Estate agency locked students out of homes

·2-min read

A Melbourne real estate agency that locked international students out of their apartment building during the pandemic has been convicted and fined $7000.

Waterdale Estate Agents was found guilty in Melbourne Magistrates Court of making a fraudulent misrepresentation to renters by serving a notice to vacate, in breach of COVID-19 renting laws.

In April 2020, Waterdale cancelled two students' access to their apartment building in West Melbourne, the court was told.

One student was able to get into the building with the help of another tenant, and stayed in her apartment all weekend out of fear she would be locked out again, according to Consumer Affairs Victoria.

Waterdale also threatened to lock renters out if they didn't attend their office. However, the agency claimed it only made the threat to get renters' attention.

The agency fell victim to student accommodation provider Homplus, which acted as the head tenant on students' leases and went bust because of the pandemic, Waterdale officer-incharge Joseph Ballo said.

Because of the business' demise, money from students - listed as sub-tenants - wasn't getting to Waterdale.

The students were offered new leases with better terms and discounts, and Waterdale issued the notice to vacate close to when temporary COVID-19 rental changes came into effect, Mr Ballo told AAP.

None of the students were evicted, he said.

Consumer Affairs Victoria took action against the agency after receiving complaints about Waterdale at the start of the pandemic.

The agency was fined $5000 for making the fraudulent misrepresentation, along with an additional $2000 for breaching estate agent professional conduct regulations.

The court also ordered it pay $5000 in legal costs.

Residential tenancy laws were temporarily changed to protect vulnerable renters during an unprecedented time of insecurity and uncertainty, consumer affairs director Nicole Rich said.

"Everyone has the right to feel secure in their rental property, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic," she said in a statement on Monday.

"These renters were particularly vulnerable as international students far from home and families at the start of the pandemic. The threat of being locked out or evicted from their homes must have been very frightening."

The matter was finalised in court on Tuesday, September 6.