Thursday, March 29, 2012

Waiting times for social housing

Something new today on Housing NSW's Housing Pathways website: information on how long you can expect to wait for social housing, depending on the size and location of the dwelling you need.

There's tables and maps for just about all dwelling sizes (including, ahem, 'studios' – you and I call them bedsits) and all locations across the State. As an example, we've grabbed one of the maps: waiting times for three-bedroom dwellings in Sydney.

That's 5-10 years, and 10 years plus, for just about all of the city.

The Minister, Pru Goward, has said that this is an overdue measure of transparency in the administration of social housing. We agree – it is very welcome information.

But it also makes clear just how harsh and unreasonable is the recently announced change to the management of the waiting list, such that applicants whose contact details are not up to date will be struck off the list and sent to the back of the queue.

After all, if you expect that Housing NSW is not going to come through with an offer of housing for 10 years or more, maybe immediately updating your contact details every time you move (shuttling between unaffordable private rentals, family members' lounges, friends' garages, etc) is not always going to be your highest priority.

And for a person who has waited 10 years or more for an offer, to miss it because they were incommunicado is bad enough: to be sent to the back of the queue, to wait another 10 years, is cruel.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Real Estate 4 Ransom

Last year Prosper Australia produced a punchy short film about the high cost of housing, Real Estate 4 Ransom. It's well worth a look – here it is:

Real Estate 4 Ransom from Real Estate 4 Ransom on Vimeo.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A year of living dangerously: part 1

Last week the TU published a report on the Residential Tenancies Act 2010, which draws attention to some of the highs and lows we've observed in our renting laws since they commenced just over a year ago.

We've already mentioned some of these in passing, and we've made the occasional comment about one provision or another as interesting cases have come before the Tribunal... but this report is our first comprehensive statement on the laws since their passage through Parliament in June 2010.

It certainly gives us a couple of things to talk about.

To kick the discussion off, we'll have a quick look at why we need these laws, and whether they've changed all that much from their old ways back in the 1987 Act. Then we'll spend a moment or two looking at the really good bits, before finishing up with our gripes about what's just not working.

...and so to Part 1.

When the Residential Tenancies Bill 2010 was introduced into Parliament in early 2010, then Minister for Fair Trading Virginia Judge said:

We want landlords and tenants to be clear about their rights so that they are empowered to enforce those rights. We want landlords and tenants to take a responsible approach to their obligations to each other, to the people they share their home with and to their neighbours and the beautiful wider community. We want to see a rental market that is efficient, responsive and well informed. This bill enables that vision. The bill strikes a fair and equitable balance between the often competing interests of landlords and tenants. The reforms embodied in the bill are aimed at the clear need to bring the current law up-to-date, which is acknowledged by all sides. Even the harshest critics of the bill concede that the law in many areas is in urgent need of reform. There is an old saying that all landlords are not devils and all tenants are not angels. This bill protects those who do the right thing from those who would not, whether they are tenants or landlords. It is about striking a balance. (Extract from NSW HANSARD 02.06.2010)

These words, taken from somewhere towards the beginning of Minister Judge's second reading speech, provide us with a useful summary of why we need renting laws, and why our previous laws needed an upgrade in 2010: landlords' interests are at odds with tenants' interests; landlords and tenants sometimes need to be protected from one another; and the previous laws were beginning to falter in their task of "maintaining the balance".

OK... so if our interests are not the same, and sometimes we forget to look after each other on account of it, then surely balance is just a matter of a little bit of give and a little bit of take on both sides? Well, that's what our lawmakers appear to think, but we disagree. The imbalance is structural, because landlords and tenants make use of the housing market in radically different ways. Landlords seek to generate wealth by buying and selling houses, while tenants make houses into homes...

Landlords and tenants don't bargain as equals. Landlords offer tenancies on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis, and will check up on a prospective tenant’s credentials before offering a tenancy. Tenants, on the other hand, have no sound way of vetting a potential new landlord. Even if they did, many tenants would rarely find themselves in a position to turn down a tenancy when moving from one place to the next, solely based on the nature of the landlord.

Once a tenancy is established, landlords feel little need to compete with others. Tenants, on the other hand, can't ‘take their business elsewhere’, because moving is an expensive and disruptive process. A landlord may threaten to end a tenancy if it suits them, but a tenant who makes good on a similar threat will impose no great cost to the landlord.

Even the most altruistic of landlords holds a great deal of power over the tenant at every stage of the relationship.

