The Victorian Law Reform Commission is conducting an inquiry into photographs and videos of tenants’ possessions that are used to advertise properties for sale or lease. Residential tenancy law is silent on this issue, leaving tenants, landlords and real estate agents unsure of their rights and obligations.
As part of its inquiry, the Commission held consultation meetings across Victoria with those affected by, or with particular expertise in, this matter. The Commission met with tenants, tenants unions, landlords, real estate agents and academics.
Harm to tenants
The Commission was told of many instances in which a tenant felt their privacy had been violated. One tenant’s children were visible in advertising photographs displayed on a billboard in front of her home and on the internet. Another tenant was concerned that the advertising photographs had captured posters that revealed her sexuality.
Many tenants were worried that having electronic goods displayed in advertising images made them vulnerable to theft.
Others were concerned that advertising images made them vulnerable to personal harm. A domestic violence support worker said she knew of two instances in which women feared that their violent ex-partner would be able to locate them as a result of online advertising photographs.
Tenants also noted that they are expected to clean their home to a high standard, remove items they do not want included in the images, take time off work if they wish to be present when the images are captured and allow their furniture to be used to showcase the property. While tenants are sometimes offered a rent reduction during a sales campaign to compensate them for any inconvenience, the Commission’s consultations suggested that a rent reduction is not offered when a property is being re-leased.
Harm to landlords
If a tenant refuses to allow advertising photographs or videos to be taken, landlords may have to advertise the property using old photos or external photos, or wait until the tenant’s lease ends and advertise the property once vacant. Where a property is being sold rather than re-leased, the Commission was told that landlords are more likely to delay the sale until the tenant has left as the potential loss from not being able to adequately showcase the property is greater.
The issue of technology came up frequently in relation to how images were captured and displayed. Several tenants pointed out that the range of mobile devices with cameras in them makes it harder to know when photographs or videos are being taken. Even when they know they have been taken, tenants rarely know where they will be stored and for how long.
Some tenants were upset that images of their home and personal possessions were available online ‘for the whole world to see.’ Other tenants said they were not concerned about strangers seeing inside their home via online photographs or videos, but rather people they knew, such as relatives or work colleagues.
Many real estate agents indicated that they communicate openly and respectfully with tenants, with a number of agents recounting the steps they had taken to address tenants’ concerns about advertising images. Very few of these agents had ever had a concern about images turn into a dispute.
Poor communication featured prominently in tenant complaints. Many tenants reported that they had not been told in advance that images would be taken. Others said they had been threatened with eviction or other sanctions when they questioned the agent’s authority to enter their home.
Law reform proposals
Although open to other suggestions, the Commission sought feedback on two particular law reform proposals. One would require landlords and their agents to notify tenants in advance that photographs and videos would be taken. Another would require tenant consent before photographs or videos containing tenants’ possessions could be used for advertising purposes.
Some expressed the view that a notification requirement would address the problems identified while also ensuring that difficult tenants were not able to cause unjustifiable harm to landlords. Others argued that a consent requirement would establish a more equal negotiating environment in which mutually agreeable outcomes could be achieved.
The Commission is now considering the evidence received and views expressed, and is preparing its report for the Attorney-General, which is to be delivered in 2015.