Monday, September 30, 2013

Waiting list numbers don't add up

We're not the biggest fans of the Daily Telegraph here and do not support the paper because of its ongoing demonisation of public housing tenants. For that reason, we won't be providing links to the original article discussed in this post. However, you can find the original story on their site if you wish. It is entitled 'Families in Sydney left waiting 10 years for housing'

Last night an article appeared online accompanying the updated waiting list times for social housing in NSW. It only took two paragraphs for the alarm bells to start ringing.

Before we have a look at the article itself, it is worth talking about the waiting list numbers a little. We don't believe waiting list numbers are a good indication of housing need, or measuring how many people are struggling. There are a few reasons for this. Public housing eligibility is increasingly restricted to those who have no other option, so there are plenty of people doing it tough who aren't eligible for social housing at all. For instance, according to the most recent ABS Survey on Housing Occupancy and Costs - 32.7% of private renters are paying more than 30% of their gross household income on rent. Many of those people would happily rent with a landlord who calculates rent on what they can pay, rather than what the market suggests someone else could. 180 000 low income private renting households in NSW are in housing stress- that only 57000 appear on the waiting list tells you that the waiting list is not the only indicator of need.

That said, let's have a look at a few particular passages from the article.
Community services minister Pru Goward will today release the details of the public housing wait list, showing that in the past year, 38 per cent of western sydney areas have seen an increase in more than five years in the amount of time it takes an applicant to be housed.
Among the worst affected suburbs are Mount Druitt and Camden, where the wait for one bedroom units increased from between two and five years to more than 10 years.
Hang on. Isn't Mt Druitt one of the areas tagged for moving people into one bedroom units? In one year the wait for one bedroom units has gone from 2-5 years to over 10. How will Housing NSW find places for all those people who are under-occupying?

Further down:
Ms Goward said that while she did not want to see the wait list increase, she was pleased it did not spike to the Auditor General’s prediction of more than 64,000 applicants vying for 35,000 vacant rooms.
This wasn't the Auditor-General's prediction for 64,000 applicants- it was Housing NSW's own modelling. More importantly, it is very misleading for the DT to state that either the Auditor-General, or anyone else, suggested 64000 applicants are vying for 35000 rooms. The big problem with this statement is that the 35000 rooms are supposedly vacant rooms- not homes. No one is yet suggesting that public housing tenants should be forced to share with complete strangers in human sardine boxes.

Last year, the social housing providers housed 8585 applicants from the waiting list. Unless things change, this is approximately the number of places people on the social housing waiting list will be able to access this year too. In fact, the pool of places is likely to get smaller, since Housing NSW is intending to sell off more properties than they will build.

‘’The fact that the number of people who have changed their application for housing has almost tripled since the publication of the housing waiting list shows the power of the transparency and the benefits that flow from it,’’ Ms Goward said.

Transparency can be a wonderful thing indeed, and we do give Minister Goward a lot of credit for bringing back the waiting list times. We wouldn't mind some more of transparency though. For instance, in the recent Budget Estimates FACS was asked to provide details of how many properties were sold in 2011-12 and in 2012-13.  They cited the Annual Reports for the Land & Housing Corporation as holding that information. Unfortunately, the 2011-12 Annual Report is the only one currently published, and it does not hold that information. You can check for yourself here.

“Unfortunately the evidence shows that tenants are staying in public housing for significantly longer periods, which means that they are not moving out of public housing and back into the private market.

If tenants are staying in public housing longer this wouldn't be surprising as HNSW is aimed at housing people who can't house themselves in the private market. After all, the inability to house one's self in the private market is one of the main criteria for being placed on the priority housing waiting list.
Once you're in public housing there are policy decisions made by previous governments, though continued by the current one, that make it very difficult to get out again.

“There are over 35,000 vacant bedrooms in public housing. Until we better utilise our existing stock of public housing, I can’t look the taxpayer in the eye and ask for more money,’’ she said.

We're not sure where this figure of 35,000 vacant bedrooms comes from. Certainly, the Auditor-General only found 17389 'vacant' bedrooms. In the interest of better utilising the existing stock, perhaps Housing NSW could also have a look at the 19224 people crammed in to bedrooms they shouldn't have to be sharing.

