Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Background Briefing: licensed boarding houses

We've discussed a number of times the NSW State Coroner's licensed boarding house inquest, which culminated in findings strongly critical of boarding house proprietor (and President of the NSW Property Owners Association) Chris Young, and the wretched state of the licensed boarding house sector generally.

ABC Radio National has aired a 'Background Briefing' on the case – click on that link to hear the report or read the transcript.

Reporter Wendy Carlisle takes a close look at some of the evidence about 300 Hostel, and speaks with the sister of Mohammed Talet Ramzan, one of the residents who died there.

Wendy Carlisle: In the days after Talet Ramzan’s death, letters went back and forth in the Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care. Reading them for the first time, Asha Ramzan gained a whole new insight into the bureaucratic attitude towards her brother’s death.
Asha Ramzan: (Reading) ‘Good morning, Peter. I was again this morning saddened by the news of yet another death at 300 Hostel...’ It’s as though she’s writing about something she watched on the news or heard about at the school gates!
Wendy Carlisle: Reading a bit further, Asha was in for a shock.
Asha Ramzan: Oh, OK, so Friday morning… I didn’t know this, that Talet was having difficulties breathing and was not well.
Wendy Carlisle: The letter explained that the home care worker who was employed by the Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care had told licensee Chris Young that Talet Ramzan was feeling unwell and having trouble breathing, just before he died.
Asha Ramzan: The worker did… home care worker did what I suppose she would have thought was her first line of action… would have been to let the owner of the boarding house, Chris Young, know and about his breathing. Chris Young said, ‘Oh, he probably is just… probably is making it up, because he doesn’t want to have a shower.’
Wendy Carlisle: Yeah, ‘cos he didn’t want to get out of bed.
Asha Ramzan: Yeah. And then he said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll check him myself.’
Wendy Carlisle: According to the coronial inquest, the doctor was not called. Chris Young declined to be interviewed by Background Briefing.

Carlisle also interviews some of the advocates who raised the alarm about 300 Hostel.

Wendy Carlisle: The community advocacy group, People with Disabilities, thinks the coroner should have made some findings on who was responsible for the six people who died at 300 Hostel. From People with Disabilities, Matthew Bowden:
Matthew Bowden: I was very disappointed with the coroner’s findings. You know, the coroner, I mean she made a number of very strong statements that were about the health practitioners involved. She was also critical of Chris Young and the set-up at 300 Livingston Road, including, you know, the poor condition and staffing, et cetera, and also criticisms of Ageing, Disability and Home Care in their monitoring role. And yet having sort of raised these criticisms, made some very strong statements about the failures in the duty of those different agencies, there wasn’t a referral to the police for any criminal investigation or proceedings to occur.
And so she went so far, and made a statement about, you know, we should be judging our society on the way that we treat our most vulnerable people and yet here’s our judicial system, I think, also failing the most vulnerable people.
Wendy Carlisle: The coroner recommended the sector be much more tightly regulated, and one of her more important recommendations was that there should be annual health reviews for residents with disabilities in boarding houses. But Myree Harris [Coalition for Appropriate Supported Accommodation] says she should have gone further.
Myree Harris: I can’t believe the healthcare complaints tribunal, or whatever it is, the medical tribunal, why is it that medical people are not called to account? There’s something wrong. Someone should be holding people to account if they neglect to provide adequate care, particularly to the most vulnerable people, who don’t have family members to scream and shout because they’re not being looked after. These people have no one.

Not quite no-one: advocates like Myree Harris, PWD, NCOSS, Homelessness NSW, the TU and others have been pressing the cause of licensed boarding house residents for years, and the NSW State Government now promises an effective regime of standards and monitoring in boarding houses, both licensed and unlicensed.

We're still awaiting all the details of the proposed reforms. When we see them, we and the other advocates will make submissions with a view to making the proposed regime work. But, rather like with the Coroner's findings, there's a sense that something further should be done – and that is, plan for the closure of the licensed boarding house sector.

