Monday, September 28, 2009

Social housing stimulus slashed

Brown Couch readers will remember how pleasing it was when the Federal Government announced in February its $6 billion social housing stimulus.

Now it has been slashed by $750 million – about 12.5 per cent. This money will be redirected to the schools stimulus.

Unless the Scots College is proposing to rent out its newly refurbished drama rooms as housing for low-income families, this will not do.

Shelter NSW is organising the campaign to restore the cut funds. Follow that link for some ideas for your letter to the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, the Housing Minister, and your local MP.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Housing Amendment (Registrable Persons) Act 2009

As foretold by N.C, the Brown Couch's resident soothsayer, the NSW State Government today introduced legislation to allow it to immediately terminate that much-reported public housing tenancy in Sydney's north-west. The Housing Amendment (Registrable Persons) Act 2009 was passed without amendment by both chambers of the Parliament this afternoon.

It is a bad law.

Essentially, the Act provides for the summary eviction of public housing tenants who are registered under the Child Protection (Offenders Registration) Act 2000. The Act provides that an order for termination and eviction may be made by the Director-General of the Department of Human Services, upon the recommendation of the Police Commissioner.

The Police Commissioner's recommendation is supposed to be based on the Commissioner being of the view that the tenant's presence places a neighbour or the tenant at risk of physical harm or injury (new s 58B(2)) – but don't mind the intricacies of the wording too much, because the decision to make a recommendation is not subject to any kind of review by the courts. Nor is the Director-General's decision to make the order. The Act precludes any independent scrutiny by either the courts or the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal.

The tenant is entitled to no notice of the termination order, and no notice of their eviction. They may have no notice that the decision is being considered at all, and no opportunity to put their case as to why their tenancy should not end. The first they can expect to hear of these proceedings is when the police knock at the door and say 'right, you're leaving.' They are entitled to no compensation, though any rent in advance is to be repaid. The Director-General must ensure that alternative housing is made available, but not necessarily public housing.

The new legislation is the final, or nearly final, act in a drama that started at the beginning of last week with the Housing Minister's comments to the media about a certain tenant. Now, it's fine for a Housing Minister to question the decisions made by his department, including decisions relating to the housing arrangements of individual persons. But with due respect to the Minister, he was wrong to comment publicly on the housing arrangements of a client of his department, and he was wrong to give the impression to neighbours and the public at large that he could order a tenant 'be moved' 'by tonight'. The Act makes those statements the new legal reality.


In 2004, an aide to US President George W Bush explained his Administration's philosophy to a New York Times journalist with a quote that has become a by-word for hubris:

''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out."

I don't think the Housing Minister would personally identify with this awful philosophy and its authors. The Housing Amendment (Registrable Persons) Act 2009 is unworthy of him and his Government.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Public housing rent increases

We've noted here a couple of times that the recession has knocked off rent increases this year. For some public housing tenants, however, rents are going up – by a lot.

(Senior Client Service Officer, Vlad Tepes)

The tenants affected are those who are on one of Housing NSW's concessional rent rebate rates. (For Brown Couch readers who are not up on public housing rents: most public housing tenants pay rents that are rebated to 25 per cent of their household income, but there are some types of tenants, some types of household members, and some types of income to which lower 'concessional' rates apply.) These persons are:

  • pensioners on the 18 per cent rate. Their rent rebate rate will increase to 19 per cent this October, and a further one per cent each year thereafter, until they're on the 25 per cent rate.
  • 18-20 year-old household members on the 12.5 per cent rate. Their rate will increase to 13.75 per cent this October, and increase again to 15 per cent next year.
  • 21-24 year-old household members on the 20 per cent rate. Their rate will increase to 22.5 per cent this October, and increase again to 25 per cent next year.
Now, Housing NSW will say that these are increases of only one, 1.25 and 2.5 per cent. But that's if you measure rent increases relative to income, which no-one really ever does. Most people measure rent increases relative to what the rent used to be, so here's what these rent increases really look like:

  • 18 per cent pensioners: up 5.6 per cent this year
  • 18-20 year olds: up 10 per cent this year
  • 21-24 year olds: up 12.5 per cent this year.

To anticipate another objection: even after the increases, these people will still be paying afforable rents. Actually, I wonder about the 'affordability' of the 25 per cent rate. I don't think there's any great science behind it, and there's been other benchmarks. Until a few years ago, public housing's general rate was 20 per cent, and another, older rule of thumb was that a workingman's rent should be no more than one-sixth of his income. Research by Prof Terry Burke suggests that the 25 per cent benchmark of affordability is, for some low-income households, too high.

It's not good enough for Housing NSW to justify these steep rent increases by saying well, that's what we're getting out of the rest of our tenants. Housing NSW should instead go back and look at the budgets of its clientele and see if they really can afford these rents.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Housing backflip: person "cannot be forced to move"

Still on the subject of moving "undesirables" away from all that is good and decent (see Chris' previous post), it's reported by the ABC today that the tenant in question does not want to move, and the NSW State Government is not in a position to force him. (Please note that this link is provided for reference purposes only... The Brown Couch does not endorse the naming of the tenant in question).

The Minister for Housing, Mr Borger, has changed his tune somewhat. He now says that, although he cannot force this tenant to move, he "will do all that we possibly can do to encourage that."

