Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Auditor-General reports on public housing

The NSW Audit Office has today released the Auditor-General's report 'Making the best use of public housing'.

(Auditor-General Peter Achterstraat)
There's a lot in the report – more than we can cover this afternoon – but its essential message to the State Government is something low-income households and the people who work with them have known for years: there's just not enough social housing, particularly public housing. As the Auditor-General puts it:

The constraints in the current portfolio and funding arrangements do not enable HNSW [Housing NSW] and LAHC [Land and Housing Corporation] to meet the changing public housing need. 
Public housing is ageing and increasingly not fit for purpose. It is declining as a proportion of overall New South Wales housing. 
There is an increasing shortfall between the supply of and demand for public housing.
This is the essential problem from which so many other problems in public housing follow – and compound that essential problem. Not enough public housing means targeting allocations to the most poor and crisis-afflicted applicants. This in turn means higher costs to Housing NSW, and less rental revenue. This in turn means yet fewer funds for new stock, and for maintenance. This means greater resort to asset sales, to avoid maintenance liabilities of the stock that's sold, and to pay for some maintenance on the stock that's left. This means fewer dwellings, and a further increase in the shortfall between supply or and demand for public housing. It's a vicious circle, and it's unsustainable.

Appropriately, the Auditor-General locates the problem of 'under-occupancy' of public housing within this context. To the extent to which it is a problem – and as we've previously noted, under-occupancy is less common in public housing than private rental or owner-occupation, where it is not seen as a problem at all – under-occupancy happens largely because the old public housing stock profile does not match the new public housing clientele profile, and Housing NSW's ability to do anything about it is constrained by the pressures of not enough dwellings and too many poor and crisis-afflicted applicants.

It would be a mistake, and a serious injustice to all the households whose needs are not being met by our diminished public housing system, if the State Government was to merely tweak Housing NSW's policies around the allocation of bedrooms and transfers, and not face up to the essential challenge of growing public housing. Tweaking allocations and transfers really is just shifting the deckchairs.

That's not to say that there are no changes that can be made at the operational policy level to address the vicious circle of public housing's decline. Housing NSW could change now its wretched policy of offering fixed term tenancies and reviewing eligibility to remain in public housing. According to the Auditor-General, this policy has 'had little impact on people moving on from public housing'. We'd go further: we suspect it has induced tenants to stay sick and stay poor in order to stay housed, where otherwise they might have taken work opportunities that lead, eventually, to their moving on from public housing. The declining number of exits from public housing, illustrated in the report, is consistent with our view. 

Likewise Housing NSW's 'moderate income' rents policy, under which Housing NSW takes 50 cents in each additional dollar earned by tenants foolhardy enough to get a job that pays a 'moderate income' – with the Centrelink and the Tax Office getting most or all of the other 50 cents. Scrap this policy and see if the increased incentive to work doesn't eventually free up some space in public housing too.

The Auditor-General makes a number of recommendations for higher-level work by Housing NSW and the Land and Housing Corporation, in terms of strategy and planning. But these mustn't be strategies or plans merely for managing the decline of the social housing sector. Social housing must grow to meet community needs.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Are you enrolled to vote?

If you're waiting for the date of the federal election to be set to sort out your electoral enrolment, wait no longer. No, the date hasn't been set. You should just do it now. Don't wait!

If you've never been enrolled before, you can enrol online at the Australian Electoral Commission's website.

You're required to enrol if you're 18 years or older and an Australian citizen (some British citizens are eligible too). (And if you're 16 or 17 and are waiting til you're 18, don't wait – you can enrol now too).

If you've enrolled previously, but are not sure if you are still enrolled, you can check your enrolment online. And if you're enrolled under an old address, you can change your address online.

It does happen that people drop off the electoral roll, particularly if they've moved and have not notified the AEC of the change of address. (The AEC periodically sends out surveys to check who is currently living at an address, and if the returned survey doesn't match the roll, those on the roll may get bumped.)

If you've dropped off the roll, you can re-enrol online.

Tell your friends, housemates and fellow tenants to make sure they're enrolled to vote. See the AEC's 'Don't Leave It To The Last Minute' campaign for more info.

Friday, July 26, 2013

There's no such thing as a free shirt

We're a gracious lot here at the Brown Couch. As a way of saying 'thanks' for your continued support of the work of the Tenants' Advice & Advocacy Services and the Tenants' Union of NSW, we'd like to give away a couple of T-shirts.

