Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Tell us what you really think, Belle

Thanks, Belle Property. This charming little reminder of how some real estate agents really view us tenants was dropped in our inbox this morning.

Clearly it’s supposed to be funny. Can you imagine your landlord finding it in their letter box and having a little chortle? How hilarious that it is so easy to remove someone from their home, like changing clothes. Perhaps they even hoped for some controversy! There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

Hey landlords, don’t like your tenants anymore? Did they ask for repairs, or question a rent increase? Maybe you just don’t like they way they look. No worries, just get your agent to give ‘em the flick. As non-property owners they’re vermin, barely human, certainly not worthy of a home. Its rare that such a dismissive attitude is so clearly drawn out.

What’s most frustrating about these kinds of attitudes prevailing in real estate agencies is that avoiding them is easier said than done. When you’re looking down another 30 applications, eviction day is coming up fast and at least this place doesn’t have obvious mould problems, knowing your property manager thinks your vermin doesn’t rate as highly.

The thing is though property managers need tenants. Sales agents don’t, except to use our furniture to make a place look homely. But a property manager without tenants is like a mouse without cheese, scrounging around looking for some other way to make a living. We might be vermin to you, but we pay your wages.

UPDATE 20/11/2016. Belle Property has responded to this post with the following message.
"We apologise if any offense was taken as a result of these Property Management flyers, it was never the intention. We in no way believe tenants are comparable to vermin and we apologise that it has been interpreted in this way. It was intended as a fun light-hearted message, which evidently wasn’t achieved. We are happy to discuss this further offline if there are any further queries. We will cease to use this marketing material effective immediately."

Also posted as a Facebook note here on our Facebook page. Like us for all the latest from the TU!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Celebrating Anti-Poverty week with smashed avocado on toast

Welcome to Anti-Poverty Week 2016. Everyone is encouraged to help reduce poverty and hardship by organising or taking part in an activity during the week (October 16-22).

He might not have meant to, but Bernard Salt got us off to an early start on Saturday, over at The Weekend Australian. Salt penned a provocative piece about how “Middle-Aged Moralisers” - a term with which he identifies - don’t like hipster cafes. He set off a small Twitter storm for his trouble. Quite aside from their poor quality furnishings and their complex approach to gender rules on toilet doors, Salt drew the most ire for his observation that hipster cafes are charging $22 a pop for smashed avocado on toast, and that young-people-who-haven’t-yet-bought-houses should not be paying for such frivolities. Instead, they should be directing all that hard-earned towards a deposit for a home-loan.

Now some might argue that the day young hipster-folk stop trading smashed avocado lunches is the day the Australian economy dies, and poverty comes a-calling for us all. But Salt does have a point. According to a study released by the Australian Council of Social Services yesterday, one of the surest ways to avoid poverty in Australia is to own your own home. Only 15.5% of the three-million Australians living below the poverty line in 2014 were home-owners, while 59.7% were renting.

Saving your money to buy a house may seem like a good wisdom, but many in the “haven’t-yet-bought-houses” category have already sat through that lecture. Amid confusion about whether the number of first home-buyers entering the market is very low or even lower, Salt's screed is just another reminder of the impending poverty of old age.

For those apparently well-off enough to feel the stigma and shame of not-buying-houses, rising property values are nothing to cheer about. Many who can’t afford a home today probably won’t be able to afford it again tomorrow, and will experience increasing levels of poverty and inequality as they struggle to meet rising rents. Even having a job is no guarantee of the good life - in 2014, about a third of Australians living below the poverty line were wage earners. But for those who can’t get a job, and those whose working days are behind them, the cost of housing will always be the biggest barrier to financial wellbeing.

So, for the three-million Australians who already live below the poverty line, and the countless others who will join them in the fullness of time, doing something about housing affordability will make a critical difference. Building much more Social Housing, inserting meaningful Affordable Housing targets into our planning laws, and fixing our various tax settings would be a good start.

Even if we did all of this today, slowing the growth of housing costs would take some time. Making a couple of quick changes to our renting laws would also help: allowing tenants a genuine option to challenge unreasonable rent increases, so they may respond to landlords' price signals in a manner other than moving out; and removing landlords' ability to end tenancies without a reason so that tenants will have some security in their homes for as long as they meet the terms of their agreements, and their properties remain available for rent.

In the meantime... the smashed avo looks pretty good today, if you can afford it.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Please, may we have some more?

The proposed transfer of 18,000 Public Housing properties to Community Housing landlords is as fine an example of placing your policy burden on somebody else's bottom line as ever you might see...

We hear every so often from the Australian Government about its debt and deficit worries. The significance of that debt is questionable, and it's low by international standards, but for the sake of the argument let’s accept the need for budget repair.

