Thursday, September 30, 2010

What not to wear

Here at the Brown Couch, especially during such an auspicious time as Social Housing Month, we like to maintain a quality of discourse somewhat above that of the 'Gossip Girl'-style tittering about fashionable 'celebs' that infests so much of cyberspace.

But when one of our spies at the Tribunal whispered this report to us, we just had to dish, dish, DISH!

Who is the dapper-dressing officer from Housing NSW who attended the Tribunal recently wearing a three-piece, pin-striped, lilac suit, complete with fob-chain and matching hat?*

Debate rages between the Brown Couch's style mavens as to precisely what look this brave soul is attempting to rock. Is he going for 'preppy', after Gossip Girl's own trust-fund bad-boy Chuck Bass?

Or is it the 'Wildean dandy' look?

Or zoot-suited Cab Calloway's 'high-steppin' pimp' look?

Or 'insane criminal genius'?

We await further sightings with bated breath.

In the meantime, this does raise a slightly more serious question: what to wear to the Tribunal?

This is a question that has vexed all sides: tenants, tenant advocates, landlords and landlords' representatives. Your correspondent used to appear regularly in the Tribunal as a tenant advocate and took care to wear a suit and tie (a confession: I even had a 'conciliation tie', in calming tones of blue, green and pink, and a 'hearing tie' of striking gold and red bars); however, for one of my colleagues (a very able advocate on the north coast), getting dressed up for the Tribunal meant putting on a pair of shoes.

I am aware of one instance of the Tribunal rebuking a Housing NSW officer for appearing without a tie; the officer retorted that he considered a tie to be an occupational health and safety hazard – a tenant might strangle him with it, the officer said. Perhaps a self-fulfilling prophesy. I also know of a tenant who proposed to wear to the Tribunal her Sydney Olympics volunteer uniform. For her, the volunteer uniform was a stronger statement of civic engagement than the traditional business suit, and so was appropriate attire as she engaged with the processes of law and justice as represented by the Tribunal.

The Tribunal's own enabling legislation provides that the proceedings before the Tribunal are to be 'determined in an informal, expeditious and inexpensive manner' (Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal Act 2001 (NSW), s 3(c)). This is not really meant as a style tip, but it does indicate that expensive, formal attire is not necessary. Our advice is: neat and tidy.

* This is a rhetorical question. We know full well the identity of the officer and it will not be disclosed here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

...and now we return to our scheduled content

It would be remiss of us to allow an entire Social Housing Month to pass without a single reference to Community Housing ... and given the lack of attention we've paid to it so far on the Brown Couch, it's high time we gave it a run. Besides, there's an awful lot going on at the moment.

For instance, about 3000 government managed properties are being transferred from HNSW into the hands of various Community Housing Providers (CHPs). In some cases even ownership of properties is being handed over, allowing some CHPs to do their own wheeling and dealing (as long as it's done in accordance with recent amendments to the Housing Act). This is great news for the sector, because it increases management portfolios and gives providers access to finance ... and potential for independent development and growth. Well, so goes the theory.

Of course it would be a disaster for the Government if, after handing over a whole bunch of their properties, the community housing sector fell apart. Given the rate of growth and the additional responsibilities some providers are expected to take on, that's not so far fetched. Thankfully, our clever politicians have already thought about this, and have devised a cunning plan. To make sure it doesn't all end in tears, a new 'Regulatory Code for Community Housing Providers' now applies to all CHP who receive Government assistance (such as funding or housing stock). To make sure all CHPs religiously follow the Code, the Government has created the office of Registrar of Community Housing, to keep an eye on things.

Established in May 2009, the Registrar was given two years to make sure all affected CHPs are properly registered. In order to register (and hang on to their government assistance), CHPs are required to meet the Code's 8 performance criteria - these are mostly about sound money management and good corporate governance, but 'fairness and resident satisfaction' also gets a mention. Once registered, CHPs must continue to meet these expected standards. If they don't, the Registrar can cancel their registration and force them to give back government funding and/or housing stock.