"This is a very difficult situation, it's not simple - we'll do whatever we can do within the law."

This might come as cold comfort for those on the wrong side of the Minister's sensibilities.

Mr Borger is in the unique position of having direct access to parliament, the law making machine. The law covering renters in NSW, the Residential Tenancies Act 1987, is already riddled with special provisions that relate only to social housing tenancies, and in particular those managed by Housing NSW. Most of these provisions have been added to the law by amendment, usually in response to some specific "problem" or other that the Government wanted to be seen to be taking a hard line on.

With enough political will, it is entirely within the bounds Mr Borger's position to facilitate an alteration to the law which would enable Housing NSW to relocate a specified class of tenant "by the end of the day".

Let's hope it doesn't come to that...

In the meantime, Housing NSW already has a pretty big stick. Their "Relocating Tenants for Management Purposes" policy is sufficiently vague to allow for the transfer of a tenant for any "compelling reason relating to the management of a particular tenancy". It might not happen by tonight, but if it's the Minister who wants you moved, chances are it will happen soon enough.

Whether or not that is a the best solution to this particular "problem" remains to be seen.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Housing Minister orders: 'move this person'

The Herald reports today that the Housing Minister, David Borger, has ordered Housing NSW to move a tenant recently housed in public housing in Sydney's north-west. The tenant is notorious for being convicted of child sex offences. It is reported that the tenancy is 'near' a school, but that the location complies with legal restrictions on the person's proximity to schools. The Minister, however, says:

"As I parent, I can tell you that I do not think it is an appropriate location. He needs to be moved and I have instructed my department to get cracking on that and make sure he is moved as soon as possible.... My hope is that he will be moved by tonight.

"I've instructed my department to review all circumstances in this matter and, as soon as I became aware of this matter, I have instructed my department to move this person."

I'm not going to comment on the tenant in this case, but a couple of points about his landlord should be made.

First, Housing NSW, like other landlords, cannot simply 'move' people as it likes – at least, not 'by tonight'. If landlord and tenant agree on the move, of course, the tenant can go as quickly as they can find somewhere else to stay; but if the tenant does not agree, they are entitled to stay put until such time as their tenancy is terminated. To give any impression to the contrary is to give a false impression, and false expectations.

Secondly, while it does sometimes happen that Housing NSW makes poor decisions as to the allocations of properties, it may not have actually done so in this case – I should not be surprised if they actually took greater than usual care here, considering the notoriety of the applicant. But even if that's not the case, is Housing NSW really likely to make a better allocation decision in the present, highly pressurised circumstances? One of the questions in an allocation decision is the availability of services for a tenant's support, treatment and monitoring: will that question be resolved any better wherever it is that the tenant is moved to next? By tonight?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Congratulations, Mr Mallard

Readers of the Brown Couch may be aware of the work of Garry Mallard and the National Tenant Support Network. The Network is a valuable source of information on trends in housing ideology and practice (across Australia, New Zealand and beyond), with a particular focus on social housing. Mr Mallard sets a high standard in systems advocacy, working for better housing policy and recognition of the value of a properly resourced social housing system.

Mr Mallard has recently been awarded an "Order of Australia Medal" (OAM) for his work, in recognition of his continuing efforts for a better deal for social housing tenants.

The Brown Couch would like to join the chorus of well wishers, and offer our thanks.

Congratulations, Garry Mallard. Private person, public asset... Now it's official.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

NT Housing evicts girl, 14, after father dies

There's an appalling story on the Herald's website today: Territory Housing officers evicted a child after her father, the tenant of the premises, died. It's reported that the officers gave the child 10 minutes to pack before changing the locks and boarding up the premises.

Territory Housing has since admitted a 'serious error of judgment' and unreservedly apologised to the child, who will be allowed back in.

Could something like this happen here in New South Wales? Well, 'serious errors of judgment' can happen anywhere, and Housing NSW is not immune from making them. But such an action would be plainly unlawful under New South Wales law.

Here, when a tenant dies their tenancy does not end (nor does a tenancy end when a landlord dies); instead it continues until terminated, usually by a representative of the tenant giving a notice of termination to the landlord and removing the tenant's effects, or the landlord giving a notice of termination or applying to the Tribunal for a termination order (to be fair to Housing NSW, there's quite a few published cases where they have taken this course of action), or some other sort of arrangement by consent of both the landlord and the tenant's representative.

It's different in the NT: at s 82(1)(e) of its Residential Tenancies Act, a tenancy automatically terminates where:

a sole tenant dies without leaving in occupation of the premises a spouse, de facto partner, or dependants, of whose occupation and relationship to the sole tenant the landlord has been notified before the death.

More worrying still, there's a special provision for NT public housing at s 82(2), whereby 'the tenancy is terminated whether or not a spouse, de facto partner or dependant of the sole tenant is left in occupation of the premises.'

Another worry: in 2007, the NSW Office of Fair Trading proposed amendments to the NSW Residential Tenancies Act 1987 that would, amongst other things, provide for the automatic termination of a tenancy upon the death the tenant. The Tenants' Union objected to that proposal at the time; now, as the amending legislation is being drafted (for circulation later this year, we're told), let's hope that our legislators have thought better of that proposal and ensure that a tenant's survivors don't have to worry about summary eviction.