A Victorian landlord has been accused of "spying" on her tenants by installing security cameras throughout the property — which, in most cases, is illegal and a breach of residential tenancy laws.
One tenant, who'll be referred to as Jessica* for privacy reasons, said she feels extremely "uncomfortable" knowing her "every move" is being "watched", but claims the landlord continues to dismiss concerns raised by tenants.
Jessica and the other five tenants were informed cameras would be installed outside the house in Wangaratta, which she "was ok with" at the start. But in February, two had been placed inside the common areas, including the kitchen and living room, which has a direct view of the bathroom.
"There’s six of us and we’ve all raised our concerns," Jessica told Yahoo News Australia. "[The landlord] ensured she wouldn’t use it to watch us but after the questions I’ve been getting, it’s clear she is."
Landlord's reason for cameras
The landlord's alleged reason for the cameras has baffled Jessica and her housemates, who are being made to pay an additional $15 a week for cleaning services. Already, Jessica pays $200 a week, which is "all I can afford", but the landlord requests a cleaner to "wipe benches and mop the floors".
"She said the cameras are to ensure the kitchen was being kept clean," Jessica claims. But a few phone conversations have led her to believe there's something far more sinister at play.
"On Friday, she asked me if I still had a job because she said she’s been watching me walk through the house in the past three weeks. And that’s when it clicked," Jessica explained. She also asked "what am I hiding under my oodie to take to the bathroom", it's been claimed.
"I’ve been on holiday, but that’s none of her business," Jessica said. "I’m enjoying what I pay for and I’m being watched."
Cameras in rental property is 'concerning' and 'illegal'
The situation unfolding at the Wangaratta property is "concerning," and with the limited information available, and assuming it's a share house, sounds "illegal", a property law expert told Yahoo.
Based on Jessica's belief this is a standard share house, Dr Vanessa Johnston, a senior lecturer at RMIT in Melbourne said it appears to be a breach of residential tenancy laws and highlights some "very serious privacy issues". However, noted the same might not apply to a "rooming" house situation where cameras can be used.
"I'm not a privacy expert, but in terms of property law, someone using a camera in that situation would be something called a breach of quiet enjoyment," she explained. "So in every lease, including in standard residential leases, the landlord has an obligation to provide quiet enjoyment."
This means landlords have to offer the premises "exclusively" to the tenant and "must refrain from interrupting them and kind of breaching their peace". With any rental agreement, tenants have the right to "exclusive possession" and can "exclude" other people, including the landlord, from entering.
"So being surveilled all the time is not exclusive possession, it's not actually what they've been granted. So it's a breach of quiet enjoyment," Dr Johnston explained.
Additionally, unless outlined in the rental agreement, Jessica and the tenants cannot be made to pay for cleaning services — unless it refers to the end of the tenancy. When raising this with her landlord, Jessica says she's been "threatened" with eviction and told to "find somewhere else" if she doesn't want to pay it — which landlords are not able to do.
Cameras are legal in rooming houses
Yahoo has since been informed the property is a registered rooming house and not a share house. A rooming house is a property where four or more people can occupy the rented rooms, and each has their own residential agreement In a share house, every tenant signs the same agreement, according to Consumer Affairs.
In a rooming house, "cameras in common areas are permitted," but they're not permitted in share house houses. According to Anna-Kate Pizzini, director of Electrum Property, which runs the property, "this is quite a common practice for hygiene and safety of tenants".
"The tenants were emailed to explain why these were to be installed and signs are up in the common areas reminding them of this," she told Yahoo.
"As far as weekly cleaning charges, this is covered in the House Rules that each tenant must comply with they start renting with us. The house was getting extremely unhygienic and we have a duty of care to everyone to keep it in a good condition so that nobody gets sick."
Advice to tenants: 'Don't assume'
Jessica said all communication with her landlord is done over the phone but says she's been trying to get things in writing. However, every time she does, she claims she is "ignored" or once again threatened with eviction.
Dr Johnston said written communication can be used as "formal written notices", which give tenants "some extra protection and rights in some cases".
Tenants facing a similar situation are encouraged to contact consumer affairs or for Jessica in Victoria, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
"But it's important that tenants read – and landlords read – the lease and understand what they're agreeing to before they sign it," Dr Johnston said. "And I guess not just assume that the law will protect them from everything and anything."
Electrum Property says it has "always operated to the highest standards of the industry according to the ‘Best Practice’ and continues to do so".
*Jessica is not the tenant's real name and has been changed for privacy reasons.
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