Boarding houses for people who need accommodation, whether they've a disability or not – we need more of them. Boarding house managers who have a bit of training in dealing with disability and mental illness, and who know where to get support for people – we need more of them too. But a subsector that accommodates people with disability only, with the landlord supposedly providing the care and support, funded by residents' pensions, and operated for profit – it must end.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Tenants at the Census

This week the ABS released the first data from the 2011 Census.

Before anything else, let's welcome the 42 392 new households who joined the New South Wales rental housing sector since the 2006 Census. These new renters bring the total number of rented private dwellings (this includes social housing) to 743 050 - that's 30.1 per cent of all private dwellings. This is a growing proportion too – it's up from 28.4 per cent in 2006.

From all of us here at the Brown Couch and at the Tenants' Union of NSW, we hope you have a good time of it; we're working to make it better. If you have any questions, please ask your local Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service; they know all there is to know about renting in New South Wales.

The welcome here is, unfortunately, a lot warmer than the one these renters got moving into rental housing: at the 2011 Census, the median rent for New South Wales was $300 per week – which represents a 43 per cent increase on the median rent five years previously. Amongst New South Wales renters, 11.6 per centover 86 000 households – were paying more than 30 per cent of their income in rent.

More news from the Census:
  •  The 2011 Census counted about 7.8 million households in Australia – which is 900 000 fewer than the estimate used by the National Housing Supply Council when it calculated the nation's 'housing shortage' of 228 000 dwellings. As we discussed yesterday, the assumption that households would keep forming and demanding housing, without regard to prices and incomes, on the 2001-2006 pattern, was always very iffy. The NHSC concedes that there's a 'gigantic' difference in the numbers and will have another look.
  • The 2011 Census also counted houses without households... and found 934 471 unoccupied dwellings. That's 10.7 per cent of the nation's housing stock. (This spare housing stock is in addition to the 8 million spare bedrooms we found for the Queensland Housing Minister the other day.) It is true that not all of these unoccupied houses can be considered as potential additional housing – some of them would be awaiting demolition, or awaiting a household that has already determined to move in – but if only a fraction of them really represent stock held in reserve, that's even more potential supply to set against weakening demand.
We'll get back to the real housing supply problem – the lack of rental housing that is affordable to people on low-moderate incomes – in our next post.

D'oh! Spare bedrooms correction

Your correspondent woke in the middle of the night to the thought that the overestimate of household growth relative to the Census that affected the National Housing Supply Council's calculation of a housing shortage will have also affected the Brown Couch's calculation of the number of spare bedrooms (because we were both using the ABS's Housing Occupancy and Costs data). Correcting this – by using the new Census data – would reduce the number of spare bedrooms.

Then, on redoing the numbers, he discovered a stuff-up entirely of his own making (forgot to account for the twos and threes). Correcting this stuff-up increases the number again.

So, using household numbers from the Census, without stuff-ups, we now get: more than 8 million spare bedrooms in owner-occupied households.

Sorry about that, readers.

Our posts on this issue have now been edited to use the correct figure – more than 8 million spare bedrooms. The graphs remain the same, because they were about proportions, not absolute numbers.

More on the Census coming up.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Spare rooms and the housing shortage

A couple of days ago we discussed the Queensland State Government's proposal that public housing tenants with spare bedrooms should take in a needy person (or family) from the social housing waiting list... to which we replied, well, owner-occupiers 'under-utilise' to a far greater extent – there's more than 8 million spare bedrooms in the nation's owner-occupied houses – so why not ask them?

Here, by the way, are the data on rates of 'under-utilisation', presented a little differently (the axes are flipped) for clearer comparisons:

Now, by coincidence, the National Housing Supply Council has just released its report for 2012. The lead findings: that Australia has an estimated housing shortage of 228 000 dwellings, which is 28 000 deeper than the shortage estimated as at June 2010, and that the shortage is projected to deepen further to 370 000 dwellings by 2016, 492 000 by 2021 and 663 000 by 2031.

