Tuesday, August 7, 2012

If it ain't broke...

With over 113,000 tenanted properties, the NSW Government is the single largest landlord in New South Wales - and by no small margin. Managing such a large portfolio of tenancies can't be easy, especially when you consider all that's involved... On the one hand, there's collecting all that rent, and on the other, there's making sure all those houses are kept in good working order. This creates such a tricky combination of tasks that our government has had to develop two teams of specialists just to keep it all under control.



This all started a few years ago, under a different government to the one we have now. Back in October 2008, when Nathan Rees was Premier and David Borger was Minister for Housing, the government's landlord function was split into two - one part to handle housing services (that is, collecting rents and causing evictions), and the other to take charge of asset management (that is, carrying out repairs and maintenance). When our current Premier, Barry O'Farrell, rose to prominence and took charge of government in early 2011, he liked the idea so much that he gave each of these functions its own Minister.

Now, whatever problems this may have solved for government (and no doubt they'll have a list of these), it's created a huge problem for their tenants: getting repairs done is no longer seen as a function of 'tenancy management'. These days, repairs are thought of as 'asset management'.

This, we suggest, is not quite right.

As a landlord, the NSW Government has a legal obligation to maintain its tenanted properties in a reasonable state of repair. This obligation comes from section 63 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2010, and it is not negotiable.

Their tenants - just like every tenant in New South Wales - should be careful not to cause damage to the property, and must notify their landlord of any damage that does occur. These obligations come from section 51 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2010, and they are not negotiable.

As a landlord, the NSW Government must not interfere with their tenants' reasonable peace, comfort and privacy. This obligation comes from section 50 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2010, and it is not negotiable. It has been said by the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal that the failure to carry out necessary repairs can amount to just such an interference.
So, both tenants and landlords have a role to play in keeping houses in good order. Tenants must tell landlords when something needs to be fixed, and landlords must see to the fixing in a manner that is sensitive to the tenant's occupation of the premises.

But as you can imagine, with 113,000 tenanted properties on the books, the NSW Government thinks it would be foolish to just sit back and wait for tenants to tell them about damage before making any plans for repairs and maintenance. Instead, they send someone out to look at each property every once in awhile, to make note of its condition, and determine what maintenance work might be needed in order to keep the place in good nick... This, we suspect, is what 'asset management' is really all about.

But when some part of your house breaks, and it's not already on the list of things to be fixed, getting it repaired can be a nightmare. If you tell your Client Service Officer (aka your 'tenancy manager') about the problem, they'll tell you there's nothing they can do. They'll ask you to talk to someone else about it, and they'll take no part in organising the repair. They wont be the one to book the contractor to come out and look at the job, and they wont be the one to tell you how and when the repair will be done. They're also not the person to call if the contractor doesn't show up, or to complain to if the repair isn't done properly.

But here's the kicker - because they are your tenancy manager, they will be the one you take to the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal if you need to get a repair order. Of course, since they've played no part in your repairs saga up until that moment, they will probably have no idea what you are talking about.
 
* * *
Evidently, we're not the only ones who have noticed repairs and maintenance is causing issues for tenants of Housing NSW.

Back in March the Member for Balmain in the NSW Parliament, Jamie Parker, raised concerns about the state of Housing NSW properties in his electorate, and more recently, he raised a number of questions in parliament with Greg Pearce, the Minister for Finance and Services*. It is Minister Pearce's department that bears the responsibility for repairs and maintenance of the government's rental housing portfolio, and his responses were somewhat illuminating.

In truth, the Minister was given 30 days to come up with his answers, but we like to think of this conversation happening in real time. That way, we can allow ourselves the indulgence of the occasional interjection from the Brown Couch. We imagine it going something like this:

PARKER: - For each local office area of Housing NSW, what is the average waiting period between a tenant calling the maintenance line and an officer of Housing NSW attending the property to inspect?
- What is the average waiting period between a repair being deemed urgent and the repair being carried out?
- What is the average waiting period between a repair being deemed non-urgent and added to the planned program of works, and the repair being carried out?
- Once repairs are added to the planned program of works, is any consideration given to the length of time the tenant has been waiting for the repairs to be carried out?
 

PEARCE: The completion timeframes for specific works orders are prioritised based on their urgency or risk category:
- Urgent - 4 hours: immediate threat of danger or threat to security, such as electrical danger, gas leak, sewer choke into a common area, internal flooding.
- Priority 1 - 24 hours: threat to safety needing prompt attention, such as no lighting within dwelling, inoperative smoke alarm, external flooding.
- Priority 2 - 48 hours: certain essential items not working, such as hot water systems, heaters in cold climates.
- Priority 3 - 72 hours: other essential items not working, such as stoves, common area washing machines/driers, external doors or toilets.
- Responsive work - 20 days: within 20 working days from the date of issue as stated on the relevant work order.
- Planned maintenance: based on whole of Land and Housing Corporation asset portfolio standards that targets properties most in need of repairs. Once works are added to the planned maintenance program, work is packaged according to priorities.
 