We don't have many. As much as we'd like to, we can't just give them out to anybody who wants one. Instead, we've come up with a bit of a game - play the game, and you can have a free shirt.

It's a pretty simple game. Here's how it works:

We're going to pretend that we've got a situation where some rising damp is causing an internal wall to blister and peel. At first it just looked like a coat of paint would fix it, but it's pretty obvious now that more than that will be required.

The landlord has said they'd fix it, but they don't really seem that concerned about it. From our own inspections, we can see that this wall has been patched up before…

We're sure the landlord ought to do more this time. How can we get them to fix it properly?


Answer this question

- Or -

Tell us about a time when you asked for your landlord to fix something

- Or -

Tell us what you would change to make asking your landlord to fix something less of an ordeal

… and we'll send you a shirt.


All answers need to be left as comments on this blog.

Feel free to answer anonymously, but in order to get your shirt, you'll also need to contact us so we can get one to you in the correct size. The best way to do that is by Facebook or Twitter, but if you're not on the social pages you can always contact us by more traditional means.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Congratulations to tenants William and Catherine

The Brown Couch congratulates tenants William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, on the birth of their son and future Australian monarch, George.

Their Royal Highnesses rent their home, a farm house on the Isle of Anglesea, off the coast of Wales. (Although, according to reports, the young family is shortly to move to new digs, with some help from William's gran.)

As a renting family, their Highnesses are in good company amongst subjects in New South Wales too: here about 40 per cent of rented houses are homes to children.

In fact, about a quarter of all people living in rented houses in New South Wales are children under the age of 14 – and almost half of all Aboriginal people living in rented houses in New South Wales are kids.

Best wishes and good luck to William, Catherine and George, and all the other parents and kids trying to make a home in rental housing.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Little paper houses...

We think affordable housing is really important. In fact we're talking about it pretty much constantly on The Brown Couch. Check out this link if you'd like to read over some of our featured comments.

We know we're not alone. Housing affordability is a huge issue for loads and loads of Australians. In fact, we'd go so far as to say it's an issue that concerns everyone. Even if you've secured your own affordable home - whether you're paying a landlord or a bank, or you own your place outright - unaffordable housing has a significant impact on our economy. As the 'resources boom' starts to wane, and we turn to the residential housing sector to fill the void, unaffordable housing will continue to bite.

This week, Australians for Affordable Housing are encouraging us to take 5 days of action for affordable housing.

Today's action calls for us all to get a little bit crafty - if you follow this link you'll get a graphic that looks like this:

You download it, print off a couple of copies, cut them out and fashion them into a neat little row of cute paper houses.

Once constructed, you put them around your own neighbourhood, and draw attention to the Australians for Affordable Housing campaign.

Better still - take a photo and post it to your favourite social media site, along with your message about why affordable housing is important.

... and if you haven't already done so, like the Facebook page, follow the Twitter account, and sign up to support the Australians for Affordable Housing campaign.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday afternoon grizzle...

Its raining in Sydney, and that's reason enough to go off on a bit of an angry ramble.

The other day, we came across this article, in which a noted Australian supplier of tiles - Mr Bob Beaumont - opines that the affordability of housing is pushing home-ownership beyond even our wildest dreams.

He makes a good point - it's not the cost of construction that's pushing up the prices, but the cost of land:
Builders aren't to blame. Open a newspaper on any weekend and you'll see ads from people who are happy to build you a new house for an amazingly low price. Materials also cost less. I know because tiles are my line of business. Their prices are less now than they were in the mid-'80s - and many other construction supplies are similarly cheaper.
Home ownership has become the privilege of the few rather than the rightful expectation of the many because policymakers have paid no regard to the law of supply and demand. Our urban planners and policymakers have drawn an arbitrary red line around the edges of our cities and decided all building development will be contained within these boundaries.
Okay, so we might have a few words to say about policymakers and their regard to supply and demand - or how over-stimulated demand and under-stimulated supply creates a volatile cocktail that sends house prices to the moon...

But that's not important right now, because Mr Beaumont goes on:
These shallow-thinking twits didn't think that by restricting supply they have pushed the price of land up tremendously, condemning our kids to a lifetime of renting with no hope of owning their own homes.
Of course, there are a couple of easy-to-spot problems with Mr Beaumont's claim here: landlords need houses, too; and renting a home doesn't always make it cheap.

But let's leave that aside.