It's a peculiar sort of housing shortage, you might think, when there are 8 million spare bedrooms in the homes of owner-occupiers.

And it is a peculiar sort of shortage when you consider how the NHSC arrives at its figures.

For the NHSC, the shortage is the difference between the change in supply of dwellings (ie the number of dwellings added to the housing stock) and the change in underlying demand for dwellings. By change in 'underlying demand', the NHSC means changes in the size of the population, and how it is divided up into households. When it considers these changes, and projects them into the future, the NHSC assumes that they will occur on the same pattern of change as measured between 2001 and 2006.  

And that's all it assumes. That is to say, the NHSC assumes the population will keep on dividing up into households, and these households keep demanding to be housed, as they did at 2006, in the heady days before the GFC, when folks didn't worry about debt and thought that owning a house was a way of getting rich... and they'll do it without regard to how affordable it is in terms of prices and incomes now, and without regard to a great many other things too.

In the NHSC's words (from its 2011 report):

The Council’s projections include underlying housing demand for occupied dwellings (by dwelling structure and tenure type) that would result from changing household composition over time if the existing patterns of housing consumption (‘demand propensities’) of different household types continued over the period of the projections.
The model assumes that the dwelling and tenure preferences of each cohort of the population (by age, household type and location) over the next 20 years will be the same as that cohort’s proportional use of each dwelling and tenure type in 2006.
The resulting projections do not take into account changes in housing preferences and consumption patterns driven by non-demographic factors such as housing prices relative to income, the development of new types and styles of housing, increased transport congestion and resulting increased journey times to work, increased or reduced working hours, fuel prices, changing fashions, government policy and performance with regard to housing and land development, policy and behavioural responses to climate change and so on. Many of these phenomena have changed significantly in the past and are likely to change further in future.
The Council’s housing type and tenure type projections simply provide, therefore, an answer to the question ‘What would be the underlying demand for housing types and tenures if only the size and structure of the population had changed since 2006?’. (Emphasis added.)

By not taking into account 'house prices relative to income' – that is, affordability – and all those other factors, this is a very big and wobbly 'if'.

To be fair to the authors of the NHSC's report, they do make their assumption explicit  in the report – but it does place a big qualification over the claim of a shortage, and its projected deepening into the future. It's a shortage only if people keep forming new households as if its 2006, without any regard to the affordability of housing, and without regard to a very wide range of other factors.

In the real world, of course, people do consider the affordability of housing when they decide whether to leave the parental home, or the share house, and form a household of their own, and demand some housing – owner-occupied or rented – of their own. And some of those already out there in the housing market might look again at its affordability, and decide to withdraw, back to the spare rooms of parents and friends.

Which brings us back to those 8 million-plus spare rooms. The Australian housing stock has quite a bit of capacity to accommodate persons who change their 'housing preferences and consumption patterns', including in response to apprehensions affordability – whether that's the feeling that prices are too high, or incomes are too low or insecure. And while not each and every person always has access to a spare room outside the market, the Australian population generally has quite a bit of scope to moderate its demand for housing, and hence the prices it will pay.

So claims about a housing 'shortage' of a particular size must be treated with caution. What is much clearer, however, is that we have a housing supply problem, if by that we mean a problem in getting adequate, affordable housing to those who need it. More on that in our next post.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tenancy culture studies: gnomes

Today, 21 June, is International Gnome Day (as if you didn't know). So it's the perfect occasion for considering the tenurial significance of these horticultural homunculi.

It is customary in some social circles for a tenant to receive from their friends a gnome as a housing-warming gift. This is, on one level, a bit of kitschy fun – but there's a deeper significance. The gnome is a symbol of the ambiguous position tenants occupy in relation to their gardens.