What renting laws must do, then, is not achieve balance between the parties, but protect tenants from this structural imbalance. The Residential Tenancies Act 2010 attempts this by regulating the terms of every residential tenancy agreement, and restricting certain types of practice that might otherwise be expected throughout the bargain. (For a good summary of some of these practices, see this old Brown Couch post...)

But this is exactly what our previous renting laws had set out to do. In bringing our old laws up to date, the former Government made no attempt to radically re-align the rights of tenants and landlords. Instead, they hoped to fix some glaring problems within the detail of the law - things like regulating tenancy databases and providing better rules for share-house tenancies. To be fair, most of these fixes have been to the benefit of tenants.

At the same time, they handed landlords the biggest trump card imaginable - the ability to end tenancies without recourse to the Tribunal, and consideration of the "circumstances of the case". We've talked about this many times before, and you can find summaries on the issue here and here.

There have been a couple of other problems with the new laws, too, as some last-minute changes (inspired by real estate agents and landlords) have undermined what would have been useful provisions about rent arrears terminations and breaking leases early. But the problem of landlords’ termination notices without grounds is by far the most fundamental. It ensures that tenants nearly always exercise their legal rights with the utmost of caution, and is in direct contrast to the idea of evening out the imbalance between landlords and tenants.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Coroner investigates licensed boarding house

The NSW State Coroner has this week been conducting an inquest into the deaths of six persons, between 2009 and 2010, at a licensed boarding house in Marrickville.

The Coroner's Court has heard that the residents died from a range of causes, including heart disease, pulmonary failure, drug toxicity and choking. Most had 'core health problems' that were evident before their deaths, but which went largely untreated. In a number of cases, staff did not immediately call an ambulance, but instead called for the boarding house operator to ask what to do. 
It also heard that the resident who died of drug toxicity had taken an overdose of the antipsychotic Olanzapine, consistent with having ingested 25-50 tablets. The medication had been administered by the boarding house cook.

As for the boarding house generally, it was unclean, needed basic maintenance work, was understaffed and, of the staff it had, many were untrained in first aid. Residents chain-smoked in bed, rarely had their rooms cleaned and 25 of them used a single bathroom without a fan.

In our experience of talking with people about housing, many do not know that licensed boarding houses (also known as licensed residential centres for people with disability, or LRCs) exist in our housing system. Many assume that people with disability, low incomes and a need for housing will be served by our public housing and social service systems. But still 600 or so such people are housed in LRCs, which are privately-owned and operated for profit. Established as a response to deinstitutionalisation in the 1970s and 1980s, many of these are operations are like miniature institutions: segregated, isolating and abusive.

But those who already know about LRCs don't need to hear another expose of the wretchedness of these places, such as the coroner's inquest is proving to be. There was last year's hair-raising report by the NSW State Ombudsman – the Ombudsman's third on LRCs – as well as reports of the NSW Guardianship Tribunal's investigation of the Millthorpe LRC. People With Disability Australia, which is funded to advocate for residents of LRCs, has for years been urging something be done.
It's clear what needs to be done.
We need law reform for occupancy agreements between marginal renters, such as boarders in LRCs, and their landlords. These occupancy agreements should have to comply with some basic occupancy principles, and there should be provision for standard terms to be made for specific types of agreement by regulation. LRC occupancy agreements should be the first candidate for a set of standard terms.
We need a new system of registration and accreditation for all residential services, including licensed boarding houses, with different standards for different types of providers. This system would need an independent registrar to monitor and enforce standards, because ADHC is patently not up to the job. (On a positive note, the registrar might also be a handy one-stop-shop for boarding house operators in their dealings with government.)
And finally, we need a plan for the orderly closure of LRCs, and the rehousing of their residents in social housing with funded support services attached. This subsector of substandard housing for people with disability only, and substandard 'care' provided for profit, has no place in the future of our housing system.

[UPDATE – 31 May 2012. The coroner has made findings - see this post for our review.] 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Rentstart bond loans

More news for social housing applicants. We recently discussed the changed way in which the social housing register will be managed (that is, always have your contact details up-to-date, or you'll be struck off the register). Here's another change, coming soon: Rentstart bonds will be loans, and every fortnight you'll have to pay a bit back.

