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Did a viral video expose the need for landlord registries?

By Juliet Helmke
08 February 2022 | 1 minute read

After comedian Tom Cashman’s experience requesting a reference for the landlord of a property he was applying to rent went viral on TikTok, debate has surrounded the question of whether this practice should be normalised, or even encouraged.

After all, renters are routinely asked to provide references to assure property owners that their assets will be in good hands, and the stakes are arguably just as high for renters, for whom dealing with a dodgy landlord can completely disrupt their housing security, health and safety, finances, and mental wellbeing.

According to the NSW Tenants’ Union, however, while the idea has good intentions, it has some inherent issues that might act as a barrier to being actually useful for renters. They argue there are other solutions that could both provide a greater level of transparency for prospective tenants, while also lessening the risk of unethical landlords operating in the marketplace.


The first issue, according to Leo Patterson Ross, chief executive of NSW Tenants’ Union, is that unless the request becomes universally widespread, renters will feel that they run the risk of singling themselves out, and not in a good way.

But even if the practice were to become normalised, issues remain.

“Let’s imagine we get over that stumbling block, and all 10 applicants for a property ask for references, so we’re on a level playing field. The landlord may just say no to all 10. So then maybe two drop out. The other eight may have been looking for a home for the last few months and have applied to numerous properties, and they’re desperate. They’re moving in regardless of what the reference is, or whether they even get one. That’s the real problem: even if we got everyone asking, the ability to make decisions based on the information you’re getting back is pretty limited,” Mr Patterson Ross explained.

The concept of providing tenants with greater transparency around who they’re renting from is hardly a new conversation. Victoria recently implemented a non-compliance register for rental providers, which includes information on landlords who have been brought to tribunal and ordered to remedy a breach or pay compensation. 

A petition circulated in NSW early last year to implement a similar scheme, which received a high enough level of signatories to warrant a response from the Minister for Better Regulation and Innovation Kevin Anderson, but that hasn’t gone anywhere since.

Similar to the idea of adopting the practice of requesting landlord referrals, Mr Patterson Ross points out that these systems have some flaws.

“In Victoria at the moment, there are five complaints on it. It’s a very small thing. Which is our concern,” he said.

“We don’t think that non-compliance register, with a very high bar of tribunal action [for being listed] is as useful as it could be, mostly because most people who are dissatisfied aren’t going to go through the tribunal process.”

This is largely because the complaint needs to be a pretty big issue to go to tribunal, and burning this action might impact a tenant’s rental prospects in future, given that many applications will ask if a tenant has been involved in tribunal proceedings in the past without requiring the context such as who was in the wrong or the issue at hand. It becomes something of a black mark on their record.

The last issue is that non-compliance registers, alongside databases like private landlord review sites, “place things in quite a negative setting,” Mr Patterson Ross commented. “It doesn’t do much to engender trust in that sector.”

What NSW Tenants’ Union suggests as more ideal is the implementation of a landlord registry that mandates landlords obtain a licence from their state body. It would include a database where tenants could see if there are documented issues with their landlord, but more importantly, it would contain a component of education to bring a greater level of professionalism and awareness of standards to the role of being a landlord.

While serving its main purpose of strengthening the experience for property tenants, Mr Patterson Ross believes it would serve a clear benefit to property managers as well.

If landlords are obligated to learn about the probable cost of maintenance to their property each year, for example, and educated on the responsibility to maintain acuity, it essentially “greases the wheels for property managers”, he said.

Landlords who don’t understand their responsibilities put property managers in “a really tricky situation”, Mr Patterson Ross pointed out.

“When a landlord directs an agent to do something unlawful, the agent is essentially forced to either lose the client, or at least skate very close to breaking the law.”

The US state of Utah, he noted, already has a “Good Landlord” program similar to this, while Scotland runs a landlord registry scheme.

At the moment, Mr Patterson Ross noted, it falls to property managers to “fix” a problematic landlord who may not understand their responsibilities.

“I think we sometimes rely on property manager training and licensing too much for the kind of professionalisation that [the sector needs],” he said.

Did a viral video expose the need for landlord registries?
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Juliet Helmke

Based in Sydney, Juliet Helmke has a broad range of reporting and editorial experience across the areas of business, technology, entertainment and the arts. She was formerly Senior Editor at The New York Observer.

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