The two-year registration phase will soon be up, so the focus is now shifting to compliance. In fact, the Registrar has just released a draft 'Compliance Framework' for consultation. It outlines a risk based approach to compliance, suggesting a scheme of regular and ad hoc compliance reviews, with a range of triggers for an unscheduled review. To have your say on the proposed Compliance Framework, you'll need to get your comments to the Registrar by November 10th 2010. Download the document for more information.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Commonwealth Bank controversy

A quick distraction from Social Housing Month - you may have heard mention recently of some controversy about a document put together by the Commonwealth Bank for the purpose of reassuring its overseas backers that Australia doesn't have a housing bubble, no no everything's fine, keep giving us your money. A number of commentators have pointed out some serious problems in the bank's arguments and evidence – serious enough that it makes you wonder if the effect of the document might be the opposite of that intended.

(The Commonwealth Bank)

This post is just to bring together some links:

  • Here's the CBA document in question (download);
  • Here's Money Morning's Kris Stace on the problems with the CBA's evidence;
  • Here's David Llewellyn-Smith (co-author, with Ross Garnaut, of The Great Crash of 2008) on the problems with the argument;
  • Here's the ABC with an overview of the controversy, a defence of the CBA by its own Craig James, and some further criticism of the evidence and arguments courtesy of Morgan Stanley's Gerard Minack (whose own recent piece on house prices and affordability makes a good deal more sense than the CBA's).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

NSW Govt reconsidering public housing rent increase for pensioners

Further to our recent post on Housing NSW eyeing off that $30 increase in the pension: the Brown Couch's colleagues at the Older Persons Tenants Service have received advice from Housing NSW that the NSW State Government is reconsidering whether it will include the $30 increase in rent rebate calculations. They'll let us know what the Government decides.

Pensioners and others in private rental, keep shelling out as usual.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Smoke alarms

You've probably heard already of the terrible story from earlier this week of the four-year old boy who died following a house fire in Kelso, near Bathurst.

Some media report that a smoke alarm in the house was broken and awaiting repair by the family's landlord, Housing NSW.

We make no comment on the accuracy of those reports, or on the actions of the parties involved. For the rest of us, it may be an opportune time to be reminded of the rules about smoke alarms.

1. Smoke alarms - you've got to have them. All residential premises (indeed, all buildings in which persons sleep) must have smoke alarms installed. It's the law. If you're a tenant, it's also a term of your tenancy agreement: ie the landlord will have smoke alarms installed and maintained. You need smoke alarms on each storey of the premises, and they need to be near the bedrooms.

2. If a smoke alarm is broken, get it fixed. If you're a tenant, tell the landlord to fix it. If they won't, or won't do it urgently, get a tradesperson yourself to fix it (as an urgent repair) and tell the landlord to reimburse you. Or apply to the Tribunal for an order directing the landlord to fix it.

If a smoke alarm has a flat battery, it's your responsibility to replace it. If you physically cannot replace it, it's then the landlord's responsibility to replace it - tell them to do so.

3. If a smoke alarm is not broken, don't break it. Disabling a smoke alarm (eg taking out the battery), except in the course of doing repairs to it, is an offence. It is also very stupid.

For more details, go to NSW Fire Brigades' web pages, or the TU's factsheet.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

New Minister for Social Housing... but no Minister for Housing

The formation of a new government and the appointment of new ministers is an occasion for congratulation and optimism, but this time the feeling is mixed with disappointment.

Congratulations to Senator Mark Arbib on his appointment as Minister for Social Housing.

(Senator Mark Arbib, Minister for Social Housing and Homelessness)

However – and no disrespect to the new Minister – it is disappointing that neither he nor another of his colleagues is 'Minister for Housing'.

This portfolio, which was reinstated by the previous government and held by Tanya Plibersek after its long absence under the Howard government, has once again gone missing. After this afternoon's swearing in, Jenny Macklin will remain Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, as she was in the previous government, and Tanya Plibersek will be Minister for Social Inclusion and Minister for Human Services. Senator Arbib takes the new, narrower portfolio of Social Housing and Homelessness, along with Sport and Indigenous Employment.

