Thursday, March 21, 2013

Reform anti-discrimination law (part 2)

The Federal Government's Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill, discussed here just a couple of days ago, has been shelved, at least for now.

 The Federal Government says it will present legislation to address discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, gender identity and intersex status, which is one of the gaps in the present federal anti-discrimination regime. But the rest of the reforms – which would have consolidated the regime and made it consistent, addressed discrimination on further grounds such as political opinion and family responsibilities, and provide for the sharing of the onus of proof in discrimination complaints – will go back to the bureaucracy for more work, and we do not know when or if they will see the light of day.

The Tenants' Union and 95 other community organisations have written to the Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, to express our disappointment at the Federal Government's decision and to urge it to bring the Bill forward at the first opportunity. If you feel the same, we ask you to let the Attorney General know too.


After we posted on this issue a couple of days ago, a TAAS advocate got in touch with us to discuss a case of hers.

Her client, the tenant, lived with his wife in house rented through a real estate agent. The fixed term of the tenancy expired, the agreement rolled over to become a periodic tenancy, the agent came around for a routine inspection, the agent met the tenant's wife – all the usual things, except in this case the tenant's wife has a disability and gets about in a wheelchair.  A no-grounds termination notice was issued by the agent a couple of days later.

Under the Residential Tenancies Act 2010, a no-grounds termination notice will end your tenancy, regardless of the circumstances of the case or the landlord's reason for wanting you gone. (The single exception to this: if the termination notice is given in retaliation for your asserting your rights as a tenant. In this case, the tenant had asserted nothing, so no retaliation.) So there was nothing to do for this tenant and his wife under our tenancy laws.

Could discrimination law help? The TAAS advocate sought advice, but it wasn't encouraging: on the evidence available to the tenant, it would be difficult to prove that the reason for the termination notice was discriminatory.

The reforms in the draft Bill may have helped here, particularly the shared burden of proof: this would mean that if the tenant's evidence was enough to make out a prima facie case of discrimination, the onus would shift to the landlord or agent to prove the contrary – in other words, explain their reason, with evidence.

As things stand, the no-grounds termination provisions of the Residential Tenancies Act give cover to discriminators, and our anti-discrimination laws don't do enough to flush them out. Both should be reformed.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Termination notice for the Telegraph (part 2)

As we recently advised, we've stopped buying the Daily Telegraph, after its latest atrocious treatment of public housing tenants and occupants.

We reproduce below the TU's letter to the editor on the matter.


Dear Sir or Madam

This is a complaint about your article ‘Houso rorters shown the door’ (The Telegraph 3 March 2013).

The article includes statements that are wrong and offensive.The article refers to persons who are granted tenancies under the ‘succession’ policy as ‘public housing freeloaders’. This is wrong: these persons are not ‘freeloaders’. They pay rent to Housing NSW – in most cases, 25 per cent of their income – and may have done so for many years.

To be eligible for a tenancy under the general rules of the succession policy, a person must be an authorised additional occupant of the property (that is, a member of the tenant’s household disclosed to Housing NSW). If the person is other than a spouse or partner of the tenant, they must also have been an authorised additional occupant for not less than two years, and eligible for social housing.

As an authorised additional occupant, the person’s income is included in Housing NSW’s calculation of the rent payable for the tenancy. If their income is sufficiently high, the rent payable will be the market rent.

To refer wrongly to a person as a ‘freeloader’ and ‘houso rorter’ is offensive. It is especially offensive in situations where the succession policy is relevant. In most situations where the question of succession arises, the person is also dealing with the death or sudden departure of a significant person in their life: usually a spouse, partner or parent. The Telegraph has insulted people when they are at their most vulnerable.    

You owe your readers a correction, and public housing tenants and occupants an apology.

Yours sincerely

Charmaine Jones

Monday, March 18, 2013

Reform anti-discrimination law

'So you're actually working as a property manager in a real estate agency already – that's great!' said the course instructor to the trainee. 'Perhaps you can tell the rest of the class something about how it is in the real world. Like, how do you choose a tenant for a rental property?'

'OK, it's like this,' said the trainee, warming instantly to her role. 'Rule number one in our office is: never rent to single mothers. More trouble than they're worth. Every dickhead in town with a V8 comes sniffing around, doing donuts and burnouts on the front lawn and in the street and chucking beer bottles everywhere. And there's the loud music and the parties and it completely screws up the whole block – '

'Ah OK OK, we might leave it there, thanks for that', said in the instructor. 'Let's break for tea.'

This anecdote comes from one of the other trainees at the session in question – a single mother herself, and now a tenants advocate at a Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service. To be fair, the course instructor was appalled at the property manager's prejudice, and the session happened about 10 years ago. But that's not exactly the dark ages either.