OUR INTERJECTION: Thank you, Minister, and yes, we've read the fact-sheet too. We know what you'd like to happen, but, given the opportunity was there, it would have been good of you to give a bit of an insight into what really happens...
 

PARKER: How many Housing NSW properties are currently on the planned program of works?
 

PEARCE: As of 30 June 2012, there were 3079 properties on the planned program of works.
 

OUR INTERJECTION: Seriously? Out of 120,000 or so properties? That seems a little low. But hang-on... June 30 2012 was the end of the financial year - we can't help but wonder if this figure doesn't reflect the real state of need for repairs.
 

PARKER: How many Housing NSW properties are currently unoccupied because they are not considered fit for habitation?
 

PEARCE: Nil
 

OUR INTERJECTION: Oh, nicely taken, Minister! We know that in 2010-11 you had 120,380 properties and 113,023 tenancies because we looked at your latest annual report. Which means you have a few properties to spare. While we can accept these might not be vacant because they are 'not fit for habitation', we're still left wondering if any of them are in need of repair.
 

PARKER: Of all the Housing NSW properties leased to new tenants in the previous 2 years, how many have since required responsive repairs or scheduled maintenance?
 

PEARCE: From 1 July 2010 to 30 June 2012, the NSW Land and Housing Corporation has carried out scheduled or responsive repairs on 23, 345 properties with new tenants.
 

OUR INTERJECTION: Wow. That seems like a lot. It's around 19.5% of your total portfolio. It's also about four times the number of new tenancies you entered into in the 2010-11 financial year (again, taking figures from your latest annual report. We'll check back again to compare this when the 2011-2012 report is released). But how many of those were scheduled, and how many were responsive?
 

PARKER: - In the financial years 2010-11 and 2011-12, how many Housing NSW properties were subject to CTTT orders for repair?
- Once subject to a CTTT repair order, what is the NSW Land and Housing Corporation process for ensuring repairs are carried out (eg are they placed on the program of works?)
- What is the timeframe in which the NSW Land and Housing Corporation complies with CTTT orders for repair?
- How many CTTT orders has the NSW Land and Housing Corporation complied with within the timeframe ordered?
- How many CTTT orders has the NSW Land and Housing Corporation failed to comply with within the timeframe ordered?
- In the same period, how many CTTT matters in which orders had been made were re-listed on the grounds that the NSW Land and Housing Corporation had failed to comply with those orders?
- Where the NSW Land and Housing Corporation has failed to comply with the timeframe ordered by the CTTT, what was the average length of time that the NSW Land and Housing Corporation actually complied?
- In the financial years 2010-11 and 2011-12, what was the value of compensation the NSW Land and Housing Corporation was ordered to pay to Tenants under CTTT orders for failing to repair (including economic loss, non-economic loss and rent reductions)?
- Has the Chairperson of the CTTT referred matters of non-compliance with CTTT repair orders to the Commissioner for Fair Trading for investigation and possible prosecution?
- What has been the outcome of the matters referred to the Commissioner for Fair Trading?
 

PEARCE: Refer to the Social Housing Division section of the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal Annual Report.

OUR INTERJECTION:
Okay, here's what that report tells us:

- In the last reporting period there were 69 applications made for repairs across all social housing types.
- There were 578 total applications made by tenants across all social housing types.
- There were 29 applications for ‘renewal’ and 163 applications for ‘rehearing’, with 104 rehearings granted. There is no breakdown of data according to the type of matter concerned, or who applied for rehearing.
- The number and nature of orders made is not recorded, and no information is given regarding referrals for non-compliance.
In fact, if you ask the CTTT they will tell you that they do not keep statistical records on outcomes of hearings. The best place to obtain such information would be from the records of the NSW Land and Housing Corporation itself.
 

PARKER: What measures has the NSW Land & Housing Corporation taken in relation to these referrals to improve their compliance failures? What quality control processes does Housing NSW have in place to ensure that repair works are carried out to an adequate standard?

PEARCE:
Staff of Housing NSW attend hearings at the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal initiated by public housing tenants. If an order for maintenance is made by the Tribunal, Housing NSW liaises with NSW Land and Housing Corporation, Department of Finance and Services, to arrange for the maintenance to be scheduled and completed within the timeframe set in the Tribunal order.
 

