The Realities of Renting

The needs of both landlords and tenants must be reconsidered in order to end discriminatory rental practices.

How would you feel if you were rejected a place to stay on the sole basis of your race?

R.AGE, the youth and lifestyle platform of The Star, recently produced a video titled “Racist Rentals,” following past coverage of the same subject matter. The video aimed to generate more public discussions on an issue that is often overlooked. Depending on which subset of society you belong to, you might have first-hand knowledge and experience of this issue. Having been subjected to the same form of discrimination discussed in the video, I know how frustrating it is to know that there is little I can do to correct the situation.

An increasing number of students and young working adults – a vulnerable group of renters – would find this to be a common reality. Those of us who suffer time and time again from societal prejudices would like to see an end to this discrimination. To be clear, solutions such as regulatory measures have been provided before. However, the process is often tedious and time-consuming. Even then, how do we reconcile these “temporary fixes” with a more fundamental shift in society’s approach to be more pragmatic over tenant selection?

Before we delve any further into the prospects of providing legal solutions to this problem, it is necessary to understand the legal mechanisms of renting property in Malaysia. Evidently, there is no specific provision at law governing tenancies in Malaysia. Certain provisions of the National Land Code 1965 do contain clauses on leases and tenancies. However, these laws are quite limited in terms of their scope and its limitations are made even more evident when you realise that the laws barely cover the rights of a single party.

Interestingly though, it has been widely accepted that the practice of tenancy in Malaysia is largely pro-tenant. This implies that despite the lack of a legal framework, tenants in Malaysia are at fewer disadvantages compared to their landlords. However, it still does not negate the initial selection of tenants, which is rife with discrimination. At this juncture, it is worth to consider the best practices of other countries with respect to tenancy laws, whereby there are tribunals that specifically deal with tenancy matters in addition to strict application procedures for potential tenants. In the long run, we should be looking at a more comprehensive creation of a single statute to balance the rights and powers of both landlord and tenant which could then provide better settlement mechanisms and prevent both parties from exploiting the inadequacies of current provisions.

We should also consider exploring modes of recourse that lie outside the legal sphere. Realtors, for example, could serve to provide further solutions by mediating negotiations between landlord and tenant. As intermediaries, real estate agents can be used to bridge the gap between landlords and potential tenants as they could be more instrumental in filtering discrimination. Their role as the first contact point could negate the experience of potential tenants. However, even this avenue is subject to the realities of the property market, the agent’s payment structure and each agent’s own leverage on their clientele base.

On a broader picture, there are namely two great divides in this discourse: the landlords and potential tenants. Generally, tenants would advocate for equal and fair chances at rental access as opposed to landlords who wish to exercise their right to choose their tenants. Real concerns through the views of the landlords, such as ability to sustain payment in a timely manner and quality of tenant, are indeed legitimate. However, these checklists of requirements can and have been used in a discriminatory fashion through the wielding of preconceived beliefs against tenants that might be of a certain race, religion or nationality.

Resorting to the law every time we have an issue of concern would not work in every instance as complex issues often require more than a “one shoe fits all” approach. On a fundamental level, we need to stop normalising racist microaggressions and behaviours with the aim of minimising implicit bias and eventually abolishing discrimination in our society. Fair chances and a pragmatic approach in the rising rental demands will become even more pressing in the years to come, especially with rising inequality and stagnant growth in salaries and wages. As we cross the seemingly innocent rejections of prospective tenants for cultural and personal lifestyle differences as opposed to discriminations labels, we would need to realise that the considerations in future would not be that simple. The question is, will we be ready for it?

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