We're also not sure the taxpayers, which can include public housing tenants and people on the waiting list, would terribly mind cutting down the waiting list. Social housing is one of the most cost-effective housing solutions available in terms of cost to the taxpayer- certainly cheaper than the taxpayer paying for people to stay in hotels/motels, hospitals, or prisons.

Ms Goward should have complete confidence in making the case for more social housing places to her colleagues in Treasury. The Auditor-General made the point several times that many of public housing's woes are as a result of a lack of spending. Selling off current housing in order to raise the money to carry out maintenance is just one example. We'd certainly support a move to increase the supply of social housing, and we suspect the families on the waiting list, and those off it, would too.
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Monday, September 23, 2013

The Federal Housing Minister is...

As many others have observed, the new Federal Coalition Government's cabinet is a bit short on women. It is also short a Housing Minister.

(Dame Annabelle Rankin, Australia's first female federal Minister with responsibility for a government department. She was Housing Minister (1966-71) in two Coalition Governments). 

Instead, Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews, has responsibility for social housing, rent assistance, homelessness and housing affordability in the new government. Congratulations Minister Andrews.

With no disrespect to Minister Andrews, we believe that either he or another of his colleagues should be the Minister for Housing, with a brief for housing policy that extends beyond the social security system.

In the absence of such a portfolio, we'll regard the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, as our unnamed Ministers for Housing. Congratulations to them too.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Tenancy Haiku

We're always on the lookout for creative ways to express ourselves here on the Tenants' Union's Brown Couch - and this week we thought it would be fun to try our hand at Haiku.

Here's one from Chris:

Section 10
Sharing a house with
A named tenant. We shook hands -
I'm out in the cold.

...and here's my own attempt:

Home for life
Written into law,
No aspiration of home.
No change comes with spring.


We'd love to see what others can come up with - why not give it a go?

If you're so inclined, Tweet your Haiku or post it on Facebook. Mention us, and we'll share it on.

If you drop us a line with your contact details, we'll also give you one of our fabulous 'Tenants Make Cities' shirts for your trouble.

Friday, September 13, 2013

UK v NSW: across the seas, we've boundless rooms to spare...

You might have noticed the UK's new 'under-occupancy rules' (coined the 'spare bedroom tax' by the Labour Party in opposition) have attracted the attention of the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Ms Raquel Rolnik.

Ms Rolnik has recently visited the UK to investigate the situation there, and if recent reports are much to go by, she hasn't been impressed with what she's found. Then again, the designers and supporters of those rules aren't terribly taken with what she's had to say either.

A quick search of your favourite UK based news sites will give you hours and hours of reading material on the topic. We don't propose to comment on that story, because we're no experts on tenancy law and policy in the UK. But it does prompt a quick review of the UK's under-occupancy measures, so that we may compare them to what's currently being loosed upon New South Wales in the form of the 'vacant bedroom charge'.

We should note, and be very clear, that our understanding of the UK 'spare bedroom tax' is limited. We can read the same news articles, press releases and fact sheets as anyone, and that's exactly what we've done here. We do not profess to be across the situation in the UK.

But we have had a good look at the information provided by the UK housing and homelessness advocacy group Shelter, among a couple of other things. We reckon we've got enough to go on to be able to spot a few key differences between what's happening there, and what has just been written into policy in New South Wales.

With this in mind, let's take a look at some key similarities and differences between each of these responses to 'under-occupancy':

What's the same?

Each scheme will result in higher costs for tenants that are caught by it, through a reduction in a benefit to those affected. In the UK, that is a reduction in a targeted welfare payment known as the 'housing benefit'. In NSW it is a reduction in the rental rebate or subsidy that results in a reduced rent for low income tenants in social housing.

In other words, affected UK tenants will get less in their pockets, but will have to pay the same rent, and in NSW those affected will get the same in their pockets, but will have to pay more rent. The net effect will be the same - affected tenants will have less in their pockets once the rent is paid. Tenants who are faced with the charge will be worse off financially, unless they move from their homes, resulting in either a financial cost or a social cost.

What's not the same?

1. In the UK, every under-occupant in social housing is affected, while in NSW only under-occupants in public housing will be asked to pay more if they:

a) refuse to consider offers of alternative housing, in a general sense; or
b) refuse to accept one of two specific offers of alternative housing once they've agreed to consider offers in general.

