Monday, August 22, 2016

New strata rules and you

Starting 30 November 2016, there will be some significant changes to the laws affecting tenants living in strata blocks. That's actually a lot of us - more than half of all people living in strata in NSW are tenants.
You can read more about the changes here, but what are the big changes that will be of particular interest to tenants? As is often the case with legislative reform, it's a mixed bag. Here are the ups and downs of four big changes which will affect tenants.

Pets
Considering the futility of life without strong tenancy rights
The model by laws will now be much more pet friendly. The default position will be that pets are allowed so long as the pet owner is responsible for the animal.
This is only the default for new by-laws. Existing strata schemes will need to vote to adopt the change, and even new strata schemes can choose not to use it - and maintain an anti-pet stance.
Of course no matter what the strata scheme decides, currently your landlord still has the ability to put a no-pets clause in a residential tenancy agreement. There is still a long way to go before tenants might make grown-up decisions about pets for themselves.

Washing
Hang me out to dry, you wrung me out, too too too many times
Good news - hanging your washing up on your balcony will no longer be a breach of the by laws, so long as it's not hanging over the balcony railings. Again, this only applies to strata schemes which adopt the new by laws.

Over occupancy
We won't take up too much room!
One of the interesting changes is the ability for strata schemes to limit the number of people who can live in the premises to no more than two adults per bedroom.
By extension, tenants will have clearer protections against strata schemes arbitrarily deciding to cancel key cards with the introduction of this by law removing one of the dodgy reasons some strata schemes have used to lock tenants out of their homes.
It's important to remember that vulnerable tenants who are being forced into overcrowded accommodation may not actually have much of a choice in these matters. That's not to say strata should allow overcrowding, but it is important that it is the exploitative landlord who is penalised by their breach rather than their vulnerable sub tenants. It is not clear in the new law that this will always be the case.

Tenant representation
Whiskers thought he was fitting in well
at his first strata committee meeting
There are two aspects of the new legislation that let tenants have something of a say in their strata community. Any tenant will be entitled to attend any meeting of the owners corporation (except during discussions of financial matters), though they won't be allowed to speak or vote.
In strata schemes where more than 50% of the lots have tenants, the tenants will be able to elect a tenant to represent who can speak, but not vote, on their behalf. How effective this will be at ensuring the majority of the strata community is heard remains to be seen.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Happy anniversary, Tenants' Union of NSW

The very first meeting of the Tenants' Union of NSW was held 40 years ago today, on August 17th 1976. We are now 40 years strong.

Past and present staff and board members of the Tenants' Union,
celebrating 40 years of advocacy
We've been building up to this milestone all year. We launched our celebrations with a BBQ at Northcott Towers, sharing food and cake with good friends and colleagues. We've shared 40 moments from our organisation and our network's history, reflecting on the great work of tenants' advocates past and present. And we've compiled a 40th anniversary bumper edition of the Tenants' News.

On Monday we threw a bit of a birthday bash, including a half-day forum on the future of tenants' rights. We've already shared some of the best bits on Facebook, and we'll be adding a few more over the next couple of days.

Oh, and we've produced a half-hour movie that tells our story. We're really quite proud of it - we'd love for you to check it out.



Happy anniversary, Tenants Union of NSW!


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Taking action for access to justice - an update on NCAT fees

A few weeks ago the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal fee structure for pensioners changed substantially with the result that basic application fee more than doubled for many tenants. We wrote previously about it here. Every dollar counts for pensioners and other concession card holders and we're worried that this increase in fees will create a barrier for vulnerable and disadvantaged tenants to lodging an application.

The change introduced a new method of calculation for concession fees, setting them as a percentage of the full fee.  This resulted in a significant increase in the standard fee this time around, but also means that whenever full fees increase, fees for pensioners will also increase at the same time.  Pensions don't generally increase at the same rate or frequency as average household incomes, so any future fee increases will be felt more sharply by pensioners.   


There's now a chance this change, which came without consultation, may be reversed by parliament. Greens Member of the Legislative Council, Jan Barham, has moved to disallow the new fee structure.