... and in the meantime, consider yourself condemned!

What we've got here is a cultural indicator that should never go unchallenged: for as long as you rent, you're missing out on something that's very, very important. Perhaps you'll never even become a proper grown-up if you're going to spend your whole life renting - you'll always be thought of as one of 'our kids'.

But renting is fine. Or at least it would be, if we had laws and policies that were more than a mere reflection of this patronising but entrenched assumption. Our legal relationships with land should be of no concern to our neighbours, but the way we regard one another so often depends on our illogical biases around tenure.

Anyway, there's more. Mr Beaumont again:
What right do governments have to dictate to voters they are better off living in cramped conditions in apartments and units than in the suburbs with a backyard and room to move?
Perhaps the same right that builders-who-have-already-made-their-fortunes have to assume 'our kids' are better off buying in the middle of nowhere than to rent in the inner- to middle-ring suburbs, with decent transport links, and proximity to the rest of their lives...

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bright sparks and smoke alarms

I was talking recently with a fellow from the Real Estate Institute about smoke alarms, which since 2005 have been required in all homes in New South Wales.

The fellow from the REI recounted that soon after the requirement came in, agents began to get a bit suss that tenants were removing the batteries to put in their TV remotes. So the agents started installing alarms that took nine volt batteries – won't fit in remotes. Problem fixed. Ha ha!

My only thought in response to this was... that's pretty clever, actually.

It's a foolish tenant who leaves a smoke alarm without a battery. If the battery's dead, change it – and if you can't change it (eg you can't reach the alarm), get the landlord to change it. If it's giving false alarms, get the landlord to fix it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Happy NAIDOC from the TU's Aboriginal Legal Team

Orient Point is a small town on NSW’s south coast. It is home to some great fishing spots, beaches and places to picnic with a view.

It is also home to the Jerrinja Aboriginal community and has been for many generations since being moved from their traditional lands during invasion. The TU’s Aboriginal Legal Team (ALT) visited the community recently to provide Aboriginal tenants in the area with legal advice and education on the rights of tenants.

Visiting communities such as those at Jerrinja is a small but important part of the role of the ALT. Working in community with the community is the best way to provide legal services to Aboriginal people. Travel to rural and remote communities not only builds client confidence in the service but also assists in the provision of legal services to communities that would otherwise not be noticed by city-based services. Our visit to Orient Point stemmed from a recent trip to Bateman’s Bay to visit the good people at Murra Mia Aboriginal TAAS. Service visits to the 4 Aboriginal TAASs throughout the state keep the ALT abreast of local issues for Aboriginal tenants throughout the state and work to further strengthen the links of the Koori TAAP network.

Alas, not all of our work is carried out in communities. The ALT plays a strong role in the TU’s policy, training and publications teams spreading the word and representing the interests and voice of Aboriginal tenancy services and Aboriginal tenants throughout NSW. We also work to maintaining a celebration of Aboriginal culture and an acknowledgement of Aboriginal people as Australia’s first peoples in our own workplace and beyond.

This week is NAIDOC week and the TU have celebrated in several ways (and we’re not even half way there!) The TU held a NAIDOC barbeque on Monday afternoon and celebrated with our neighbouring TAAP services (Inner Sydney TAAS and the Greater Sydney Aboriginal Tenants Service) and advice line volunteers.

We also attended the GSATS NAIDOC morning tea on Tuesday and enjoyed a morning tea and dance performance by the Wandabaa Gabinya dancers at the TAAS Network Meeting today.

We hope that reading this gets you in the mood to attend NAIDOC celebrations in your local community. Happy NAIDOC everyone.

Monday, July 8, 2013

How to be recognised as a tenant

A few months ago we discussed some changes to public housing 'succession' policies. It has long been our intention to provide an update on this but, alas, we've been distracted by some other big policy changes over the last couple of weeks.

When the changes were announced back in March, we didn't have much to go on - just a couple of unfortunately worded press clippings. Since then, the changes have commenced, and the policies behind them are available for all to see on the Housing Pathways website.

Here's our loose translation - provided for general information only and not to be relied on in pursuing recognition as a tenant. For advice, contact your local TAAS.

- An occupant of a property that is managed by HNSW (who is not a tenant) can apply to be recognised as a tenant if the occupant (who is the tenant) dies, goes to prison, has to leave the property for medical reasons, or is not able to personally reside in the property for an extended period of time due to some other acceptable absence. These things are now helpfully known as Recognition As A Tenant Events. HNSW must be notified of a Recognition As A Tenant Event as soon as possible, using Part A of the appropriate form.

