Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fixing the system - one question at a time...*

There can sometimes be a difference between what a policy is intended to achieve, and what actually happens on the ground. A good example can be found in the repair and maintenance of rental properties. For over twenty years, it has been government policy in NSW to require landlords to provide their properties for rent in a state fit for habitation, and to keep them maintained in a reasonable state of repair – this is currently reflected in the Residential Tenancies Act 2010. Despite this, one of the most common complaints of NSW tenants is that it can be difficult to get repairs done (the statewide network of Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Services takes between 6,000 and 7,000 calls about repairs each year).

That is not to say that landlords always avoid their repair obligations. But even with the best of intentions, the policy does not uniformly achieve its objective. (Thankfully another policy – that of dispute resolution through the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal – means that the objective is not thwarted in its entirety… Well, at least not in every case.)

A key strength of the Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Services is our ability to identify and monitor practice that does not properly align with an established policy. We do this by talking to tenants – or, more specifically, by answering questions about tenants’ rights and providing advice on how best to resolve tenancy disputes. This provides us with a formidable insight into how well renting laws, and the policies on which they are based, are working.

As a statewide network, we can observe the proliferation of trends in tenancy management practices throughout NSW, because we get a clear picture of the types of situations tenants are faced with on a daily basis. We’re well placed to see how trends affect tenants, and, because we are uniquely focused on residential tenancy law and practice in NSW, we’re also well qualified to comment. We are able to speak with our collective observations in mind.

On the strength of this, the network’s primary resourcing body – the Tenants’ Union of NSW – is recognised by the NSW Government and its agencies as a key stakeholder in matters concerning residential tenancies in NSW. The Tenants’ Union is frequently invited to share its perspectives through regular meetings with government departments such as Fair Trading NSW and Housing NSW, as well as other relevant bodies.

When all of this comes together, we can affect systemic change. Here’s an example of how it can work…

Some time ago, Housing NSW changed the way it processes requests for repairs. It moved from a system where organising repairs was included in the role of a client service officer, to one where it is solely the responsibility of an asset management team. The change has had an unforeseen result, because when a tenant takes Housing NSW to the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal, it is a client service officer who turns up to respond, not an asset manager – even if the application concerns repairs and maintenance. A client service officer might enter into an agreement with the tenant and obtain consent orders about how and when repairs will be done, but they actually have no control over what the asset management team does. Asset management teams have, in many cases, taken their “scheduled work” plans to over-ride an order from the Tribunal, and declined to conduct repairs as per such orders. This is clearly wrong, but it has been a regular occurrence. There have been numerous cases across the state where Housing NSW has failed to comply with a repair order from the Tribunal. Some of these have resulted in tenants obtaining compensation once the matter has gone back to the Tribunal for an alternative remedy.

Tenants’ Advocates first spotted the issue through conversations with tenants in the Greater Sydney area, but it soon became apparent that this is a statewide problem. The Tenants’ Union raised the matter with Housing NSW as soon as we had the evidence to demonstrate both the nature and the extent of the problem – evidence that we obtained from Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Services who gave it with the permission of their clients. Housing NSW agreed that the issue was of concern, and undertook to look into it.

Now, it has taken some time, but we understand that Housing NSW has recently restructured its internal processes to ensure client service officers and asset managers are in more effective communication when it comes to responsive repairs.

The proof, of course, will be in the pudding – and we’ll be relying again on our conversations with tenants to see whether or not this proposed solution works.

Thus, by contacting your local Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Service with a question about your tenancy, you’re also helping to fix the system.

* This article was recently published in the 'Tenant News', the TU's quarterly newsletter. For more articles and back-issues, see here!

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