Monday, October 23, 2017

Making sense of social housing in NSW

Social housing operates within a complex glob of morphing policies and procedures, prodded by occasional shifts in public policy at both a state and federal level that draw various laws, instruments and agreements into contact with one another in a range of ways. A sound working knowledge of the sector in its entirety can take years to develop, and once established could fall apart within an instant should one glance away at precisely the wrong moment.

A case in point is last year's announcement that the management of large swathes of tenanted public housing properties will be transferred to community housing landlords in New South Wales, in keeping with the Council of Australian Governments' (COAG) National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA), which was negotiated during the early days of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government era. The announcement of the Management Transfer Program sparked some discussion here on the Brown Couch, and across the broader sector, about just who these community housing landlords are. How do they come to be in the business of housing people from the public housing waiting list since they're not run by the Government of NSW?

The plot thickens, as the results of the Program's tendering process have now been announced. Over the next couple of years, management of around 14,000 tenanted public housing properties across six different regions is to be handed to nine community housing landlords who are already operating in other parts of the state. So... now is a good time to take a look at what it means to be a "social housing" landlord in New South Wales.

Given we've already mentioned the NAHA, we should note it is the intergovernmental agreement that determines who takes responsibility for what within our housing systems across Australia. As an agreement among the Commonwealth, state and territory governments it is a static document, although it is intended to be renegotiated and updated from time to time. It has been altered quite a bit since its series of predecessors first took form: established in the 1940's as the "Commonwealth State Housing Agreements" as something of a post-war nation building scheme; and it is currently being renegotiated as a "National Housing and Homelessness Agreement".

Regardless of form, or name, these agreements have generally all set out to achieve the same objective: to set the conditions under which the Commonwealth would give funding to the states to run their public housing schemes. These agreements have been broad enough to allow each state and territory to run their housing programs as they see fit, as indeed they do. A strong focus of the current agreement has been to shift the delivery of housing assistance and services away from government to the not-for-profit sector, and successive NSW Governments have responded - indeed contributed - by attempting to consolidate and build our community housing sector. Notably, this included the regulation of the sector in 2010, with a state based scheme that has since been replaced by the National Regulatory System for Community Housing. It also included the establishment of a single waiting list for housing assistance, accessible through a portal known as Housing Pathways, under which any participating landlord could both process applications for and make offers of subsidised rental housing to eligible households.

In this context our language and legislation has come to reflect the idea of "social housing". With this term we could be referencing either or both of its constituent parts: "public housing" or "community housing"; and for practical purposes the only difference is whether the landlord is the government or a not-for-profit agency who has been contracted by government to provide the same essential service. Of course, things become more complicated when we consider the public policy implications of this rhetorical shift, as it gives our still predominantly neoliberal governments easy cover to withdraw from the direct provision of public housing proper, and focus entirely on the setting of policy instead. They do this on the grounds that "community housing landlords are well placed and can do it better", although this is far from an established truth. While we can have no objection to the growth of this community housing sector, the fact that it only ever seems to happen at the expense of our established public housing provider is a simple reflection of the State's entrenched reluctance to pay for and provide social housing. Given the sector has spent the better part of a decade trying to attract private finance to its cause, it reflects a certain level of disinterest in housing-as-shelter from the profit-driven private sector as well - as an aside, it will be interesting to watch how the emerging "build-to-rent" discussion proceeds from here.

Right - so while all of that is going on at the higher level, there is a somewhat consistent legal framework setting the scene in the meantime for social housing landlords and tenants across New South Wales. Although with the right political will the statutes under which social housing policies are determined can be changed - as we have seen throughout the last couple of years with mandatory evictions for social housing tenants and the introduction of concurrent leasing by the Land & Housing Corporation to enable the current Management Transfer Program - keeping tabs on the legislative framework can be a useful way to maintain one's bearings while trying to make sense of social housing.

The Residential Tenancies Act 2010 devotes an entire Part to social housing tenancy agreements, a discrete form of residential tenancy agreement to which a number of additional provisions apply. This Act defines a social housing tenancy agreement as "a residential tenancy agreement where the landlord is a social housing provider", and then defines a social housing provider as:
  • the New South Wales Land & Housing Corporation
  • the Aboriginal Housing Office
  • a registered community housing provider within the meaning of the Community Housing Providers National Law (NSW)
  • an organisation for the time being registered under Part 5 of the Aboriginal Housing Act 1998
  • an organisation or a member of a class of organisation prescribed by the regulations
This immediately brings a number of other statutes into play. There's the Housing Act 2001, under which the Land & Housing Corporation is established as the legal entity that enters into residential tenancy agreements and other related dealings in residential property on behalf of the government; and under which the income based rental subsidy scheme is established. This is the legislation that gives us public housing, and it is amendments to this legislation that has enabled the emergence and establishment of community housing over many years.

There's the Community Housing Providers (Adoption of National Law) Act 2012, under which regulation of the community housing sector is provided by adoption of the Community Housing Providers National Law. This Act brings New South Wales into the National Regulatory System for Community Housing and, in some circumstances, allows the government to conditionally transfer title from the Land & Housing Corporation to a registered community housing provider. Note this has fallen out of fashion as concurrent leasing has come into play, having been made available by amendment to the Housing Act in 2016. For the time being property is being transferred to the community housing sector using this form of head-lease, but transfer of title under the Community Housing Providers (Adoption of National Law) Act remains an option.

Finally there's the Aboriginal Housing Act 1998, under which the Aboriginal Housing Office is established along similar lines to the Land & Housing Corporation, but with a specific remit to develop policy and deliver subsidised housing for Aboriginal households who rent. This Act also allows regulation of a broader Aboriginal Community Housing sector, for whom the National Regulatory Scheme for Community Housing is also being brought into play. By association, we must mention the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983, under which Local Aboriginal Land Councils who provide rental housing to their members may register with the Aboriginal Housing Office or the National Regulatory Scheme for Community Housing in order to have the requirements for approval to run a community benefits scheme that includes the provision of residential accommodation to their members waived by the NSW Aboriginal Lands Council.

The policy framework in which social housing operates is likely to keep changing, and where required legislative changes will sometimes follow. But for now, the above provides an overview of social housing in New South Wales. We'll keep an eye on the development of the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, and take further note of any impact it might make.

In the meantime we'll do our best to answer any questions left in the comments, or sent through to us via the usual channels.


  1. Thank you for the information and the updates. I am wondering if tenants in public housing who have permanent leases now will also be given permanent leases in social/community housing?

    1. Anonymous, the info we have suggests your lease will not be affected. The transfer will happen "behind" the lease - an agreement by the Land & Housing Corporation to head-lease the property, along with you and your tenancy, to a new landlord.

  2. Your may find that the Social/Community Housing provider has some subtle but different "rules" regarding pets on the property.

    The one my home has been transferred to has a list of dogs which are "not allowed" They obviously prefer the very small dogs.

    Not allowed to have some specific breeds of dog. Mine is on the banned list, despite having lived here for over 10 years without any complaint.

    Must admit that I'm not happy being transferred to a religious organization anyway.

    1. Hi Anonymous - that's good feedback for us here at the TU. Our advice from FACS and the CH landlords is that existing arrangements should be honoured. It's worth a call to your local Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Service for a chat about how to handle this situation if you'd like to take it up with your new landlord - find your local service at


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