Privacy, data and discrimination in renting
Jemima Mowbray • 24/03/2023
We’ve all seen the lines of people outside properties listed for rent. Many renters are struggling to find and secure a new rental home. In the context of a highly competitive market, landlords and their agents are asking for more personal information than ever before during the application process. And renters very often don’t feel they can refuse these requests.
Some basic information and documentation are required for a landlord or their agent to confirm someone’s identity and be able to make an informed decision about an applicant’s capacity to pay and meet the obligations of their tenancy agreement. However, the amount of information requested from renters when applying for a property seems to be expanding. It’s also often inconsistent. And increasingly renters are being asked or encouraged to pay a fee or charge for some element in the reference process - for example paying for a tenancy database or credit check, or paying a third-party service to create a ‘personal tenancy reference’.
We asked renters about their experience
From the start of this year, we ran a survey on Privacy and Renting asking renters to share with us what kinds of information had been requested or provided by them when applying for a rental property. The survey was open from January through until mid-March (2023) and we heard from 124 renters about their experiences.
Given there is a broad range of information being requested, we asked for specifics about what kind of information was requested regarding: proof of identity; capacity to pay; history as a tenant; and general character.
Information about proof of identity
- Renters provide a range of sensitive identity documents as proof of identity, most commonly driver’s license or other equivalent cards (98.4%), medicare card (82%), and passport (73%).
- A significant number have provided other forms of personal or identity documents including proof of marital status (54%), visa status (36.3%), and car registration (59.7%)
- 7.3% have been asked for or have provided medical records when applying for a rental property.
“I felt pressured and had to upload copies of my passport to an unsafe public URL.”
Information about capacity to pay
- Payslips (90.3%), bank statements (81.5%), employment contracts (67.7%), and Centrelink documents (27.4%) are commonly requested and/or provided during application.
With bank statements, this included both income and expenditure in general, and some renters told us they were asked for statements going as far back as three years.
“I was uncomfortable with one of the portals so much that I didn’t apply for a property. I gave up after they tried to ask for 5+ years(!) of employment/rental history with details.”
“Bank account details - I only ever provide the top of the form, covering up the financial data. It's nobody's business. A history of paying rent on time should be enough.”
Information about an applicant’s history as a tenant
- Renters are generally asked for and/or provide their previous landlord as a reference (83.1%), their bond history (68.5%) and/or their rent ledger (68.5%).
- Almost half (48%) have been asked to undertake a tenancy database check, and 39.5% have been asked whether they have gone to Tribunal. Some renters noted they had been asked to pay a fee (e.g. $25 for a “professional reference check” to run a check)
- Just under a third (31%) had provided a pet reference.
“The requests I find most offensive are about whether I have ever taken a landlord to the tribunal. I have been asked this in my own rental applications - I was also asked when I acted as a reference for a person I sub-letted to whether my sub-tenant had taken me to the tribunal. The question is entirely inappropriate, as it is clearly designed to filter out tenants who dare to assert their legal rights. Questions of this nature need to be specifically banned.”
Information about an applicant’s general character
- Renters are generally asked to provide references from their employers - current (74.2%), previous (51.6%), and for a personal reference (76.6%)
- 10.4% had been asked to provide details of their social media profiles (handles, accounts)
- 9.7% provided or were asked for evidence of household insurance
“I refuse to give social media profiles as it's none of their business what I post. Landlords need to also give their similar information such as 'can they pay their mortgage, do they have money to pay for repairs, do they have a reliable good income or business, have they been to a tribunal in the past and what for, etc.”
How comfortable are renters sharing their information?
Renters don’t feel like they can say no to requests for information during the application process, even if they do not feel completely comfortable about the agent or landlord having this information. Renters explain they felt too afraid to refuse to share requested information, their application would be rejected or go to the bottom of the pile. Many told us - over 40% of renters from our survey - they believed they’d missed out on a property because they had refused to share personal information.
- 91.7% of renters in our survey had felt pressured into sharing information they felt uncomfortable about the agent or landlord having.