In a way, every over-occupant is affected in NSW because they will all be asked to make this choice. In the UK there is no choice - the only way to avoid the payment is to not be an under-occupant.

2. The manner in which a tenant might move from a situation of under-occupation to some kind of form-fit-occupation (or whatever the term might be...) is quite different in the UK, as there is no single waiting list for transfer applicants. Each housing provider may have a different way of going about managing transfers - for example they might apply different guidelines as to how and when a transfer will be approved, and at what level of priority a new property will be allocated (see the Shelter UK website again for more information). But - in either case - that's before we even start to consider the likely availability of form-fit properties for under-occupants to move into.

3. In the UK, the adjustment to the housing benefit is applied based on the number of spare bedrooms - it's a loss of 14% for one spare bedroom, or 25% for two or more. In NSW, the subsidy adjustment is applied depending on the under-occupant household composition - singles will pay around $20 per week more, while households of two or more occupants over the age of 16 will pay $30 per week, regardless of how many spare rooms each household may have to which they are 'unentitled'.

4. In the UK, the bedroom 'entitlement' appears to be affected by these new rules. Tenants stand to lose the benefit if there is at least one spare bedroom in their house. In NSW, the charge is applied based on your 'required number of bedrooms', which is set out in the eligibility and allocations policy. This means that a household might have a spare bedroom that they will not be charged for, but two spare bedrooms will generally always attract the charge.

So, where does that leave us?
We can see from that quick overview that tenants in New South Wales will not be as immediately or severely impacted by our under-occupancy measures, as those experienced by our counterparts in the United Kingdom. Limited though this is, we might even convince ourselves that public housing tenants in New South Wales will at least be offered something of a choice. The option of relocation is available, if only in theory, for tenants who would prefer to pay the same for less.

But let's not let ourselves off the hook that easily. The simple fact is that for the time being, tenants will be able to avoid the vacant bedroom charge by agreeing to consider offers. This will be an effective cost saving measure for tenants, at least until those offers do start coming through. But sooner or later, for one tenant after another, those offers will start to materialise. The choice to be made will come into crisp focus, for one tenant after another...

Will you allow yourself to sink further into poverty, or will you move away?

We've just had a federal election that was largely fought and won on a 'cost of living' platform. If you want to find out what real cost of living pressure is, head out into the towns and suburbs of New South Wales, and talk to low-income tenants in public housing. Ask them how they're planning to meet a $20 per week rise in the cost of living.

To add to the frustration, Housing NSW says they'd rather have your spare room than your extra $20 per week. It's a real shame that they haven't worked out a scheme that actually rewards tenants who want to move to a smaller property, rather than penalise those who can't afford to stay where they are.

Blind cord safety

Last month a little boy, Jack Mackay, aged 18 months, died after being strangled by the cords of a blind near his cot.

Now his parents and the NSW Fair Trading Commissioner are warning other parents to look out for dangerous cords, especially when staying in holiday accommodation during the upcoming school holidays.

Their advice is just as valid in relation to your own home.

Keep cots, beds and other furniture away from blind cords.

Keep cords out of reach, by winding them on a hook or clipping them to the blind.

Look out especially for older cords that are looped, or knotted or otherwise joined at the tassels. In most cases these can be made less dangerous by cutting the loop or the join, and fixing new tassels on the cut ends.

In some cases a blind might require a continuous loop of cord to work. These cords can be made less dangerous by keeping the loop taut through a cleat fixed to the floor or wall.

Cutting through cords and fixing cleats like this are alterations to the property, for which you should properly seek your landlord's consent. As minor alterations, your landlord cannot refuse consent unreasonably. And it is hard to think of any good reason for refusing consent for you to do these very simple things to make your home safer for children.

On average one or two Australian children die from strangulation by blind cords each year.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tenancy culture study: Hood's 'Eviction at Hurstville'

Sam Hood was an Australian photographer whose career spanned the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, during which Hood did a bit of everything: news, sports, portraits, weddings, funerals. In 1935 he photographed an eviction, and created the subject of today's tenancy culture study.

