Skip to the main navigation Skip to the content

Our Country

Meet Joel Dignam

21 March 2023

This week we get to meet Joel Dignam, Executive Director of Better Renting. He has a background in organising and campaigning across non-profits, unions, and electoral politics.

What is your name?

Joel Dignam

How long have you been in Canberra and what do you love about it?

I’ve been in Canberra since moving here from Melbourne in 2013. I love the sense of community and how easy it is to get around and feel connected.

How would you describe Better Renting?

Better Renting is a community of renters working together for stable, affordable, and healthy homes. What makes us different from some other folks is that we are focused on improving conditions for renters, not just promoting ownership. We also pursue a systems-change approach through advocacy rather than providing services to individual renters.

Why did you get into it?

I started Better Renting in 2018. At that point I was a renter myself, and in addition to my own experiences I heard plenty of stories from people I knew. Two international students from Vietnam, former housemates of mine, had recently had a baby when their landlord gave them a rent increase, and threatened them with worse consequences if they didn’t accept it.

I could see that it was becoming normal for more people to be renting, and renting long-term, but our national conversation, and certainly our policies, hadn’t really caught up. There weren’t even that many groups working in this space and trying to change things. I saw a need for a group focused on renting issues and pushing for structural changes in this space, and fortunately that lined up with a new incubator for social movement organisations, Progress Labs, which helped me to start up Better Renting.

What do you love about it?

I’m confident that I’m working on one of the most important economic justice issues of the 21st century. If we can do housing better, then that can mean better outcomes for all sorts of people in education, health, employment – you name it. And the greatest benefits will be for some of the most marginalised people. It’s a really powerful intervention, upstream from most other things.

At the personal level, I’m in constant contact with people who rent hearing about their experiences. This is often harrowing, but it is a privilege, and I appreciate the chance to hear about the resilience that people can show and the changes they are able to win in their lives or help to win for all renters.

The Renter Centre

At Better Renting, we often hear directly from people telling us about their experiences in the rental system. We also hear from journalists wanting to speak with renters and write about these issues. The Renter Centre is our attempt to bring this all together. We want to create a group of renters who are connected with each other, connected with media opportunities, and also connected with the support and resources to help you feel confident and competent to speak out publicly on housing issues. If you’d like to hear more, please click below!

What would you tell someone who is currently experiencing rental stress/hardship/discrimination?

I think the biggest mental shift is understanding that these are broad social trends, not about individual responsibility. When you’re struggling with renting, there’s a lot of messages that it’s your fault for not owning property, or maybe not working hard enough. In reality, government decisions have completely altered the landscape of housing. It’s not your fault if you’ve ended up suffering the consequences of that.

What would you tell someone who is a landlord?

In Australia there’s a lot of cultural messages trying to make people become landlords. The real estate industry and the finance industry encourage it. So I myself don’t have much interest in blaming individuals for how our housing system is.

All I ask is that if you’re a landlord you have some awareness of how well off you are. You may not like having to pay land tax or higher mortgage repayments, but countless people would happily take your place. Try to keep some perspective and use the resources you have to change this system, not to perpetuate it.

For anyone thinking about donating or volunteering with Better Renting, what would you say to them?

Please do! One thing I’ve learnt since starting a non-profit, as opposed to just working for them, is that it can be hard to secure funding for core costs. This is a bit tricky, because the organisation can’t do project work if the organisation doesn’t exist. So donations to Better Renting are a really important part of helping us to just keep going. So much of the work we do is responsive and adaptable in the moment: things like making a submission to an inquiry in Queensland, or sharing policy ideas with community organisations in South Australia, or putting a renter in touch with a reporter for a news story. This work all matters, and it’s only possible with the support of donors.

Thanks, Joel. Fantastic read!

As of the 23rd of January 2023, Joel and Better Renting have been busy in the news. You can catch him at any of the following links!

Rent increases without landlord’s permission

Why there is no cooling standard for rental properties

An interview with the ABC

An interview with Sky News Australia

Next Article

Meet Nic Stuart