Technology exacerbates worst aspects of rental crisis

Kat Wong |

Real estate agents are giving renters an ultimatum: submit invasive amounts of personal information to third-party website or face homelessness.

A parliamentary committee will continue its examination of the worsening impact of the nation’s rental crisis during hearings in Melbourne on Wednesday.

Educational organisation Digital Rights Watch says real estate is “one of the most data invasive industries”.

The increasing use of digital technologies and automated systems in real estate have allowed the sector to accumulate huge amounts of information on homebuyers, renters and those looking to inspect homes.

Renters specifically are often coerced into signing up to third-party sites and submitting sensitive information like birth certificates, passports and drivers licences as a condition to rent a home. 

An April survey by consumer advocacy group CHOICE found 41 per cent of renters were pressured to use a third-party platform and about two-thirds of users were uncomfortable with the amount of information disclosed.

But many renters have no choice but to use these platforms.

One renter in the survey said some property agents would only accept applications through these websites.

“It’s onerous, dangerous and unfair to tenants to have to provide so much detailed, personal information,” she said.

Not only does this put renters’ privacy and digital security at risk, it exacerbates pre-existing issues in the rental market like accessibility, fairness, affordability and the power imbalance between renters and landlords.

Some websites like Snug generate a score on each tenants’ application which increases if a renter ups their offer, while other platforms have mandatory fees. 

Consequently the sites could favour tenants with greater means.

The amount of information these platforms provide to landlords also allowed them to gate keep housing and potentially profile and racially discriminate against potential tenants.

According to CHOICE, one applicant was asked if they identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, despite questions about racial identification in private tenancy being prohibited. 

Another submission from the First Peoples Disability Network Australia found those who were more identifiable as Aboriginal were less likely to be accepted as rental tenants and those who have their applications accepted were almost twice as likely to be paying more than 30 per cent of their household income on rent.

The parliamentary committee will also hear from renters’ associations, public policy think tank the Grattan Institute, property owners groups, homelessness organisations and those with experience of the rental market.

Its final report on the rental crisis is due by November 28. 

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