a head this year after Thorne requested a minor modification to the bathroom be made under her NDIS plan.
Thorne lives with the pain-amplifying condition fibromyalgia, and Scheuermann’s disease, which affects her spine and her mobility. She cannot regulate her own body temperature and uses a walker. She requires help with daily living and has been a Centrelink recipient for years as she cannot work.
Earlier this year, Thorne was finally approved for an NDIS package. One of the recommendations of the occupational therapist who assessed her was that a handrail be installed in the shower.
At an inspection of the property on 23 June – the second in-person inspection this year – at which the property owners were present, Thorne reiterated her repair requests and directly asked for permission to install the handrail in the shower. In New South Wales, landlords are not allowed to unreasonably withhold consent for minor modifications.
Thorne said the agent responded by saying this would not happen.
“‘None of that will be done here’,” Thorne alleged the agent said. “‘Because when you leave, we’d want to get over $600 [per week] for this place, and we’ve got families on our waiting list.’”
“I felt really intimidated and bloody threatened,” Thorne said. “So I backed off.”
Thorne’s former partner, whom she had asked to be present during the inspection, supported her account to Guardian Australia.
The real estate agency that manages the property denied that this incident occurred or that the agent said those words, and “strongly rejects any suggestion that any of its staff have acted aggressively or improperly towards Ms Thorne”, a spokesperson said.
Thorne said she reiterated her requests in writing that afternoon, referring to the tenancy legislation. Five days later, she said, she received a no-grounds eviction notice.
Thorne interpreted this as retaliation for her attempts to assert her rights as a renter with a disability.
The agency said it “strongly rejects the claim the notice was issued for any other reason than the landlord requested possession of the property” and said Thorne was informed of several other comparable properties it had available.
A spokesperson further alleged that the agency had “a record of numerous occasions, supported by witnesses, of rude and insulting behaviour displayed by Ms Thorne”.
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Thorne did not deny she might have been rude or insulting in her dealings with them, but said she had been trying to stand up for herself.
Thorne has documented at least 17 occasions since 2020 on which she requested repairs in the property be completed, including the air conditioner, a leaking vanity unit in the bathroom and an unusable clothesline. In late 2020, she took her case to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, but withdrew it because, she said, she thought the repairs were going to be made. The agency said the repairs were attended to, but Thorne said they ultimately were not, so she decided to go back to NCAT. The agency did not comment on the current case.
Thorne has since also taken the dispute to the NSW Office of Fair Trading.
A spokesperson for the OFT said they were aware of the issues raised by Thorne and were assisting her.
“We remind landlords they are required to provide minimum standards of living including ensuring a reasonable state of cleanliness and that it is ‘fit for habitation’,” the spokesperson said. “A tenant can make changes to a property if they have written consent from the landlord or if the tenancy agreement allows it. If the request is minor, the landlord cannot unreasonably decline it.”
Renters’ advocates at Better Renting and the Tenants Union of NSW said the current state of NSW tenancy law meant renters were still vulnerable to being hit with a no-grounds eviction due to retaliation, and unless they had specific documentation, it could be very hard to prove at tribunal.
The NSW Labor government has committed to ending no-grounds evictions. The policy and advocacy manager at the Tenants’ Union of NSW, Jemima Mowbray, said the law also needed to change to strengthen protections against retaliatory evictions, including ensuring renters were not required to carry the burden of proof.
The executive director of Better Renting, Joel Dignam, said survey data showed renters with a disability were more likely than others to have received a no-grounds eviction notice.
“Sadly tenants can risk losing their home just for asking for changes to help make it accessible,” Dignam said. “Landlords should be required to have a reason to end a tenancy.”
The policy and advocacy director at Disability Advocacy Network Australia, El Gibbs, said: “Advocates hear these kinds of stories all the time, and it’s not OK. People with disability need access to accessible homes, including being able to make small modifications to make something safe like a bathroom.”
Gibbs said it was another reason why NSW should sign up to basic accessibility standards for new homes – it is one of only two states to reject these elements of the national construction code.