Sleeping in the car is looming as the only option for stranded Victorians who have spent thousands on emergency accommodation in NSW on top of the rent for homes they can't get to because of the border closure.
Seddon couple Juliet Brown, 26 and Cameron Reiss, 27 are stuck in limbo in regional NSW with their cat Ernie as they chip away at their savings while paying for their empty home in Melbourne's inner west.
Cameron Reiss, Juliet Brown and Ernie the cat.
After visiting family in Sydney after a long year in lockdown the couple planned to spend two weeks in what was then the "green zone" of NSW. Ernie suffers from a neurological condition which means he had to come along on the trip.
But the couple's plan was dashed when the hard border went up over New Year's Eve.
They fear returning to COVID-affected Sydney to stay for free with family could further imperil their chances of getting home.
"We’ve been trying to get an exemption, and have been waiting to hear back," he said.
"We don’t really know, there's a lot of uncertainty and a lot of anxiety."
Thousands of dollars out of pocket from booking last-minute accommodation in Culburra Beach on the NSW south coast, Mr Reiss said the indefinite wait for an exemption was "hugely stressful" – mentally and financially.
They have found a few days' relief at a friend's home in Jindabyne but will soon need to find somewhere else to stay.
"There’s only so many places you can book at these huge Christmas period rates without running out of money," Mr Reiss said. "If that's what we have to do, we’ll be in the car with the cat."
Other renters, such as Melbourne-based school teacher Michael, are facing being stood down without pay due to the ongoing border closure.
Michael, 34, who did not wish to use his last name so he could speak freely about his employment, also had his plan to leave NSW thwarted. He is paying for rent in Melbourne, as well as covering payments on an apartment in Sydney he has not been able to find a tenant for since mid-2020.
He will now miss a series of mandatory courses required of him to be certified to begin teaching classes again this year.
"I'll be stood down without pay until I can go off my own bat, try and organise these mandatory courses and qualifications that only happen so often and [cost] hundreds of dollars," he said.
Consumer Affairs Victoria said some renters trapped in NSW may be able to negotiate rental relief under Victoria's emergency COVID-19 laws.
A spokesman said tenants who were deemed in 'severe financial hardship' could also give a notice of intention to vacate within 14 days or in some situations can apply to VCAT for an order to end a fixed-term tenancy early.
Tenants in these cases would also not be liable for lease-breaking fees if they end a tenancy early.
Amidst the thousands of people applying for border exemptions are also those who need to get home to empty rental properties as leases end. Consumer Affairs Victoria advises that landlords are required to store personal property of tenants for up to 28 days so they can be collected.
"We’ve [also] extended the evictions moratorium in Victoria until 28 March, to help to protect tenants experiencing severe hardship as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic," the spokesman said.
"We encourage tenants to come to agreements with their landlord which suit their financial situation – whether that’s negotiating a rent reduction or ending a rental agreement."
“If a tenant and landlord cannot reach an agreement they should contact Consumer Affairs Victoria for assistance.”
Craig Nixon, principal lawyer at Tenants Victoria, urged tenants to take up their case with Consumer Affairs even if the initial; response from their landlord for a rent reduction is declined or ignored.
"We’d recommend a renter immediately approach their landlord or agent but don’t wait too long for the answer, even if it’s a ‘no’ initially you are still can seek a rent reduction through the formal process," he said.
"It’s really important to note that if you successfully obtain a rent reduction you may also be eligible for a rent relief grant from the Victorian Government which is worth up to $3000."
If tenants or landlords need further information, advice or help to negotiate, they can contact Consumer Affairs Victoria on 1300 55 81 81.
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