- 41.3% of renters reported they have refused to share personal information requested when applying for a property and feel they have missed out on properties as a result
“I do not feel that I have a choice. If I want to not be homeless, I need to give them what they want.”
“I need housing. I never felt as though I was in a position to be able to refuse.”
“You share what they ask for not because you agree but because that is the only way to find somewhere to live. They don’t need to pressure you.”
“I feel that the agent will disregard my application if I refuse to supply all the information they request. This is a catch22 situation given the scarcity of rentals these days”
"I always feel like there is no option other than to provide whatever nonsense the form asks for, as the market is so competitive and agents so unethical."
What needs to be done?
There are several concerning aspects of the application process and the information requested that are highlighted in the survey findings.
Cyber-security risks and data breaches
Firstly, renters are handing over a significant amount of information, much of it very personal and sensitive. However, there are no clear and consistent protections in place to ensure their information is being safely stored and their privacy protected.
“I felt very uncomfortable providing a lot of information I considered was unneeded and almost required in a punitive manner, I also feel VERY uncomfortable with all that very sensitive data about me being held in what is probably an unsecured manner. If there is a data breach at the real estate, what protection do I have?”
Victor Dominello, the Minister responsible for Fair Trading, raised this concern late last year and prompted Fair Trading to consider what further regulation of the sector was required to strengthen privacy and data protections for renters.
“It’s often the most vulnerable in our community that are exposed to data breaches for a range of reasons, including inequality of bargaining power. All of that personal information goes into a mystery box and nobody knows where it goes thereafter. There definitely needs to be a rethink of what information we absolutely need to share, how long that information is shared for, and when that information should be destroyed.”
Minister Dominello, October 2022
Under direction from Minister Dominello the Fair Trading Commissioner recently published guidance for agents on how renters’ personal information is stored, used, and destroyed. The NSW government has also started work on developing an opt-in digital ID to be used for rental applications, removing the need for renters to provide other documents such as bank statements and driver's licenses.
In the lead-up to the election, NSW Labor and the NSW Coalition (Liberals and Nationals) have committed to looking more closely at the data breach and privacy concerns raised. They will look closely at the question of what kind of regulation is needed to ensure the data and personal information being collected from renters is stored securely and appropriately protected. The Fair Trading Commissioner’s recently published guidance provides a useful starting point for this next step.
A right to privacy and concerns about discrimination
But the conversation has to go further than cyber-security risk. We also need to be talking about what kinds of information are necessary and appropriate for landlords and their agents to request. With no limits in the law or regulation on what can be requested, or how decisions are to be made, renters are being asked to provide inappropriate, excessive, and sometimes quite sensitive personal information. This includes requests for renters' social media profiles, information about their marital status, and even medical records. Much of this provides only a very subjective indication of whether an applicant will make a ‘good tenant’.
This ongoing creep of information comes from the application process itself being a competitive site where people are judged against each other, rather than on something like their need for a home or even just a straight-forward assessment of 'can they afford this property'. This competitive approach, which is unlike any other essential service, is what opens up the door for judgments about all sorts of personal and financial characteristics.
There is little to no transparency about why an application is unsuccessful. So it isn’t surprising then that many renters shared with us they believed they had experienced discrimination after facing multiple rejections. Previous research has demonstrated discrimination to be a significant issue for renters. In the 2017 report Unsettled about the experience of renting in Australia, half of all renters surveyed reported having experienced discrimination when looking for a rental property. Low-income renters are particularly at risk, as are those on income support, those with young children - especially single parents, and those with a disability or culturally diverse background.
“I've missed out on many properties that I've applied for. As a tenant, you rarely know the reason why, and you can't help but fear that it may be for discriminatory reasons, at least some of the time.”
Whoever forms government after this weekend’s election has promised to bring in stronger protections to ensure the privacy and security of renters’ personal information. Let’s hope this also includes a much closer look at the appropriateness of the information requested from renters and the kings of limits on what can be requested that are needed to better protect renters from discrimination.