When this motion comes up for debate in parliament in a month or so's time, the cross bench Members of the Legislative Council will have the ability to support the motion, and push for the cost of NCAT applications for pensioners to revert to $5.

Now is a great time to get in touch with these MLC's to let them know about the potential impact of these changes on access to justice for vulnerable tenants. We've written a sample letter that you can personalise and adapt.  The most effective letters are those that are personal and passionate. You might want to talk about how this change could affect you or others you know, or mention that in other states, like the ACT and Victoria, the application fee is set at $0 for pensioners.

If you'd like to get in touch, here are the cross benchers details:
Animal Justice Party
Mark Pearson
Phone (02) 9230 2445
Fax (02) 9230 2599
mark.pearson@parliament.nsw.gov.au 

Christian Democratic Party
Paul Green
Phone (02) 9230 3484
Fax (02) 9230 2342
paul.green@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Fred Nile
Phone (02) 9230 2478
Fax (02) 9230 2098
F.Nile@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party
Robert Borsak
Phone (02) 9230 2850
Fax (02) 9230 2613
robert.borsak@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Robert Brown
Phone (02) 9230 3059
Fax (02) 9230 2613
robert.brown@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Sydney's stone, cold heart

We're saddened by the weekend's news that Sydney's iconic Sirius Building will not be listed on the NSW Heritage Register, despite the unanimous recommendation of the Heritage Council of NSW back in February.


Minister for Environment and Heritage, Mr Mark Speakman, announced on Sunday that he would not list the site on the Heritage Register, as to do so would reduce its resale value and deprive the State - or perhaps more specifically, pockets of Sydney's west - of money to build more social housing. This is despite the higher than anticipated earnings from the sale of other properties around Millers Point, and the remaining properties that would see in excess of $880million brought in if prices continue at current trends.

Minister Speakman says:
I am not listing it because whatever its heritage value, even at its highest that value is greatly outweighed by what would be a huge loss of extra funds from the sale of the site, funds the government intends to use to build social housing for families in great need.
This is a slap in the face for the community of public housing tenants who have made their homes in the purpose-built Sirius Building, which is part of what has given it its Heritage value in the first place. And it's a huge blow to the remaining tenants of Millers Point who still look to Sirius with hope that it could hold what's left of their community together.

It also raises that nagging question about social mix in New South Wales - why do we fall all over ourselves to open up "welfare dependent" communities of public housing in Sydney's western suburbs, by handing it over to private interests for "renewal", while clearing low-income tenants out of those parts of Sydney we'd rather just flog to the highest bidder? It's not like they couldn't benefit from a bit of social and economic diversity in those parts themselves. No, scratch that. It's not like they haven't benefited, with Millers Point recently finding its way into the top-ten of a "liveability index" for Sydney's suburbs, on account of its "rich history and culture". Although how you can define a suburb as "liveable" while most of its long-term residents are in the process of being shipped out by a cash-strapped landlord is perhaps a matter for debate.

As for Sirius, we'll always regard it as part of what makes Sydney great. The lives, the characters, the community that is attached to that building must never be forgotten, even if they are to be lost. True, the Government hasn't quite sold it yet, and there's still time for them to reconsider their plans. But the decision not to list it on the Heritage Register is as clear an indication as you'll get that they would allow all this to be destroyed.

So who will buy it? What will they do? There are calls for a new Green Ban to be imposed on the site, again reflecting part of its very history that gives it Heritage value. We'd like to see that, if such a thing is possible in this day and age. Because even if you leave the question of heritage aside altogether, the day the Sirius Building comes down is the day Sydney's loses its heart.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Tenants Guide to Renting with Pets (NSW)

Yesterday we wrote about a petition going around highlighting the need for law reform regarding pets and renting. But what about the situation for pets, their families, and potential families now? We've produced this handy guide to renting with pets in NSW.

The guide looks at the legal situation for renters in New South Wales and answers common questions we receive from pet owners, including noise complaints, visitors leaving the gate open, pet bonds and more!

The information in the guide is applicable in the state of New South Wales only. If you would like to discuss a specific tenancy issue, the best people to speak to are the advocates at your local Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Service. Their contact details are on www.tenants.org.au.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Tenants: what will it take for you to adopt a greyhound?

