Despite a reported “explosion” in unregistered rooming houses and a promised crackdown on dodgy operators, the Victorian Department of Consumer Affairs has prosecuted only three landlords and obtained $8300 in fines.

The department’s annual report states there has been an “explosion” of unregistered rooming housing catering for seasonal workers and international students. It said inspection of 514 rooming houses was one of its “highlights” for the year.

The department said “operators were preying on vulnerable tenants and deliberately offering substandard accommodation.”

Advertisements were placed in suburban, regional and ethnic newspapers encouraging people to call a hotline with complaints about rooming houses.

But only three operators were prosecuted.

Cheng Zhang, of Docklands, was fined $3500 for “breaches” of the Residential Tenancies Act. Rooming house operator Sean Vanden Driesen was fined $4000. He had demanded excessive bonds from tenants, failed to lodge the money with the Residential Tenancies Bond Authority and failed to return the money to tenants when they left. He paid $2340 in costs. The third conviction was of George Maatouk, of Reservoir, after he ignored a court order to compensate a tenant for unlawful eviction. He was fined $800 and ordered to pay $1200 in costs. The department received $360 in compensation for the tenant.

The department told Crikey that one reason for the low number of prosecutions was that tenants feared eviction or other reprisals if they complained. The department claimed it was fully prepared to act when serious and systemic breaches of the law were identified.

The Victorian Government made rooming houses a priority issue and established a Rooming Houses Standards Taskforce, which in September last year made 32 recommendations, including mandatory registration, strengthened compliance and enforcement and increased supply of affordable housing.

A spokesperson for Consumer Affairs said five new rooming houses have been built by the Department of Human Services in response to the report.

Meanwhile, the recent federal Government review of  the regulation of international students identified cases where houses were rented out to up to 20 students without being properly licensed as rooming houses.

The department claims that its action has resulted in a 42% increase in the number of rooming houses that are registered.

Swinburne University Researcher Andrea Sharam told Crikey that rooming house conditions have been poor because this form of accommodation has been a low priority for the Government.

Peter Fray

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