The ambiguity comes from the law. There's no specific mention of gardens in the Residential Tenancies Act 2010; 'grounds/gardens', along with 'lawns/edges' do get a mention in the standard form condition report, which uncomfortably shoehorns them into the 'clean/undamaged/working' matrix. Instead of anything specific, the relevant obligations are the usual ones – the landlord must provide and maintain the premises in a reasonable state of repair; the tenant must keep the premises reasonably clean, not cause or permit any damage, and vacate the premises in as nearly as possible the same condition save fair wear and tear – but it can be difficult to apply them to the terrain of the garden.

For example, the Tribunal has determined that the 'pruning' of trees falls under the tenant's obligation to keep clean, while the 'lopping' of trees falls under the landlord's obligation to repair and maintain. But at what point does pruning become lopping?

And is a garden to be considered a single, organic entity, parts of which may grow and die over time, such that the whole may change, as opposed to being a collection of discrete elements, each of which must be maintained and replaced?

The issue is made even more thorny by landlords' expectations. Your correspondent once represented in the Tribunal a tenant who had been bombarded by furious accusations from his landlord of dereliction in his duty to clean the little silver trails left by snails on the bricks (and never mind that the poor bloke had MS). But then, at the other end of the range, are those landlords who assume that tenants are entirely insensitive to the gentle rhythms of the earth, and themselves obliterate every bit of greenery and concrete over every spot of soil.

The gnome – a nature spirit that is never actually found in nature, and a garden ornament that is actually a gaudy lump of concrete or plaster – symbolises these tensions and ambivalences perfectly.


We should stress that the above applies to mainstream tenancies. In relation to tenancies on residential parks, gnomes have a very different significance. Here the gnome is a symbol of solidarity and resistance.

There's a story to this. Once upon a time, up the coast of New South Wales, lived a park operator, who was concerned that his residential park should have a certain tone. To that end he issued a decree – that is, a park rule – that no resident should keep on their residential site any garden gnome (a 'statue', on the other hand, was sufficiently classy and therefore permissible).

One day, an elderly resident of the park fell foul of the park operator and his sense of taste when she repaired her carport with materials that were not to his liking (she used hardiplank; 'no no NO!' shrieked the park operator, 'it must be vinyl!'). The resident sought advice from her local Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service, who noticed amongst numerous other oppressive park rules the ban on gnomes. The matter of the carport proceeded to the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal, which decided that it would conduct a view of the structure in question, and similar structures on the park. On the day of the view, other residents made a silent show of support for their neighbour, and a protest against the park operator's high-handed ways, by each exhibiting, in their windows and gardens, a gnome. With the park operator cowering beneath the baleful glare of dozens of gnomes, the Tribunal determined that the resident's carport works were entirely satisfactory, and that the park operator should back off.

And ever since, park residents and their advocates in the Park and Village Service and Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services have held aloft the gnome as a symbol of their struggle for a better deal for residents. In fact, look closely and you just might catch of glimpse of a gnome hidden deeply in any of PAVS's publications.

Whether you're an ambivalent gardener or defiant park resident, happy International Gnome Day.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Queensland tenants asked to share public housing

More social housing news, this time from north of the border. Queensland public tenants have received a letter from the State's new Housing Minister, Bruce Flegg, alerting them to a 'crisis' in public housing: 'under-utilisation'.

According to the Minister, more than 8 700 public housing properties have two or more spare bedrooms, while 30 000 persons wait on the housing register. 'Such under-utilisation cannot be allowed to continue', Minister Flegg says.

Accordingly, the Minister proposes transferring tenants to smaller properties... or instituting 'voluntary shared housing arrangements'!

Getting people off the waiting list and into social housing is great, but not when it is done by asking those who are on just the next rung of the ladder to wriggle over a bit. It also overlooks the great untapped reservoir of housing that exists in the spare rooms of owner-occupiers.

This is where the greatest 'under-utilisation' happens, as the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows in its Housing Occupancy and Costs survey.