Earlier this month Premier Mike Baird announced the closure of the NSW greyhound racing industry, following a Special Commission report into widespread cruelty. The industry will be wound up in an orderly fashion, with a plan to be implemented over the next 12 months. More information can be found in a published Q&A document from NSW Justice.

The dogs of NSW's racing industry will need new homes
According to the document, there are nearly 7,000 registered greyhounds in NSW. It proposes four ways of transitioning them out of the NSW racing industry: leaving them in their current homes, rehoming them through an adoption program, sending them to other states or countries where the racing industry will treat them better, or euthanise them humanely.

We reckon the first two options look the best. So, it stands to reason that one of the biggest tasks for the industry over the next year will be finding new homes for greyhounds that will no longer be able to race in NSW.

Gemma McKinnon, a long-time friend of the Brown Couch, former Tenants' Advocate and one-time lawyer at the Tenants Union of NSW, would love to adopt one. But she has a problem - her landlord won't allow it. And while renting laws in NSW don't specifically require tenants to get their landlord's permission to keep a pet, most residential tenancy agreements do. She's started a change.org petition to draw attention to this, pointing out that "current tenancy laws in NSW mean that many potential greyhound owners are unable to assist in rehoming greyhounds because landlords can (and often do) refuse tenant requests to have pets in their home".

We've long advocated for a prohibition on "no-pets" clauses in tenancy agreements. We argued for this during the recent review of the Residential Tenancies Act, but unfortunately Fair Trading NSW has made no such recommendation in their report. In fact, they've declined to make any comment on the issue altogether. Given the Government's intention to shut down the greyhound racing industry and create a flood of animals facing euthanasia if they cannot be rehomed, this is a terrible shame.

One in three households in NSW are in a rented home. That's an awful lot of people who might put their hand up to help out, if only they could. Ms McKinnon's petition has attracted more than a thousand signatures since it was launched earlier this week. That's quite an indication of support.

Fair Trading and the NSW Government should reconsider their position on this.


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

21st Century Bonds - part 2

Back in April we noted the introduction of a new Online Rental Bonds scheme, which allows tenants to pay their rental bond directly to the Rental Bond Board instead of handing it over for lodgement by a landlord or real estate agent.


We can see the benefits of such a scheme. Rental bonds are tenants' money, and it makes sense for them to have some agency over its payment into the Rental Bond Board. For that matter, real estate agents should appreciate some relief from the administrative burden of collecting and lodging all those piles of other people's money. That time could be spent lining up contractors to undertake repairs and maintenance, after all!

But tenants can only use the Rental Bonds Online system if their landlord or agent has registered to use it, and informs the tenant that the option is available. In reviewing the Residential Tenancies Act earlier this year, NSW Fair Trading explored this a little. Here's what their report says:
Rental Bonds Online The new Rental Bonds Online system has been very well received by all stakeholders. It has allowed tenants to pay their bond directly to the Rental Bond Board, thereby reducing the incidence of landlords and agents failing to lodge bonds – an offence under the Act. However, tenants can only lodge a bond electronically if the real estate agent or the landlord has an account with Rental Bonds Online. 
In order to drive uptake by tenants and facilitate the transition of bond payments from a paper based system to an online system, the review concluded that the Act should require landlords or their agents to register with Rental Bonds Online and provide new tenants with an invitation to use Rental Bonds Online prior to lodgement of the bond. 
Importantly, tenants without online access would not be disadvantaged. If they preferred, they could still give the bond directly to the landlord.
It then went on to make the following recommendation:
Recommendation 8: That the Act require all landlords and agents to register with Rental Bonds Online and provide tenants with an invitation to use Rental Bonds Online prior to bond lodgement.
Given this is a relatively new service, we wonder how many tenants have been offered the use of Rental Bonds Online by a new landlord or real estate agent? How many have taken up the offer? How many have declined?

Most importantly, what do tenants who have made use of it think of the service? What are the concerns that might have lead some tenants to expressly decline to use it?

We'd love to hear from you if you've had any encounters with the Online Rental Bonds system. Drop us a line on Facebook, Twitter, or here on the Brown Couch.

Cheers.