OUR INTERJECTION: That's not what we've heard, Minister. In fact, we're aware of numerous examples of the NSW Land and Housing Corporation failing to comply with CTTT repair orders, and we've discussed many of these with officers in your department.
 

PEARCE: The Maintenance Services for Residential Properties (MRP08) contract with multi-trade contractors governs quality of repair works ensuring work complies with the contracted specifications and standards. The contract also covers auditing procedures.
 

PARKER: What processes does Housing NSW have in place to allow tenants to have works assessed or rectified if the repair works are not carried out to an adequate standard?
 

PEARCE: Tenants call the Housing Contact Centre to have works assessed and rectified. The Centre will contact and request the contractor to rectify the issue or refer the matter to the Land and Housing Corporation to undertake a technical inspection.
 

PARKER: For each local office area of Housing NSW, how many properties and in how many instances has Housing NSW had to raise identical or near identical work orders for the same repair?
 

PEARCE: From 1 July 2010 to 30 June 2012, there have been 39,142 recalls for work previously carried out by contractors. The majority of this work was carried out at no cost to Land and Housing Corporation unless work was found to be unrelated to the initial fault.
 

OUR INTERJECTION: Just... Wow. 39,142 recalls in 24 months. That’s an average of 1630.9 recalls each month. Or 53.5 recalls a day. Wow.
 

PARKER: Does Housing NSW have guidelines to regulate the engagement of subcontractors by companies contracted to carry out repair works?
 

PEARCE: Yes. MRP08 regulates sub-contractor induction by requiring:
- Contractors to complete criminal checks to ensure sub-contractors are of a fit and proper character.
- Sub-contractors to comply with the Land and Housing Corporation Code of Conduct and applicable legislative requirements.
- Currency of contractor insurance.
- Contractors and sub-contractors to be relevant licensed trades persons under NSW Fair trading licensing requirements.
- Compliance of contractors and sub-contractors with Land and Housing Corporation contractor documents and manufacturer instructions.
- Head contractors to be responsible for the work of all sub-contractors.
 

PARKER: Since 1 July 2010 has Housing NSW or NSW Land & Housing Corporation taken any action against a company contracted to carry out repairs for failure to comply with the terms of their contract? If yes, what aspects of the contract did the company⁄s fail to comply with? If yes, what was the action taken? If yes, on how many occasions has action been taken?
 

PEARCE: No.
 

PARKER: For each Housing NSW local office area, what is the estimated cost of carrying out all repairs currently on the planned program of works? Is the budget for repairs and maintenance allocated according to local office areas? If yes, what is the budget for each Housing NSW local area office for repairs and maintenance for 2011-12 and 2012-13 financial years? If no, how is that budget allocated?
 

PEARCE: Estimated maintenance costs are attributed to maintenance contract areas which are not related to local office areas or regional boundaries.
 

OUR INTERJECTION: Indeed, Minister? Yet another complication for tenants whose repairs do not go according to plan...?
 

PEARCE: The 2012-13 budget allocation across all designated areas in NSW is $210.2 million for planned and responsive maintenance and a further $194.5 million to upgrade social housing properties. The budget allocation for planned capital maintenance and upgrading is based and prioritised on known maintenance liability, undertaken from regular property condition surveys.
 

PARKER: For each Housing NSW local office area, how many projects are currently on the planned program of works?
 

PEARCE: As of 30 June 2012, there were 3079 work orders for planned works across all maintenance contract areas.
 

OUR INTERJECTION: So 3079 properties on the list, and 3079 work orders? Each property gets just one thing fixed, then? Also, as we said before, we'd be interested to know if this figure is affected much because it was recorded at the end of the financial year. We wonder if this figure fluctuates much from month to month?

PARKER:
For each Housing NSW local housing area, what is the average length of time between a work being placed on the planned program of works and the work being completed?


PEARCE:
See my response to your first questions.

OUR INTERJECTION:
…and see our response to that response.

* You can find the transcript of this Q&A session in the NSW Hansard papers (you're looking for questions # 2494, which start on page 2357 - and you will note that the questions were in fact asked of the Treasurer on the Finance and Services Minister's behalf).

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating and totally what the tenants on the ground are telling us. Repairs are shonky, tenants get fed up with the constant merry-go-round of maintenance requests and when matters get to the CTTT there is a good chance of non compliance - this includes the kind of repairs that would fall under Housing NSW's urgent categories. The splitting of the functions has caused confusion and excessive delays. It is horrifying that HNSW is able to get away with this - I think it is high time that the NSW Ombudsman was involved or maybe that there was an inquiry into the entire HNSW system. One can't help speculating that they are destroying themselves as a move away from govt accountability for housing all together.

    ReplyDelete

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