And discrimination in the rental housing system is something that tenants continue to face today: the Aboriginal person who just keeps getting their tenancy applications knocked back; the person with depression who is told that they'll have to get rid of the pet they rely on to get through their bleakest moments; the person with a brain injury who gets a termination notice, ostensibly because the landlord wants to renovate the whole block – but is happy to let all the other tenants move out under their own speed.

For some years now, we've had anti-discrimination legislation, both at State and Federal levels. It has provided redress, and helped prevent discrimination, but it still plainly has a lot of work to do and may be made to work better. The Federal legislation, in particular, is complex: it comprises five Acts, enacted over a period of thirty years, in very different styles of language, with different thresholds, exemptions and exceptions, and gaps in coverage.

Last year the Federal Government drafted a Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill, to consolidate the federal legislation, make the provisions consistent, cover the gaps and improve its workability. It's an appropriate and sensible measure of law reform and, as the sitting days of the current Parliament grow short, it's time the Government delivered on its commitment.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

NSW State Government to act on window safety

The NSW State Government has today promised that it will implement the recommendations of the Children's Hospital at Westmead and enact legislation to address window safety – and in particular, the awful problem of children falling from windows in apartments.

This is great news – congratulations to the NSW State Government and to Fair Trading Minister Anthony Roberts, who will be responsible for the legislation.

In particular, the Government says the new laws will require the installation of window safety devices on windows in residential strata schemes, and include a new item about window safety devices in the standard condition report for residential tenancies. The Government is asking for public comment on the precise details of the reforms.

The TU supports the measures proposed, and will be suggesting a few more changes to ensure there are no gaps in the reforms. For example, while most tall residential buildings are in strata schemes, some are not: there's blocks of flats that have a single owner – notably, social housing owned by the NSW Land and Housing Corporation – and blocks that are in a company title scheme. These sorts of buildings should be subject to the new laws too.

Termination notice for the Telegraph

For years we have read the Daily Telegraph. It must be said: we have done so, for some time now, with mounting unease and, lately, with distinct displeasure.

But its reportage of the NSW State Government's changes to the rules about 'succession' in public housing – replete with insults about 'rorters' and 'freeloaders' – was the final straw. We've had enough. We won't be buying the Tele again. 

We'll be taking the Big Issue instead.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Public housing amnesty ends this week

Public housing tenants: beware the Ides of March!

 (Public housing tenant Julius Caesar forgot to get protected by the amnesty)

Actually, you've got until Sunday 17 March to disclose any unauthorised additional occupants under the amnesty and get protected from proceedings by Housing NSW for rent arrears, termination or criminal offences.

But this Friday 15 March will be the last business day of the amnesty, and your last opportunity to seek advice on it from your local Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service.

Also see our info on the amnesty, here and here.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Changes to public housing 'succession'

This is not a pleasant thought, but think for a moment if the person you live with died, or suddenly up and left you.

If you live in public housing, and the other person was the tenant on the lease, you have to deal not just with the loss of a significant person from your life – you'll also have to deal with the prospect of losing your home too.

Under current Housing NSW policy, you may be able to remain in your home and take on the lease yourself if you satisfy certain conditions. Spouses of tenants get to stay on; otherwise, you generally have to show that you're eligible for social housing and have lived in the property for at least two years.

Now the NSW State Government has announced that it will change this. The conditions for taking on a tenancy ('succession') will be even tighter. If you're aged under 55 years – regardless of whether you're a spouse, or some other relation – you'll have to show that you satisfy the test for priority housing, a much tougher test. If you don't, you'll get a six month tenancy – a small mercy – then be made to leave.

Says Family and Community Services Minister Prue Goward:

This new approach will encourage household members to find housing in the private rental market and discourage their dependence on tax-payer funded housing.

True, it is difficult to see how some of the criteria for priority housing – especially those relating to 'urgent housing need', which are all about people being in very bad housing situations that they need to get out of – will be satisfied by someone seeking succession (that is, trying to stay in the housing they're in).

But we expect that people will do their hardest to pass the test.

If you're in your 50s, suddenly single and don't own your own home, what does the New South Wales private rental market look like to you? It's not an appealling prospect; in fact, it's pretty horrifying.

And 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.

Discouraging dependence? On the contrary.

A further point, about the way this change in policy was announced.

Now imagine again that you've lost an important person from your life, and you may lose your home – and into the bargain the Daily Telegraph calls you a 'houso rorter' and 'freeloader', and the Family and Community Services Minister calls you a 'queue-jumper'.

People living in public housing have come to know they have to grow a thick skin, but this sort of disparagement would catch even the sturdiest person off-guard. Please: knock it off.