(Sam Hood (1935) 'Eviction at Hurstville')

It is a subtly powerful image. Without histrionics or sentimentality, the image quietly commands the viewer's attention and directs it to meet the gaze of the evicted woman. You might, after a moment, look elsewhere about the image, and pick up some clues as to the woman's circumstances – the thin cotton dresses, the home-cut hair – but again your attention will be drawn to face her directly, separated by a gulf of decades from the woman, but also face-to-face with the indignity and injustice of eviction.

The woman's eviction was one of about 5 500 for which New South Wales courts made ejectment orders in 1935. As a matter of law and practice, renting then was, in many ways, quite different from renting today. Just under half the population rented (in Sydney, it was just over half). There was no Residential Tenancies Act. It was common at the time for tenancies to be for a period of one week, with the same period of notice for termination.

Over the preceding decades, there had been a number of attempts to reform tenancy law, with mixed results. In 1915, the NSW State Labor Government introduced the Fair Rents Act, which allowed tenants to apply to a magistrate to determine, according to the formula in the Act, the fair rent for their tenancies. In 1920, the Fair Rents Act was amended to prohibit discrimination against prospective tenants who had children; in 1926, it was amended again, to provide for termination on just causes only, such as non-payment of rent, use of the premises for 'an immoral or illegal purpose', or because the landlord required the premises for themselves or a family member.

These reforms didn't last; in 1928, a conservative NSW State Government amended the Act so that it would not apply to new buildings and, by midyear 1933, cease to have effect altogether. We can assume that the woman Hood photographed was evicted for not paying her rent, but as far as the law of the day was concerned, her tenancy could be terminated regardless of the reason.

Another short-lived reform: in 1931, as a response to the drastic deepening of unemployment, rent arrears and evictions in the Great Depression, the State Government (back to Labor again) introduced the Ejectments Postponement Act, which provided for the postponement of evictions where the tenant pleaded that they were impoverished through no fault of their own. It was not wholly effective: apart from the question of making the 'impoverished' argument, tenants could still be required, as a condition of the postponement, to pay compensation to the landlord and, until amendments were passed, the Supreme Court considered that it was not bound by the Act and could continue making ejectment orders. In 1932, the State Government (conservative again) legislated so that by the end of 1935 the postponement provisions would cease to have effect. In any event, they did not prevent the eviction of the woman in Hood's photograph, nor the thousands of others evicted from their homes the same year.

There was one enduring reform from this period: the abolition of landlords' old common law remedy of 'distress', whereby a landlord could enter a rented house and seize the tenant's belongings, to ransom or keep in satisfaction for unpaid rent. Distress had been legislatively chipped away at since the 1890s, and was finally abolished in 1930.

The woman in the photograph, therefore, might have been able to keep such belongings as she had; but she would have had few, bleak options for alternative accommodation. In 1935 there was scarcely any public housing in New South Wales. There was Daceyville, on which work had terminated prematurely in the 1920s, and Millers Point, and a few buildings constructed by the City of Sydney in Pyrmont (Ways Terrace) and Chippendale (Strickland Flats); but even these were for relatively well-paid workers, not poor and homeless persons. For the evicted, there was family, or charity.


There is, of course, another person in Hood's photograph: the woman's daughter. Her attention is elsewhere, caught by something beyond the frame of the image. We might look beyond the circumstances of the eviction too, to what would lie ahead for her, in terms of her housing.

Soon, renting laws would be reformed again: in 1939, on the outbreak of the Second World War, the NSW State Government resurrected the Fair Rents Act (ironically, it was the conservative government that did it). First under this Act, then under Federal Government war-time price regulations, and then under the Landlord and Tenant (Amendment) Act 1948, tenants were protected by strong legal protections against unfair rents and terminations. By the 1950s, however, by which time the girl in the photograph would have been a young woman, the 1948 Act was being legislatively curtailed, with fewer and fewer premises subject to its controls.

She may have found secure rental housing in public housing. Following the establishment of the NSW Housing Commission in 1942, and the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement in 1945, the previously meagre public housing sector grew rapidly: to 1956, about one in six dwellings built in New South Wales was built by the Commission.