The NSW Government, on the other hand is completely debt free. It's hoarding a handy $4.7billion surplus, largely from a buoyant stamp duty take on the back of Sydney's eye-watering house prices over the last few years. Stamp duty has rapidly grown from about 20% of the state’s tax revenue just a few short years ago, to nearly 30% today, increasing from $4.5billion to $8.3billion in the last tax year.

One of the selling points of transferring properties to Community Housing is tapping the de facto subsidy for Community Housing landlords that's known as Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA). For people on low incomes, such as a Centrelink benefit or a minimum wage, CRA helps offset the high cost of renting in Australia by adding a few extra dollars to your take-home payments. Community Housing landlords calculate the rent to maximise their tenants' CRA entitlements, then take the lot. This is a nifty way for a state government to draw on federal money to fund their agreed Social Housing responsibilities.

The media release in which Minister Hazzard announced the Social Housing Management Transfer Program suggested it would give Community Housing landlords an extra billion dollars over the next twenty years. That's a billion dollars of federal money, delivered via individual tenants on account of their entitlements to CRA, in case we hadn't made that clear.

If the NSW Government, rich with the take from Sydney’s sustained property largesse, wanted to chuck a lazy billion dollars at the Social Housing system in order to improve it for tenants, it could very easily do so without adding to our apparent federal spending woes - or at least, without dipping into the only national scheme designed to assist tenants in the private rental market. If it really wanted to, it could do this more than once every twenty years or so without putting too much strain on the bank.

It's just a matter of priorities.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Understanding the Housing Legislation Amendment Bill 2016

People often ask us what we mean when we talk about Social Housing. How does it differ from Public Housing? Where does Community Housing come from? Aren't they different names for the same thing? And is there even really such a thing as Affordable Housing? What about housing co-ops or housing that's owned and managed by Aboriginal Housing Corporations or Local Aboriginal Land Councils?

We'd love to write something that sorts all this out once and for all, but there's a problem: the whole kit and caboodle just keeps changing.

Don't look now, but it's about to change again. Yesterday the Minister for Disability Services, Ageing and Multiculturalism, John Ajaka, introduced the Housing Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 into the Legislative Council of NSW.

If passed, the bill will do two things:
... amend the Housing Act 2001 with respect to the entry of concurrent leases; and amend the Community Housing Providers (Adoption of National Law) Act 2012 with respect to the registration of, and provision of assistance to, community housing providers that cannot be registered under the Community Housing Providers National Law (NSW).
So - what does all of that mean?

The first thing - concurrent leases - concerns the transfer of Social Housing tenancy management from Public Housing to Community Housing. The Minister for Social Housing, Brad Hazzard, recently announced the transfer of an additional 18,000 tenanted properties (approximately) "to ensure a better experience for tenants in Social Housing". Critically, Hazzard announced that "tenants' lease length and lease conditions will remain the same, their income after rent will remain the same and FACS will keep tenants fully informed as their areas transition to community housing providers".

But the Housing Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 makes it clear that, under the proposed property transfer scheme, tenants will not be given a choice. Many of their counterparts in previous schemes did have a choice - albeit a limited one. Some tenants were able to decline to participate in an earlier property transfer program, such as a group in South Coogee in 2009. Others were not, and there are now entire areas across New South Wales where FACS Housing no longer operates as a landlord. The properties, and the tenants, remain, but now they have a Community Housing landlord. Returning for a moment to Minister Hazzard's announcement, it looks as though four new areas are to be added to the list: the Shoalhaven, Northern Sydney, Mid North Coast and Hunter/New England (excluding Newcastle and Lake Macquarie LGAs). We expect many tenants in these areas will have found this news unsettling, and the lack of choice to be afforded them insulting.

But the introduction of "concurrent leases" potentially resolves some of the pragmatic concerns that tenants would factor into their choice, if they had one. A concurrent lease allows those property rights and interests that have not been passed on to, say, a residential tenant, to be transferred to a third party. Lawyers would think of it as a division of the "bundle of rights" that are attached to property, in a way that retains a clear hierarchy of interests and concerns - property owner > concurrent lessee/landlord > residential tenant/occupier. Rights that are tied to a residential tenancy agreement are not affected by a concurrent lease, and this is what the Minister is getting at when he suggests "tenants' lease length and lease conditions will remain the same".

Strictly speaking, the Land & Housing Corporation (the Public Housing landlord) has been setting up concurrent leases all over the place, as it has already transferred the management of around 28,000 Public Housing properties to Community Housing landlords since about 2008. But it's not been done in such a clear-cut way before. In the past, tenants have been asked to rip up their residential tenancy agreements with the Land & Housing Corporation, and enter into a new one - perhaps with new, less favourable terms - with the Community Housing landlord.

Concurrent leases may take some of the sting out of the coming property transfer scheme, but that's not the end of the story. Different Social Housing landlords apply different tenancy management policies and, while it is true that the existing terms of a tenant's residential tenancy agreement should remain intact, this application of different policies might make for some startling changes to tenants' experiences. For instance, Community Housing landlords set their rent in a way that requires tenants to claim Commonwealth Rent Assistance, but the Land & Housing Corporation does not. On paper, this will look like a hefty rent increase. In practise, tenants will have to pay 100% of their Rent Assistance to their Community Housing landlord. This is what the Minister is getting at when he says "their income after rent will remain the same".