- If the occupant notifies HNSW within 6 weeks of the Recognition As A Tenant Event, and they meet a few key criteria (including a promise to relinquish the current property so as not to 'under-occupy' if applicable), they will become eligible for a 6 month 'provisional lease'. If the occupant takes longer than 6 weeks to notify HNSW of the Recognition As A Tenant Event, and doesn't have a good reason for doing so, and/or they don't meet the few key criteria, they will be given a 3 month 'exit lease'. (In either case, the occupant should be made a tenant within 7 days of notifying HNSW of the Recognition As A Tenant Event, so that they may enjoy any remaining time they have left in their home to the fullest.)

Got that? Good. Now let's move on...

- When occupants notify HNSW of the Recognition As A Tenant Event, they may also complete Part B of the appropriate form, which is to formally apply for Recognition As A Tenant. This form asks the occupant, who we can now call an applicant, to provide all sorts of information about their relationship to the tenant, as well as to the property that the tenant used to live in. This information will be considered by HNSW in deciding what to offer the applicant.

- There are two things the applicant may be offered. The first is: nothing new. They've already got their 6 month provisional lease (or, perhaps, a 3 month exit lease), and HNSW reckons that's plenty of time to get everything sorted and head off into a glorious private rental sunset. The second is: approval for Recognition As A Tenant. The applicant will become a tenant, and thereafter enjoy the right to remain housed subject to a two, five or ten year residential tenancy agreement with HNSW - depending on their entitlement.

Right. Still with us? That's good, because we're not done yet...

- An applicant who is the spouse of the no-longer-occupying tenant, and who is also 55 years old or more, may be entitled to Recognition As A Tenant through succession. (Succession may also be granted to an applicant who is (or may become) the custodian of children who are resident at a property for which there is a no-longer-occupying tenant - but that's getting into the realms of the slightly-more-tricky, and we'll leave it to the policy to explain that).

- An applicant who does not fit that description - eg the no-longer-occupying tenant's spouse or partner who is not-yet-55-years-old, or their adult child, or sister, or live-in carer, or friend, or stranger taken in off the street - will not be entitled to Recognition As A Tenant through succession. These applicants will have to demonstrate that they are not only eligible for Recognition As A Tenant, but that they have an urgent need for housing that can not be met elsewhere.

Wait - what?

An applicant's urgent need for housing will have just been resolved with a 6 month 'provisional lease'...

... but the question of whether their real need for housing can be met elsewhere (that's the need that will be created when in 6 months time their tenancy is terminated by HNSW) will still need to be tested.

How these issues will be resolved on a case by case basis is anybody's guess. We'll be keeping an eye on it. Please drop us a line if you find yourself engaged by the Recognition As A Tenant process, and you'd like to let us know what you encounter. (For advice on the process, contact your local TAAS).

One last thing: HNSW says they will let applicants know if they are entitled to Recognition As A Tenant within 14 days of making the application. This means that applicants will have 14 days to demonstrate that, in 6 months time, they will not be able to meet their urgent need for housing.

As we said those few months ago:
... if what it takes to stay in your home, and stay in the system, is to knock back work, get sick, and convince Housing NSW and yourself that you're wretchedly, hopelessly unable to cope out there, you might well do it.

Monday, July 1, 2013

New rights for boarding house occupants in New South Wales

Today the Boarding Houses Act 2012 commences in full.

Until now, only the provisions of the Act concerning the registration (and register) of boarding houses have been put into operation. Today the remaining provisions, including those concerning occupancy principles and occupancy agreements, have also become part of the law of New South Wales.

The Tenants' Union has produced a new factsheet about the Boarding Houses Act 2012, and you can read about it in more detail in an updated chapter in our Tenants' Rights Manual. No doubt we'll talk a whole lot more about its ins and outs over the coming months, as we start to see it in operation.

But for now, let's take a minute to reflect on where this new law has come from,* and just how far it will take us...

Housing advocacy groups such as the Tenants' Union of NSW have lobbied for boarding house reform since the mid-1970's. For most of that time a convincing strategy to produce statutory rights for boarders and lodgers never materialised in Parliament, although some attempts were made.