It's more likely that she would have found secure housing in owner-occupation. The prospect must have seemed dim in 1935, but after 1945 the rate of home ownership leaped, and kept growing until it peaked above 70 per cent in the mid-1960s, as more people whose families had always rented got into home ownership.

They got there on one or more of a range of things: full-employment; war service home loans and other government subsidies to housing finance; a burst of owner-building, particularly directly after the war; sales of rental properties by landlords chaffing under the 1948 Act; and after 1956, a huge program of sales of public housing to tenants and applicants. By the end of the 1960s, when the girl in the photograph had probably settled down with a family of her own, the Housing Commission had sold one-third of all the dwellings it had ever built.

If she is still alive today, the girl would be in her 80s. If she's like most 80-year olds, she'd still be living at home (at the Census, about one in five persons aged 80 and over were in aged care facilities and other non-private dwellings) and if still at home, the chances are very strongly that its owned by her or her family: about 88 per cent of those aged 80 and over live in owner-occupied housing. About seven per cent of 80 year olds live in social housing; just 4.5 per cent rent privately (of whom a small handful – a few hundred – are still covered by the 1948 Act).

The more things change.... For some time now, particularly for young households, home ownership rates have been declining. Public housing is in a spiral of decline so severe that it is undermining the continuing viability of the system. Today, almost 26 per cent of the population rents privately, and the proportion is growing (it's up 30 per cent on the proportion of privately renting just 15 years ago). For 25 years we've had a Residential Tenancies Act, but landlords can still give tenants termination notices without grounds. In 2012-13, the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal issued 3 703 warrants to evict tenants.      

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Public housing rent increases: part 2

Since yesterday's post on the public housing market rent confusion, Minister Goward's media release has gone up on Housing NSW's website, which helps clarify this misreported issue.

As stated in the media release, and discussed yesterday, Housing NSW has instructed the valuers who are calculating its market rents not to apply a discount 'simply because the property was being used as public or social housing'. Instead, 'a fairer calculation of market rent based on similar surrounding properties in the local area will be applied'.

To which we say: okay – but let's keep in mind that this fairer calculation should still result, in many cases, in market rents that are lower than private rents for that area.

The reason for this is simple: in many cases, public housing properties just would not go for the rents that 'similar surrounding properties' go for in the private rental market. Many public housing properties are older, and built to more austere principles than similar surrounding properties. Many are also in estates with more than their fair share of poverty, ill-health and other problems. If they were on the private rental market, the rent would be lower.

The Minister's media release gives some examples of the difference between public housing market rents and private rents. We think that it may be that some or all of this difference is fair enough.

A two-bedroom public housing apartment in Waterloo will be in a building of distinct appearance, austerely designed and built 40-50 years ago, in a poor estate. A two-bedroom apartment on the private market will be rather more flash.

Housing NSW's market rents should reflect these differences. The valuers should arrive at that conclusion by considering all the usual factors for determining the rent for a property. If they don't, and Housing NSW instead tries to increase rents to levels that don't reflect relevant differences, you should apply to the Tribunal – because the Tribunal can, by applying the law of the land, set an appropriately lower market rent.

For more information on challenging an excessive rent increase in the Tribunal, or to find details of your local Tenants' Advice & Advocacy Service, visit

Monday, September 9, 2013

Public housing market rent increases

Housing NSW is increasing the market rents for public housing tenancies. Usually this happens without a lot of public controversy, but this year it is in the news, following some comments from Family and Community Services Minister Pru Goward, and some puzzling interpretations by the papers. We'll try to clarify what's going on.

First, here's the basics of how rents work in public housing. Every public housing tenancy has a 'market rent', which approximates what the premises would go for on the private rental market, considering the location, size and amenity of the premises. The market rent is the rent on the face of the tenancy agreement, as increased from time to time by Housing NSW.

Most public housing tenants actually pay less than the market rent, because they are eligible for a low-income rental rebate, which reduces the rent they actually pay to 25-30 per cent of the tenant's household income. This is often called the 'rebated rent'.

Of the minority who pay the market rent, some would be ineligible for a rental rebate because their income is not low enough; others would be eligible for a rental rebate, but in their particular case the market rent is lower than the rebated rent, so they pay the market rent.