(Source: ABS (2011) 'Housing Occupancy and Costs 2009/10', Table 14. Click on the image for a better view.)

In fact, of all the tenure types, public housing tenants 'under-utilise' their housing the least – even less than private renters. Meanwhile, almost 90 per cent of owner-occupiers without a mortgage, and over 82 per cent of owners with a mortgage, have one or more spare bedrooms.

And of course, there's lots more owner-occupiers than public housing tenants. By our count of the ABS data [that is, the Housing Occupancy rates and the correct households data from the Census], Australia's 5.2 million owner-occupier households have between them not less than 8 million spare bedrooms.

Perhaps Housing Ministers should consider writing to the nation's owner-occupiers and ask them to take in a social housing applicant.

Or, if they prefer, that they contribute a little more money in tax – say, a land tax that applies to land for owner-occupied housing – to fund a social housing system that grows at least in line with demand for it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Social housing rents bite on carbon tax compensation

With the State Budget comes confirmation that Housing NSW will include carbon tax compensation payments in social housing rent rebate calculations, starting from March 2013. (Click here for the media release.)

So, for most social housing tenants, 25 per cent of their payment will go to increased rent.

(We swore to ourselves that the last time we used this metaphor really would be the last time, but like the Count himself, it just won't die... and we had an eerie premonition that something like this might happen.)

As Shelter NSW points out, the State Government's decision is contrary to the general principle that income of a general nature is assessable for rent rebate purposes, but specific purpose supplements (like the GST supplement) are not.

The State Government's decision is also contrary to the stated intentions of the Federal Government. From the CleanEnergyFuture website:

Public housing tenants

Assistance is not intended to be included in state government public housing rent setting calculations so that public housing residents get the full benefit of assistance.

Housing Minister Pru Goward explained the State Government's decision:

Industry commentators forecast increases to property costs of up to 1.7 per cent. This increase would cost social housing in NSW $50 million over 4 years....

This is another reason why the NSW Government opposes the carbon tax because of its significant adverse impacts on the people and economy of NSW.

It is not the Brown Couch's job to advise politicians on how to spin, but the Coalition State Government might want to be careful not to appear to make social housing tenants the pawns in a political contest between itself and the Federal Labor Government.

We want affordable housing because...

If you're concerned about the lack of appropriate and affordable housing in Australia, you're not alone.

Australians for Affordable Housing have recently launched a 'photo petition', calling on all who share your concern to upload a portrait to their website -

As part of the deal, petitioners must include a message about why they'd like to see affordable housing in Australia.

 We want affordable housing...

Here on the Brown Couch we take housing affordability to heart.

Chris wants affordable housing because far too much of the nation's wealth is tied up in housing related debt - and not nearly enough of it applies to newly constructed housing. As a nation we gamble on rising house prices, instead of producing more of what we all need...

Leo wants affordable housing because too many people have to sacrifice even their most basic needs - like adequate food, health and well-being - in order to pay for housing. Rising rents are not only unproductive - they're taking us backwards.

Ned wants affordable housing because sustaining stable homes and cohesive communities becomes increasingly difficult the more our housing costs rise. We're forced to compromise on so many things when we can't afford to keep a roof over our heads.

Why not see what others have to say on affordable housing, or make a statement of your own? Visit the Housing Stressed website for more on the campaign from Australians for Affordable Housing.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Vale Frank Walker

We're sad to hear that Frank Walker, the former State and Federal Parliamentarian, has died.

Walker held numerous ministerial portfolios, including Housing in the Wran Labor Government. As Housing Minister, Walker was responsible for the replacement of the NSW Housing Commission by the NSW Department of Housing on 1 January 1986.

The intention of the change was to move away from the 'public works' organisation of the old Commission, with its preoccupation with building public housing – even though this meant, by the 1980s, building houses of dubious durability in large estates that concentrated poverty and other social problems – and its high-handed style of tenancy management – obsessed about property management, with a strong minor theme in scrutinising tenants' household arrangements on Octavia Hill lines.