I hope this isn't a sign that the new Federal Government intends to abandon the wide view of housing policy represented by the previous Minister's more widely-defined portfolio, which encompassed homelessness, social housing, housing affordability and even the landlord-tenant legal relationship. I hope it isn't a sign that social housing policy will once again be cut off from wider housing policy, or that social housing providers will have to retract from their only-just-emerging role in the wider provision of housing.

Let's try to be optimistic. Here's hoping the newly reappointed Prime Minister and Treasurer each see themselves as Housing Ministers, and begin to reset the policy levers at their command – those of tax policy – from their present pro-speculation, pro-inflation settings, to instead make housing more affordable for renters and would-be owner-occupiers.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

ABC reports on social housing

The ABC is joining in Social Housing Month too, with a special report on 'social exclusion' that focuses on public housing estates in the western suburbs of Sydney. It's well worth a look.

When you do check it out, don't miss Mike Darcy's excellent defence of public housing and critique of 'social exclusion', which is linked in the main article (to make sure you don't miss it, here's the link directly).

(The Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

And while you're there, have a look too at a slightly older report by 4 Corners, 'The Last Chance Motel'. This report aired this time last year, and it's a brilliant, if searing, illustration of one of the points made by Mike Darcy: that getting into social housing saves many households from much worse poverty, dislocation and 'exclusion', and that we really need so much more of it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Tenancy culture studies: 'Good Times'

Today's subject of study is, appropriately for Social Housing Month, the American public housing sitcom, Good Times.

(Good Times opening credits. You'll be singing the theme-song to yourself all day.)

Good Times, which aired for five seasons commencing February 1974, is remembered fondly, and rightly, for its ground-breaking depiction of black American working class life. It also broke new ground in its setting: a public housing project – never named in the show, but it's the Cabrini-Green project in Chicago, Illinois, that's depicted in the opening credits.

In its first season, public housing was front and centre in the storylines of Good Times: indeed, the very first pilot episode introduces us to the Evans family as they are about to be evicted for rent arrears. When we meet them, family matriarch Florida has only just gotten back to work after an operation, and her husband, James Snr, has been misled by a bumbling housing official as to the state of their rent account. The welfare office won't help: hardworking James Snr doesn't earn enough to cover the arrears, but he does earn just too much to qualify for assistance. The Evans children, James Jr ('JJ'), Thelma and Michael, consider raising the required funds by illicit means – Florida puts a stop to that – and James Snr sees nothing else for it but to pick up his pool-cue and do a little hustling. He comes through, the arrears are paid and the tenancy is saved; righteous Florida accepts this with equanimity.

In subsequent episodes, the Evanses would contend with broken down elevators and heating, pompous, ignorant housing administrators and, in the episode 'Springtime in the Ghetto', with the peculiar institution of a public housing 'best kept apartment' competition. In that episode, Florida is torn between the imperative to impress the judges with her tasteful furnishings, and Michael's attempts to rehabilitate Ned the Wino, the neighbourhood alcoholic – a metaphor, perhaps, for the tensions in public housing's own historical missions of maintaining orderly appearances and rehabilitating disorganised, disorderly subject populations.

As the series went on, Good Times changed rather a lot (like another tenurially significant American sitcom), with James Snr, then Florida, leaving the show, then the remaining family members moving out of the public housing project altogether, and catch-phrases eclipsing commentary. But those early episodes were significant – especially considering their timing.