As we said, Housing NSW reviews and, in most cases, increases its market rents every year, to reflect increases in the market. This year, as it does every few years, Housing NSW has sent valuers out to do thorough valuations of certain benchmark properties, and on the basis of these valuations Housing NSW works out what it thinks should be the market rent for each of its properties throughout the State.

We understand that Housing NSW has instructed the valuers to do their valuations on the basis of the size, amenity, location and other factors pertaining to the premises, and that they should not apply any general discounts for the premises being public housing. Of course, in many cases public housing premises are physically different (eg no balconies; distinctively designed blocks; located on estates) from private rental dwellings of similar size in the same area, so the market rent may be justifiably lower for the public housing dwelling.

So far so clear. Yesterday, Minister Goward is reported to have stated that market rents will be increased so that:

public housing tenants currently ineligible for a subsidy, but who can afford it, will be paying the fair market rent for their property, rather than a discounted rate.

This may give the impression that there has previously been a deliberate policy of charging 'discounted rate' market rents and that a significant change has taken place. On the contrary, we understand that the only change to take place is the instruction to the valuers that in the practice of their art they should not do blanket discounts to come up with a market rent for public housing premises, but instead consider all the relevant factors and get to the market rent that way.

The article confuses things further, by naming 'suburbs being targeted' by Housing NSW for rent increases. No suburbs are being targeted; market rents throughout the State are being reviewed and increased, and in some places the increases will be larger than in others.

Meanwhile, the Herald confuses things utterly, by reporting the issue under the headline 'Rents to soar as housing discounts get means-tested'. This is wrong: there's no 'discount' that's now getting means-tested. And to the extent that it conflates discounts with rental rebates and gives the impression that rental rebates have until now not been means-tested, it is wrong too.

At the end of it all, what public housing tenants need to know is this:
  • If you pay a rebated rent, the market rent increase will not affect you directly, because it does not affect the amount of rebated rent you pay. 
  • If you pay market rent, apply again to Housing NSW for a rental rebate and see if you're eligible. If you are, you'll pay that amount, if it's less than the increased market rent.
  • If your market rent increase strikes you as excessive, you can apply to the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal for an order setting aside the increase, and fixing the rent at an appropriate amount. The Tribunal will consider the general market level of rents, the state of repair, the amenities provided, and any other relevant matter (but not affordability), in determining whether the increase is excessive.  Talk to your local Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service for advice on making an application.

UPDATE: see our post discussing the Minister's media release.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The same for less, or more to stay the same?

Not to take your mind off the Federal Election that's to be held tomorrow, but if you are a tenant in NSW Public Housing there is another important date that is fast approaching - on Monday, September 9th, HNSW will flick the switch on the new 'better approach to filling vacant bedrooms' policy. We expect to see the full details of this policy on Monday.

UPDATE (9/9/13): HNSW has now produced a 'vacant bedroom charge' factsheet - find it at this link.

This policy has been referred to as a new 'vacant bedroom charge', but you might have also heard it mentioned as the spare bedroom tax. Essentially, it will require tenants with more bedrooms than allowed by their entitlement to make a choice: pay the same for less, or pay more to stay the same.

We've already spoken about this a couple of times on the Brown Couch, and it is worth revisiting those discussions for a refresher about what we already know. You can find these posts here, here and here.

But to summarise, briefly: tenants who have more bedrooms than they're entitled to (based on the policy at this link) may be asked to relocate to smaller premises. If they are asked, and they decline, their rent subsidy will be adjusted so that they pay more. For singles, this will mean a rent increase of about $20 per week; for couples, it will mean a rise of about $30 per week.

If, on the other hand, the tenant chooses to relocate to a smaller premises, they will be placed on the waiting list for a transfer, and will be considered a priority applicant.

Since writing those earlier posts, we have had some further discussions with Housing NSW about how this policy will be implemented. Here's what we have been lead to understand:

1. HNSW has said that it will not be approaching every tenant with spare bedrooms to discuss relocation. There are some tenants who, for one reason or another, will be left alone. HNSW has not given us anything concrete to go on as to who will be exempt and why - other than to say the decision to approach or not approach a tenant will be made on its merits, in each particular case.

