Increasing rents still illegal

31/12/2018 09:27

The extension of the Rent Freeze Order to December 31, 2019 should keep landlords away from nonsensically increasing rents and ensure that residential tenants are not forced to pay increased rent in 2019.

Under the rent freeze, property owners who have let out their premises for residential tenancy cannot increase rent until December 31, 2019.

The Fijian Competition and Consumer Commission (Rent Increase Restriction on Residential and Ground Rent Order 2017), provides that,

“Between the period of 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2019, a person must not charge rent in respect of the letting or continued letting of any premises under residential tenancy including ground rentals to which the Act applies which exceeds the rent applicable to those premises as at 31 December 2018”.

This same rent freeze was in place in 2018 however, according to complaints received by the Consumer Council of Fiji, the illegal practice of increasing rent was still practiced by unscrupulous landlords.

Complaints relating to Landlord and Tenancy ranked number one on the Council’s list with a total of 338 complaints from January this year to December 11 worth $99,100.44.

Issues conveyed to the Council under this category extend from non-refund of bond money, landlords not issuing rental receipts to tenants in spite of several requests, proprietors not giving a month's notice to vacate, illegal increment in rent regardless of the Rent Freeze Order and poor housing conditions.

The Council is also aware that there are landlords who will attempt to con consumers with reasons for increasing rent.

This was the case with a complaint lodged at the Council. John, the complainant was a tenant at Epeli’s (respondent) flat. John used the premises for residential purposes. John had resided in this flat since 2013 and in that period his rent had increased three times.

John was a foreigner, and unfortunately was not aware there was a Rent Freeze Order in place. Upon gaining knowledge of this order, he sought the Council’s assistance. The Council intervened and a mediation was conducted. Unfortunately Epeli refused to provide redress and argued that the property was commercial in nature and therefore exempt from the rent freeze.

But Epeli was advised that though the property or building may be commercial, the tenancy is residential and because of this the rent freeze the order still applied. Accordingly, the respondent provided a reimbursement of $1876 to the complainant.

Landlords should refrain from increasing rent on their residential properties unless approved by the Fijian Competition and Consumer Commission (FCCC). Failing to comply will lead to prosecution by the FCCC. Property owners are at liberty to establish initial rent but any increase in rent after that must be endorsed by FCCC.

In addition, when looking for a place to rent, here are some of the important factors consumers should consider.

What should consumers do before signing a tenancy agreement?

  • Closely inspect the rental property
  • Agree to the rental value stated by the landlord
  • Ask questions to clear any doubts the consumer might have about the rental property or rent payment
  • Ensure that the tenant actively and directly engages with the landlord to discuss on the terms and conditions of the proposed tenancy
  • Take time to read and understand the tenancy agreement
  • Tenants must ensure that the residential tenancy agreement does not contain (unfair and landlord-biased) onerous terms and conditions such as:
  • Visitors not allowed;
  • Restrictions on the number of visitors allowed;
  • Restrictions on family religious gathering and functions;
  • That the tenant must take out a specified, or any form of insurance;
  • That, if the tenant breaches the agreement, the tenant is liable to pay all or any part of the remaining rent under the agreement, increased rent, a penalty or liquidated damages; and
  • Bond money will not be refunded if the tenant prematurely ends the tenancy or if tenant is in breach of the agreement. 

Can landlords advertise for or seek tenants based on race, gender or any other discriminatory practices?

No Fijian should be discriminated and denied access to any goods or services, including rental premises because they belong to a particular ethnic origin, gender, racial background, or birth place. Under Section 26(3) (a) of the Constitution, unfairly discriminating a person on the grounds of his or her race, colour, culture or ethnicity is a punishable offence.

What documents should tenants expect when entering into a tenancy?

Landlord and Tenant agreement, Receipts (for payment of a deposit/rental bond), Itinerary (List of items provided by the landlord. This may include furniture, white goods, working electricity and plumbing systems, rugs/carpets and locks and other security devices.

How much time should a tenant be given to vacate a rental premises? 

To end a tenancy, either of the parties can issue a written notice to the other party with a period as stated in the tenancy agreement or equivalent to one rent period. This can happen at the end of a fixed term tenancy or in the middle of an existing tenancy or a tenancy with an indefinite term. Should the tenant move out as per the notice, then the landlord is at liberty to engage another tenant. If the tenant does not move out, the landlord will have to consider issuing further notice or seek a court order against the tenant. At no time should the tenant be locked out of the house or flat, or restricted from entry to the flat, or utility be disconnected. 

What are your responsibilities as a tenant upon vacating a rental premises?

  • The rental property must be in the same condition as was given to you
  • Clean the premises thoroughly before leaving 
  • The utility bills must be cleared
  • The landlord must be informed of any damage which the tenant may have failed to repair, which in turn may be deducted from the rental bond upon the landlord’s discretion.
  • Return the keys to the landlord upon vacating the rental premises 

-ENDS-