Some background: for years applicants for social housing have been able to get grants of money from Housing NSW to put towards the bond for a tenancy in the private market. Depending on your circumstances, Housing NSW might pay 75 per cent or 100 per cent of the bond. At the end of your tenancy, the money goes back to Housing NSW, unless claimed by the landlord.

And claim it they do. Many landlords and agents have come to see Rentstart bonds as a bit of a gift, and claim them even when they're really not entitled. And tenants often don't defend the claims, because the money doesn't go to them and they're probably still dealing with moving house (although, we do know tenants who have defended claims and gotten the money back for Housing NSW, because of the principle of the thing).

Tenants advocates – and, for that matter, officers of Housing NSW – have had mixed feelings about this aspect of Rentstart bonds. On the one hand, there are landlords and agents rorting it; on the other, it's helping get people housed in a private rental market that treats them very shabbily.

Now it's changing – the Rentstart bonds, that is; not the shabby treatment. The money will be given to eligible persons as a loan, to be repaid to Housing NSW over the next 12, 18 or 36 months.

The repayment period will depend on how much of your income you're spending on rent: if it's less than 45 per cent (only 45!), you must repay the loan over 12 months; if it's 45-50 per cent, you can repay over 18 months. If more than 50 per cent of your income goes on rent, Housing NSW wouldn't usually give you a Rentstart bond for what will be, in most cases, a doomed tenancy, but in the exceptional cases where they do, you can repay over 36 months. Repayments are to be made fortnightly.

Let's consider how this might work in practice, with the example of a typical social housing applicant – a single parent with one kid. This person's income might be about $1100 per fortnight (Parenting Payment, Family Tax Benefits, Rent Assistance). The median rent for a two-bedroom property in Sydney is $900 per fortnight – that's 80 per cent of her income, so she won't be renting that.

Let's say she finds, against the odds, a place for $480 per fortnight, and gets a Rentstart bond loan for the whole of the $960 bond. The rent's just under 45 per cent of her income, so she's got 12 months to repay the loan, at $37 per fortnight. That's on top of a rent that puts her well into 'housing stress'.

If you don't keep up, Housing NSW promises 'early, active engagement' to get you paying again. If you don't repay the loan, you may not get any further Rentstart assistance, and Housing NSW may commence legal proceedings against you to recover the debt.

We don't know when this change will commence – there's no statement we can see on Housing NSW's website, but there are a few mentions of Rentstart bond loans popping up in their paperwork, so expect it to happen soon. Let's hope by then that there's also an effort to let landlords and agents know that Rentstart bonds are not, if they ever were, gifts for them to claim at the end of a tenancy.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

No more Tribunal at Parramatta

At the end of this month, the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal's Parramatta registry and hearing rooms will close.

From April, just about all those parts of western Sydney currently served by the Parramatta registry will be served by either the City registry or the Penrith registry. And that's where your hearings will be conducted too: the City or Penrith.

The closure is about reducing the cost of the Tribunal, and we understand that the Tribunal took no joy in making the decision. Still, it's a really bad move. For the Tribunal to be absent from the demographic centre of Sydney – a centre that has its own Justice Precinct – makes little sense.

The basic objective of the Tribunal is access to justice (such as it is under residential tenancies law). Tenants advocates will tell you that its not always easy to get tenants to assert their legal rights by applying to the Tribunal, or to defend their interests by responding to their landlords' proceedings. It's going to get harder in western Sydney.

Brown Couch correspondent and public transport enthusiast, Leo, got together with our colleagues at the Western Sydney Tenants Service and pored over his timetables to see what the effect of the Parramatta closure would be on typical trips to a Tribunal hearing.


Here's a few examples of what they found:
  • If you're in Merrylands, you might have expected to spend a total of 36 minutes on the bus to and from Parramatta; now you'll be on the bus to the City for an hour and a half all up.
  • If you're in Carlingford, you would have faced a total of one hour on the bus; now you're going to the City, it's two connecting trains each way, and total time just under two hours.
  • If you're in Greystanes, you'd have spent just under one and a half hours on the bus to Parramatta and back; now you're going to Penrith, it will take two and a quarter hours all up, on two buses and a train each leg.
  • If you're in Northmead, you could have gotten to Parramatta and back in 50 minutes on the bus; to get to Penrith and back, expect it to take just under two and a half hours, with a bus and a train each leg.
The extra time and complexity of getting to the Tribunal will make it a lot easier for tenants to say why bother.