2. HNSW has said that it will take a 'measured approach' to contacting tenants whom they would like to consider relocation. As far as we can tell, this means that they will not be sending letters out en masse, but will make an approach to affected tenants in person. They have said that this will be done by workers who have had some previous experience in assisting tenants through the process of relocation...

3. Tenants who agree to relocate, and are placed on the waiting list for a 'priority' transfer, may still have a lengthy wait for their new home. This will vary depending on the nature of the property required, and on other demand for properties in their area. In particular, a tenant who has agreed to relocate in order to free up a property they have been 'under-occupying' will not be housed before an applicant for housing who has been assessed as 'at risk' (according to the eligibility criteria - and unless the under-occupying tenant is also assessed as being 'at risk' in addition to being an under-occupant).

4. A tenant who does not agree to relocate will have their rent subsidy adjusted immediately. A tenant who does agree to relocate will continue to pay according to their current rent. At some time, these agreeable under-occupants will be offered new properties and asked to move. If they do not then accept one of two offers (assuming the offers are 'reasonable', which means they will be subject to the usual processes of review and appeal), their rent subsidy will be adjusted to include the 'vacant bedroom charge'. They will also be removed from the transfer list.

We look forward to seeing this policy in full.

Please contact your local Tenants Advice & Advocacy Service if you are approached about the vacant bedroom charge, and would like to discuss the matter with an advocate.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Where do the parties stand on housing: part 5 – Saul Eslake (a non-party)

Yesterday we commended the Greens for their housing policy, including their 'Better Deal for Renters'. Today we commend Saul Eslake, whose natural habitat is the big end of town, on his  outline for a better housing policy – different from, but complementary to that of the Greens – and his critique of Australia's '50 years of housing failure'.

Please follow that link to Prosper Australia – it is essential reading.

Australia's two major parties do have a housing policy, despite their silence on the subject at election time. Their longstanding mutual policy is, tragically, to treat housing not as the seat of security and comfort that is the right of every citizen, but rather as a get-richer-quick scheme. In recent years, it has become a shady adjunct to retirement incomes policy, transferring the future incomes of younger households to older households for their present consumption.

There are plenty of people in both the major parties who would dispute this, because they genuinely don't see housing this way, and regard making housing less accessible and more expensive by deliberate policy as unconscionable. On their terms, then, faced with a 50-year track record of failure, they must change their parties' housing policies.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Where do the parties stand on housing: part 4 - The Greens

While we were making up housing policies for Labor and the Liberals, because neither had announced their own, another political party launched not just a housing policy, but also a 'Better Deal for Renters' too.

Here we take a look at the housing policy of The Greens.

Social housing
The Greens propose substantial new investment in social housing, to arrest the vicious circle of its present decline, and build 122 000 new dwellings over the new 10 years – equivalent to half the number of households currently on waiting lists around the country.

Because – let's face it – the Greens won't be forming government next week, one might object that the Greens can promise new housing as much as they like, because they'll not have to find the money for it. But what makes this promise worthy of attention is the innovative financing mechanism proposed: a suite of Affordable Housing Supply Bonds that would appeal variously to institutional investors – notoriously absent from rental housing investment in Australia – and 'retail' investors – the so-called 'mums and dads' who have run rampant over the rental market, leaving inflation, debt and insecurity in their wake. Any means of turning their resources instead to the production of new, affordable, secure social housing deserves consideration.

Affordable rental
To support other forms of affordable rental, the Greens are proposing an extension of the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS), and some specific-purpose programs: a special Uni-NRAS for affordable student accommodation, and grants to enable vacant buildings – the real under-occupancy problem – to be converted to affordable rental housing.

Tax reform
The Greens propose cutting the capital gains tax discount rate from 50 per cent to 40 cent, as recommended by the Henry Review. This is one way of reducing the fatal attractiveness of negative gearing, so would not just increase government revenue, but also reduce distortion in the rental market too. We suggest that while they're at it, the Greens should consider land tax reform too – also recommended by the Henry Review.

The 'Better Deal for Renters'
In addition to their proposals for social housing and affordable housing, the Greens' 'Better Deal for Renters' comprises three elements.