By contrast, the new Department of Housing was envisaged as a cross-tenural housing services agency, with a new focus on 'client service'.

It is fair to say that, more than 25 years later, that reform agenda is still a work-in-progress – but Walker got started on it.

As Housing Minister, Walker also gave the State-wide network of Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services its start. In 1986, the Housing Information and Tenancy Services Program got underway, providing funding to 21 local advice services, as well as to the Tenants' Union (to resource the local services) and to Shelter NSW too.

Walker was also an advocate for people with mental illness, having lost two sons to schizophrenia.

Vale Frank Walker.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Early sighting of new Boarding Houses Act (NSW)

The NSW Government has provided a response to last year's parliamentary inquiry into international students' accommodation... and with it a glimpse of its proposed law reform for marginal renters.

According to the response, the Government proposes a new Boarding Houses Act. At this stage, it appears the new Act will:
  • cover boarding houses that accommodate five or more residents, or that are licensed residential centres for people with disability;
  • require boarding houses to register with NSW Fair Trading, with significant penalties for non-compliance;
  • enshrine 'occupancy principles', based on the Australian Capital Territory model, to apply to residents' contracts; and
  • provide for dispute resolution by the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal.
Our own early response to the Government's proposals: very good, as far as it goes....

And the new Act should go further, particularly in relation to coverage.

In our experience, there are many boarding and lodging arrangements involving four or fewer people: lots of share houses, and lots of shared accommodation for international students. It may appropriate for these arrangements not to have to register as 'boarding houses', but they should by covered by the occupancy principles and the jurisdiction of the Tribunal.

The Government also indicates that the new Boarding Houses Act would expressly exclude a wide range of accommodation providers, regardless of the five-resident threshold, such as hotels and motels; serviced apartments; student accommodation provided by an educational body; accommodation specifically linked to the provision of health, aged or disability care; residential parks; crisis accommodation; group homes; or employees' accommodation.

Again, it may be appropriate that the registration provisions not apply to all these forms of accommodation, but where they are used as a person's residence, the occupancy principles can and should apply.

There's no difficulty in applying the occupancy principles to this range of types of accommodation – they are specially designed to be that flexible. And as some of these types of accommodation house very vulnerable persons – in particular, crisis accommodation, but there also some hotels and motels that do a lot of business through Rentstart temporary housing assistance – they should be covered by the Government's stated intention to 'put the appropriate legislation in place to protect and uphold the rights of vulnerable residents, whether they are people with a disability, students, or those on low incomes.'

Still, these are early and mostly positive signs of reform. And the Government has promised further consultation and opportunities for submissions. Let's hope that when it finally appears, the Boarding Houses Act does the whole job that the Government has set out to do.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Homelessness Bill 2012 (Commonwealth)

The Commonwealth Government has released for comment its draft Homelessness Bill 2012.

The Bill expresses some fine sentiments, such as in relation to the Commonwealth's 'aspiration... that all persons living in Australia have access to adequate housing' (clause 7), and its commitment to certain 'service delivery outcomes' for homeless persons (clause 9).  

Unfortunately, that's all they are – sentiments. That's because of clause 13 of the Bill:

13  Act does not create or give rise to rights or obligations
(1) This Act does not, by its terms or operation, create or give rise to
any rights (whether substantive or procedural), or obligations, that are legally enforceable in judicial or other proceedings.  
(2) No action, suit or proceeding is to be instituted in reliance on the
terms of this Act or the operation of this Act.

This escape clause is unworthy of the Bill. We don't doubt the Commonwealth Government's commitment to dealing with homelessness... but does the Government?

Making the rights of homeless persons to housing services justiciable and enforceable would help drive positive change in service provision, and go some way to achieving the Commonwealth's stated 'aspirations' and 'commitments'.