Which may make things easier for landlords and agents... except that they'll still have to go to the Tribunal for their applications. And the extra time taken getting into the City or Penrith will cost them... costs that they'll try to recover from tenants, in higher rents, or skimping on repairs, or both.

So as a cost-saving measure, it may work for the Tribunal, but not the community generally.

The Tribunal has made its decision; hopefully the Premier (and Minister for Western Sydney) Barry O'Farrell will see that tenants, landlords and other users of the Tribunal need it to have a presence in Parramatta, and that some hearing rooms must be found in the Justice Precinct there.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Share house post script

We wound up share housing month in 2012 with a reminder that you need to get your share-house agreement in writing - because without a written agreement you may not have the protections of a tenant under NSW tenancy laws...

This message has been doing the rounds on university campuses from one end of NSW to the other, due to the tireless efforts of the Tenants' Advice & Advocacy Services and the student representative bodies at our various tertiary institutions.

But we know that share houses are not always student houses.

If you rent part of a house or unit from another tenant, who
- has a written tenancy agreement with the owner, and
- lives in the property with you
then you need to get your agreement in writing in order for renting laws to apply to you in NSW.

Get your agreement in writing, and avoid the horror of having no rights as a tenant.

Ask any fan of the UK TV series Being Human:
living in a share-house doesn't always have to be a horror story

Contact your local Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Service, or visit for more information.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Help the TAASs help tenants

We've mentioned a few times the good work of the Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services. These are community organisations funded under the Tenants Advice and Advocacy Program (which also funds the Tenants' Union, as a resource body for the TAASs).

Last year the TAASs helped more than 32 000 tenants across New South Wales with phone advice, community education, personal advocacy and representation in the Tribunal.

Now the TAASs are asking for your help.

Baseline funding to TAASs has not increased for almost 10 years. It is as if no additional tenancies have been created since 2002... but, in fact, the private rental sector has grown since then by about a quarter. And the caseload of the TAASs has grown by almost half.

So the TAASs are stretched thin. They need more money to employ more advocates to help more tenants.

The TAASs aren't asking tenants to reach into their pockets and part with any more of their hard-earned money – they figure tenants already part with enough in rent and bond payments. That's where their funding comes from: from a small proportion of the interest earned by monies lodged with the Bond Board and in agents' statutory accounts. Instead, the TAASs are asking for a bit more of that interest earned on tenants' monies to go to the TAASs, to improve their services for tenants.

The money's there: even after paying out significantly larger amounts towards the operations of Renting Services and the Tribunal, and a little bit to tenants individually, the Bond Board has been sitting on mounting surpluses for years.

Over the years two independent consultants have been engaged by Fair Trading NSW to review the Tenants Advice and Advocacy Program; both have reported back that it's a good program that should receive a substantial increase in funding. But to date no action has been taken to increase the funding.

So, please write to the NSW Minister for Fair Trading, the Hon Anthony Roberts, and the NSW Treasurer, the Hon Mike Baird, and ask for better funded Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services, for the collective benefit of all New South Wales tenants.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Unhousing made easy...

A few days ago there was an article in the papers about a "hidden" social housing waiting list. This is a list of people whose application for social housing have been suspended because they have not updated their contact details, and Housing Pathways do not know how to find them. If/when these applicants make contact again, Housing Pathways reinstates their application and they return to their rightful place in the queue. There are many good reasons why a person might not have updated their contact details, including homelessness or poor mental health.

This is all about to change. Soon applicants who do not stay in touch with Housing Pathways will have their applications closed.

Click here for the pdf version of this factsheet.

Housing Pathways will check-in with applicants every so often, with a request to update details. If applicants don't respond in the required time, their application will be closed.

Anyone on the list who Housing Pathways can't find RIGHT NOW will be asked to come forward and update their details by May 1st 2012.

Those who do not will have their applications closed.

Former-applicants will be encouraged to reapply, but they will be sent to the bottom of the list.

This, as Minister Goward tells us, is to "reward and encourage personal responsibility".

We've been asked to spread the good word.

If you work with someone, live with someone, or know someone who is on the waiting list for social housing, urge them to check that their contact details are up-to-date in the Housing Pathways system. Let them know that if they move house, or get a new phone number, or find themselves couch-surfing for awhile, or living out of their car, or in hospital, or prison, etc... they should contact Housing Pathways to make sure they know all about it.

Shelter NSW has called for letters to Minister Goward to tell her what a bad idea this is. We're inclined to agree. More details are on Shelter's facebook page.