The first is the establishment of a new national body to implement a new National Standard for Rental Housing. Matters for consideration in the Standard would include:
  • improved security of tenure;
  • stability and fairness of rents;
  • a new efficiency standard for rental dwellings;
  • standards as to the state of repair and physical security (ie locks, etc) of a dwelling; and 
  • better legislative protection of vulnerable marginal renters.
The Greens don't go as far as specifying exactly what needs to be done in each in relation to each of these matters – that would be for the national body to advise, and it might itself come up with some other matters to advise on. As for the nature of the national body, the Greens indicate that it might be constituted like the National Dialogue on Universal Housing Design. This sort of industry and consumer stakeholder forum would be a welcome development, and probably be especially useful in advising on the efficiency standard, but we wonder how it would deal with the more contentious matters, particularly legal security of tenure and rents – it may be necessary for legislators to take the lead here. As for how the National Standard could be implemented – that is, by the Federal Government in areas that are usually the responsibility of States – the Greens propose using the processes of COAG and attaching some strings to Commonwealth funds. Fair enough.

The second element is actually a better deal for landlords too: a grant to help cover the cost of efficiency improvements required by the anticipated National Standard.

And the third element is additional funding for tenants' advocacy services. Declaration of interest: the Tenants' Union of NSW is, of course, one of those advocacy services. But the case for increased funding is strong, especially in Queensland, where the State Government still refuses to fund tenants advice and advocacy services there, and in New South Wales too, where TAASs do an extraordinary job on a budget that still set as if we're working in the rental market circa 2002.  

Well done to the Greens. We'd congratulate them for no other reason than their effort to get the hugely important matter of housing on the campaign agenda – but more than that, many of the measures they propose stack up as sound policy too. These are policies worth your consideration on election day – and worth consideration by whichever party forms government thereafter.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A heavy, blunt instrument

As if we needed another reason not to buy the Telegraph, on Sunday it weighed into the issue of public housing evictions on grounds of use of premises for illegal purposes.

There's not enough of 'em, bellowed the Tele:

ALMOST every attempt to kick out drug dealers, criminals and troublemakers from public housing fails, with the state tenancy tribunal rejecting more than three out of every four cases.
Of 418 applications made by the state government, only 96 cases, or 23 per cent, were successful, the most recent figures from the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal to September last year show.

First problem with this: the very first sentence is contradictory on its face. 'Almost every attempt' at eviction fails... but about one in four succeed? At least it lets you know that a shameless beat-up is coming.

The second problem is less egregious, but it's still important to properly understanding the issue: the CTTT figures don't include all those cases where Housing NSW gives a termination notice on grounds of illegal use and the tenant moves out without Housing NSW applying to the Tribunal. How many of these cases there are, we cannot say (and it is not clear that Housing NSW can say either), but CTTT applications would be the tip of the termination iceberg.

The third problem is that the Tele has missed the real problem: that public housing tenants, when prosecuted for a criminal offence, are being exposed to the double jeopardy of a second prosecution, and possibly a second punishment, by Housing NSW. 

This is unfair to social housing tenants, because no other members of the community face this double jeopardy. (Try to imagine the Commonwealth Bank foreclosing on a mortgage, because a home-owner's son or daughter has been busted with a bag of pot.) Amongst landlords, the idea that enforcing the state's drug laws is part of the job is peculiar to social housing landlords, and Housing NSW in particular has unique access to police information under the NSW Police Privacy Code.

It is also bad in terms of the interests of criminal justice. The criminal justice system is capable of  a range of responses to offending, from fines and good behaviour bonds to home detention and actual imprisonment. This is particularly the case in relation to drug offences, where courts may order an offender to take part in rehabilitation programs, to appropriately punish the offender and start getting them on a better track.

By contrast, in its prosecutions Housing NSW wields only a very heavy, blunt instrument: eviction. When Housing NSW weighs in, it can upend the relatively sophisticated responses that the criminal justice system has made, by making a person (and the rest of their household) homeless and out of the reach of rehabilitation.

So, it's in the interests of justice that the Tribunal has the power to decline an application by Housing NSW for termination. (That said, tenants advocates often have to argue hard for the Tribunal to exercise its discretion.) It would be in the interests of justice, too, if Housing NSW would not second guess the criminal justice system, and not pursue these matters before the criminal proceedings have been finalised, and not where the courts have seen fit to punish an offender with orders that allow – or even require – that they stay in their home.