‘It shouldn’t be so hard to get justice’: Retiree housing disputes

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Marjorie Woollard, 89, with her daughter Marjorie Bertrand, found taking her landlord to VCAT an exhausting ordeal. Photo: Simon SchluterWhen the security and comfort Marjorie Woollard planned for her retirement was threatened, she fought back – and won.
Nanjing Night Net

But instead of feeling victorious, the 89-year-old and her family are wondering why it was so hard to seek justice.

Mrs Woollard moved into her demountable unit at Dromana Lifestyle Village six years ago, thinking the former caravan park, with its mix of retirees and holidaymakers, would have “a bit more life” than a regular retirement village, her daughter Marjorie Barrand explains.

She agreed to pay $38 a week to maintain communal facilities, after buying a 99-year lease on her lot.

But that rent started to grow, marginally at first, before jumping 60 per cent during 2014 to $82 a week, with no extra services. Early this year, the park told her that rent would rise another $6 or $7.

Mrs Woollard disputed the increases but then discovered laws designed to protect consumers did not cover her long-term lease.

Eventually, with the help of the Consumer Action Legal Centre, Mrs Woollard took her landlord to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal for breach of contract.  VCAT ruled in her favour, finding the landlord had no right to “pluck figures out of the air” when deciding rent increases.

But it is a hollow victory.

“It absolutely caused a lot of stress,” Mrs Barrand said of the three-day hearing and numerous trips her mother made to Melbourne in preparation.

“Being cross-examined by a barrister in court, being on a stand – it’s pretty daunting.

“We really shouldn’t be making it so hard for older people in our society to seek justice.”

The landlord’s barrister John Ribbands said his client, who took charge of the village in 2013, had only applied rent increases to match expenses calculated under previous managers.

Ms Woollard’s story is not unique. A Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the retirement housing sector has received more than 750 submissions, many of them from individuals detailing a complex web of contractual arrangements.

In some cases, residents’ savings were eroded and they were left feeling exploited. Many have called for a retirement housing ombudsman.

The parliamentary inquiry is examining the operation and regulation of retirement villages, caravan parks, residential parks and independent living units.

Housing for the Aged Action Group co-manager Fiona York said contracts were often poorly understood by residents who were forking out large fees when they left retirement villages.

These can include excessive repair bills and “deferred management fees”, which are incurred management costs that are paid when residents leave the village.

“People struggle to understand what the fees cover, how they are calculated and are often shocked at how high they are,” she said.

One operator of retirement units and apartments, Baptcare, said in its submission existing laws adequately protected the rights of retirement village residents. Baptcare – which has retired living communities in Camberwell, Doncaster East, Footscray, Kew and McLeod – said it received few complaints and an ombudsman for the sector was unnecessary.

However, it did support efforts to simplify legislation making it easier for consumers to understand and exercise their rights.

For Marjorie Woollard the saga that dragged on nearly two and a half years is still not over.

The parties are set to return to VCAT to settle how much the landlord owes her.

“VCAT is supposed to be a people’s court that’s easy to navigate but it’s definitely not – and for someone her age, if we didn’t have Consumer Action we certainly couldn’t have done it,” Mrs Barrand said.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.