Friday, June 14, 2013

A quest to save one million tenancies...

*** Although this post was written in mid-2013, it remains relevant in 2015 as the Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Services pursue a claim for increased funding.
Note, however, that the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal amalgamated with several other Tribunals into the New South Wales Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) in 2014 ***

It's time we had another look at the work of Tenants' Advice & Advocacy Services.

These services - TAASs - have existed across New South Wales for many years. They offer free advice and information to tenants about the rights and responsibilities that come with renting a home.

We've spent some time of late talking about the cost of these services to tenants, and the value that they represent. We've spoken about the need to increase funding to TAAS, and observed the rollercoaster of uncertainty that similar services in Queensland are currently facing.

Today, we'd like to talk a little more about the services themselves.

There's a Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Service in every region of New South Wales. No matter what your postcode, there's a locally based service that you can call for advice when you need it. There's also a website - - where you can get the phone number for your local service, and find out when their advice lines are open. Or, if what you need is a little bit of information to help you sort an issue out for yourself, you can find a series of Tenants Rights Factsheets providing answers to a range of common questions about renting in New South Wales.

During the period between 1 July 2011 and 30 June 2012*, TAAS provided direct assistance to a total of 30,629 tenants. That represents about 4% of the state's tenants, according to the latest census data. But it represents about 19% of people who have a question about renting in New South Wales: the Fair Trading Information Centre (FTIC) reports** handling 131,000 tenancy related inquiries over the same period, and that includes calls from landlords and real estate agents, too.

Interestingly, FTIC noted an increase of nearly 7.5% in tenancy related calls over the year. TAASs would probably have seen such an increase in the use of their services, too, if they had the resources to handle it. Instead, they saw the demand on their services increase, but their ability to respond to calls remained the same as previous years.

Of those 30,629 contacts by TAAS, at least 19,074 were tenants renting in the private rental market, and 3,308 were social housing tenants. 2,479 identified as Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islander, and 4,431 were from a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse background.

TAASs put 10,201 tenants in touch with other services to help them solve a problem. Factsheets and other printed material were sent to 26,674 tenants - but with in excess of 4,500 factsheets downloaded from each month, there are plenty of tenants being referred to this information from other sources as well.

TAASs advocated directly for 4,638 tenants, and assisted 3,564 in the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal. They helped tenants to write letters, draft applications, negotiate, conciliate, and attempt to resolve their tenancy disputes with landlords and real estate agents all over New South Wales. Sometimes they stood before the Tribunal and made submissions on a tenant's behalf.

Rumpole of the Bailey, sure loved a court-room drama

We sometimes hear that TAASs are a little too keen to race off to the Tribunal whenever they meet a tenant in distress. Frankly, we don't see any reason to apoligise for that - the Tribunal is there to help resolve disputes when all else has failed. Often, by the time a tenant gets in touch with a TAAS, much has already transpired between the parties, and the situation warrants some pretty strong intervention. But when we looked at this data, it made us wonder where this perception actually comes from...

3,564 appearances by Tenants' Advocates in the Tribunal, out of a potential 30,629, hardly seems like they're banging the doors down. But when you consider that TAASs provided ongoing support or advocacy to 4,683 clients over the period, it means that in 76% of cases this included a trip to the Tribunal.

To really give us the context in which these figures should be considered, we need to look over the Consumer, Trader & Tenancy Tribunal's data from the same period. There were 32,626 applications in the Tribunal's Tenancy Division, and 16,084 applications in the Social Housing Division - 48,710 all counted. Tenants made a total of 8,128 of those, across both divisions, with the vast majority being a claim for a bond refund.

The most common applications were in fact made by landlords - overwhelmingly, for the termination of a tenancy. In the Tenancy Division, there were 19,373 of these. In the Social Housing Division, there were 9,536. That's a total of 28,909 - almost as many contacts as TAASs had over the year!

As we pointed out a couple of months ago, TAASs are successful in preventing homelessness in 82% of matters where their clients face such a risk. One of the key reasons for this is that a Tenants' Advocate from a local TAAS will sometimes attend the Tribunal with a tenant, and assist, when their landlord has asked for the tenancy to be brought to an end.

Take this recent example: a tenant had received a notice of termination that alleged she was causing nuisance and interfering with the peace, comfort and privacy of her neighbour. The matter ended up in the Tribunal, where the landlord's evidence was pretty thin on the ground. They had a letter from another landlord saying that his tenant (ie, the neighbour) was threatening to leave because of the behaviour he was subjected to from next door. There were no real details about what that behaviour was, but it seemed to have something to do with small children playing loudly.

The Advocate who assisted this client said "I asked the landlord - if there really is a problem, why not just ask the tenant to be more mindful of the neighbour, instead of sending her a notice of termination?" The landlord agreed that the tenancy did not need to end, as long as the tenant agreed to abide by all the terms and conditions of the residential tenancy agreement.

Said the Advocate: "This tenant was very intimidated by the whole Tribunal process. Without help I'm sure she would have been convinced by the landlord that leaving was her only option." But the landlord in question was a social housing provider, and the tenant's prospects of finding another home after losing that tenancy would have been pretty slim.

Not every application to terminate a tenancy can be so easily disposed of, and in fact many of them proceed through the Tribunal without a second thought. The Tribunal recently celebrated its 1,000,000th order, and although we'll never know if it was an order to terminate a tenancy, it's a reasonable bet that it was. Given the vast majority of the Tribunal's work is tenancy related, and most of the applications it hears are made by landlords seeking to end a tenancy, it hardly seems to matter. A very high proportion of those one million Tribunal orders resulted in someone losing their home.

Tenants' Advocates who work with TAAS are highly skilled and compassionate people, but they can't fix every problem that comes their way. Even if they could, it would take awhile to be able to boast that they've saved one million tenancies. Wouldn't it be nice if they could?

*This is the latest period for which we have complete sets of data across a range of sources.
**See the 'Rental Bond Board Annual Report 2011-2012' page 10.

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