As we saw in a previous tenancy culture study, through the 1960s and 1970s a new movement of social scientific investigation had uncovered the persistence of poverty amidst the prosperity of the postwar period. The first response was to call for this to be addressed by extensions to government programs of social security and urban renewal. By the early 1970s, however, this investigative attention had turned to focus on the role of those very programs of government in the production of hardship and strife amongst poor households. So, for example, Lee Rainwater's classic 1970 study of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St Louis, Missouri, Behind Ghetto Walls – pointedly subtitled 'black families in a federal slum' – described the project's grim towers as 'condensing into one 57 acre tract all the problems and difficulties that arise from race and poverty and all of the impotence, indifference and hostility with which our society has so far dealt with these problems'.

These sorts of criticisms came from a radical progressive perspective but, in the seismic shifts in economics and politics in the 1970s and 1980s, these arguments were also taken up by the new Right and the ground beneath a range of social programs, not least public housing, shifted too. In 1972, Pruitt-Igoe was demolished; in 1973, President Nixon instituted a one-year moratorium on public housing; construction resumed modestly towards the end of the decade, but fell away again in the 1980s. Between 1995-2004, 115 000 units of public housing in the United States were demolished, including most of the Cabrini-Green project.

(Pruitt-Igoe. Dy-no-mited.)

The United States might provide the most dramatic images of the decline and fall of public housing, but the pattern is broadly familiar here too. In the early 1970s, the strongest critics of the old Housing Commission – and, in particular, its plans for the construction of so-called 'suicide towers' in slum-cleared inner city suburbs – were the radical Builders Labourers' Federation, working class residents action groups and community activists; they were shortly joined by conservative critics like M A Jones, who made the influential, if not entirely consistent, arguments that public housing neither delivered its promised benefits (improved health, less delinquency), nor delivered to the persons who needed it (the poor, rather than the low-income workers who then made up public housing's clientele). We've not had the spectacular demolitions seen in the United States, but our public housing systems have been diminished too, especially under the Howard Coalition Government – without, it must be said, too much resistance from State Labor Governments – which over the 10 years from 1996 reduced funding to public housing by 30 per cent.

None of this account is meant as a recrimination against those early investigators and activists; rather, my point is to highlight how admirably Good Times encompasses both a critical position against the ways in which public housing was designed and administered, and a respectful acknowledgment of the place of public housing in the lives of many households. The Evanses make a home of their apartment, and it helps hold them together; James Snr and Florida also remember that mid-twentieth century private rental often meant a flat without hot water or its own bathroom. The title 'Good Times' is partly ironic, but only partly.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Social Housing Month

Long-time readers will remember that September is Social Housing Month on the Brown Couch, and this year we start off with an update on a story that was in the news last time: social housing rent increases.

(Senior Client Service Officer, Vladimir Dracula)

Housing NSW is about to do one of its regular reviews of tenants' incomes, and this time round it has got its eyes on that $30 per week increase in the pension that the Federal Government bestowed last year. At that time, after a campaign by pensioners and some indications by the Federal Treasurer of strong annoyance at the prospect of State Governments getting their hands on a slice of the largesse, the $30 was quarantined from inclusion in the assessment of households' incomes for the purposes of calculating rent subsidies.

But not anymore. So, from next month, a quarter of that $30, plus a couple of cost-of-living increases on top of it, will go to Housing NSW in rent – an additional $9 per week or so, for a single pensioner.

Ah well. It is easy to give Housing NSW a hard time about this, but we should spare a thought for pensioners in private rental housing. On my back-of-an-envelope calculation (based on a 'low-income' median rent in the September 09 quarter of $248 per week, and the rents component of the CPI increasing 3.1 per cent in the nine months since then), these renters' landlords have already taken their quarter of the $30 increase.

In 2007-08 there were about 117 000 private renter households across Australia whose income came solely from government payments, and who were paying more than 30 per cent of their incomes in rent. Forty-two thousand of them were paying more than 50 per cent.

UPDATE 22/9/10: Public housing pensioners, hang on to your pocketbooks. The Brown Couch's colleagues at the Older Persons Tenants Service have received advice from Housing NSW that the NSW State Government is reconsidering whether it will include the $30 increase in rent rebate calculations. They'll let us know what the Government decides.

Pensioners and others in private rental, keep shelling out as usual.