When the Residential Tenancies Act 1987 passed through the Houses of Parliament in the late 1980s the then Minster for Consumer Affairs, the hon. Deirdre Grusovin, assured boarders and lodgers that legislative protections would be provided for them soon, too. But, although a Boarding Houses and Lodging Houses Bill 1991 was largely agreed to in Parliament, disagreement as to minimum periods of occupancy before the law should apply meant that the bill would never make it into the NSW statute books.

Some years later a differently constituted NSW Government indicated it would examine ways to protect the rights of people living in boarding houses. A period of discussion and consultation ensued, and in early 1998 it was expected that the then Minister for Fair Trading, the hon. Brian Langton, would release an exposure draft of new legislation. A coalition of organisations called the Boarders and Lodgers Action Group (BLAG) - of which the Tenants Union was a member - anticipated that the exposure draft would be riddled with shortcomings, and did not expect to be able to support it. BLAG drew up its own Boarders Bill 1999, to present a clear alternative to the policies anticipated in the Government's bill.

This effectively killed off the Carr Government's ambitions for boarders and lodgers rights. It sent supporters of reform within Parliament into a spin, of sorts, and presented uncertainty as to the way forward for boarders and lodgers rights in New South Wales. By this time the phrase 'boarders and lodgers' had come to describe the large and diverse group of renters that were not covered by the Residential Tenancies Act 1987. No agreement could be reached as to who should be covered by a new law, and which particular rights and obligations should apply to each of the identified groups of accommodation that boarding and lodging denoted. In the circumstances, the Government lacked the political will to argue in favour of a new bill, and the project was abandoned. The anticipated 1998 exposure draft never saw the light of day.

But BLAG's Boarders Bill 1999 lived on. For many years it was used by members of BLAG as an advocacy tool, in the hope that the Government would re-commit to a position on legislative rights for boarders and lodgers. It was a commitment that never came.

In 2005, the Tenants' Union of NSW moved away from arguing for the 'prescriptive rights' regime proposed by the Boarders Bill 1999, and began to advocate instead for a non-prescriptive 'occupancy principles' model based on changes that had recently been made to renting laws in the Australian Capital Territory. These principles would form the basis of a range of standard occupancy agreements, providing a minimum set of commitments to be made by a boarding house operator to a prospective occupant, while allowing the details of rights and obligations to be determined according to the needs of parties to each kind of agreement. This meant that a variety of occupancy agreements, based on a consistent set of rights-based principles, could be used across the range of rental accommodation types to which existing laws did not apply.

The policy gained traction, but was not picked up by the NSW Government during their review and redraft of the Residential Tenancies Act 1987. When the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 became law on January 31st 2011, there were still a number of rental accommodation types that were expressly excluded from the Act's coverage. For housing advocates, rights for boarders and lodgers - along with other marginal renters - became part of the unfinished business of tenancy law reform.

The Tenants' Union produced a four-point plan to reform the marginal rental sector, of which occupancy principles was a major component. The plan was endorsed and promoted by a coalition of housing advocacy organisations in early 2011. Not long after, an 'Inter-Departmental Committee on Reform of Shared Private Residential Services' released a discussion paper called Boarding House Reform. This paper recommended the adoption of occupancy principles and agreements for boarding house residents in New South Wales.

Then, on May 10th 2012, the NSW Government announced that it would introduce laws to reform the boarding house sector. A great deal of work has since gone into bringing the Boarding Houses Act 2012 to its full commencement today. Congratulations to all who have played their part - it's quite an achievement.

But the Boarding Houses Act 2012 is not the solution it could have been for all marginal renters in New South Wales. There will still be many people living in rented accommodation who have no access to statutory rights and formal mechanisms to resolve disputes about the terms of their rental agreements. Lodgers in private residences, some clients of refuges, crisis and supported accommodation, students in residential colleges, occupants of shared households and some caravan park residents are still waiting for a statutory regime that affords them protection against unfair eviction, rent increases, and refusal to meet minimum standards of repair.

This makes no sense. The occupancy principles model that is now law in New South Wales could very easily - and effectively - be applied to all who are not otherwise covered by renting laws in New South Wales.

This business remains unfinished.

*Some of the occurrences referred to in this post are a little before your correspondent's time. Parts of this account cannot be verified by reference to Hansard or other official records. Where required, The Brown Couch has relied on documents from the TU's archive. If you are able to provide an alternative account of the circumstances behind either the 1991 or 1999 boarders' rights bills, please leave a comment...