To add another layer of complexity to our understanding, but perhaps a simplification to the system itself, the Housing Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 will provide that, as a matter of law, Public Housing that is transferred over to Community Housing by way of a concurrent lease will no longer be considered Public Housing. We'll add that to our list of things to write about...

But what of the second thing - "the registration of, and provision of assistance to, community housing providers that cannot be registered under the Community Housing Providers National Law (NSW)"? We won't go into in too much detail on this today, because we've already taken up enough of your time. But as we understand it, it is designed to solve a problem for Local Aboriginal Land Councils who run Social Housing schemes, and who want to register as an Aboriginal Community Housing Provider with the Aboriginal Housing Office. Currently they're unable to. As statutorily constituted bodies who own their own properties they cannot meet the conditions of registration, which would require them to transfer their properties to another registered provider in the event of winding up.

The Housing Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 would solve this issue by requiring the Social Housing Minister to establish a "local system of registration" that would mirror the national system as much as is possible. In other words, the Minister must create a whole new registration system that looks a lot like the existing one, but leaving aside one or two things that prevent some current Social Housing landlords from becoming registered. The trick will be to ensure the "one or two things" doesn't become too broad, giving potential new entrants a sneaky back-door into the Social Housing system and undermining the integrity of the existing registration scheme.

We'll be watching all of this closely as the bill makes its way through the Houses of Parliament.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Just give me one good reason - why tenancy laws need to change

On Monday Jacob Saulwick asked the question, when should landlords be allowed to evict tenants? He shared the story of Penny, who had been in her rented home for five years when she received a termination notice in the mail. She wasn’t give a reason.

Under current tenancy legislation, renters in NSW can still be told to leave their home for no reason - the landlord can simply issue a ‘no grounds’ termination. But Penny was pretty sure she knew the reason: the email from the real estate agent informing her she was being evicted came in response to a request she’d sent them for repairs to be done before a proposed rent increase.

There’s always a reason for ending a tenancy, just not always a good one.

If landlords can end a tenancy without having to provide a reason, tenants are left with very few avenues for challenging an unfair eviction. This means tenants never know how long they can expect to be able to stay in a house. It also means that many don’t feel like they can ask for repairs to be done or complain about excessive rent increases or other problems that come up. They worry they’ll get kicked out for being ‘annoying’ tenants, and there will be no way to hold their landlord to account. They are right to worry - we know it happens.

Tenant advocates regularly hear from tenants who have received a notice of rent increase with a ‘no-grounds’ notice of termination in the same envelope, inviting them to choose which one they prefer. We get contacted by tenants who have taken their landlord to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (the Tribunal that deals with tenancy disputes) over repairs or a rent increase or some other matter and then received a ‘no-grounds’ notice of termination some time soon after. We even know of one occasion where a real estate agent served a ‘no-grounds’ notice of termination in the lifts on the way out of the Tribunal; and another where an agent drafted a ‘no-grounds’ notice of termination and handed it to the tenant before the Tribunal member had finished delivering a decision on an application for repairs.

There is a provision within existing tenancy legislation concerning ‘retaliatory evictions’. This section of the Residential Tenancies Act is supposed to protect tenants from getting kicked out because they tried to assert their rights. Unfortunately it is notoriously weak. There are only around ten reported decisions where the Tribunal has been asked to consider whether a notice of termination was retaliatory – and all but one of these was decided in favour of the landlord. We know of one tenant who received a ‘no-grounds’ notice of termination less than two weeks after the Tribunal found that an earlier notice was retaliatory.

If a tenant doesn’t do the right thing there are already provisions for landlords to end a tenancy, for example where there are problems with the rent being paid. The problem is that many landlords find it easier to end a termination via ‘no grounds’ terminations, taking away the tenant’s right to defend themselves and dispute the basis for termination if they are accused of a breach. A tenant about to lose their home should be provided with a reason, and they should have some way of challenging this if they need to.

So how can this be fixed? The solution is quite simple – get rid of the provisions within current tenancy legislation that allow landlords to end tenancies without giving a specific reason. Instead an expanded list of grounds could be provided - for example if a landlord needed to move back in – that allowed tenants to go to the Tribunal to test the reason for eviction if they believe it to be disingenuous. This would mean that landlords with a genuine reason to end their tenancy could do so, but tenants would have greater security.

One good reason to leave your home, surely that is not too much to ask?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Vale Ross Smith

It is with great sadness that we note the passing of Ross Smith - a tireless advocate for fairness in the housing system, and member of the Tenants' Union of NSW.

Ross Smith, Waterloo.
Ross was actively involved with the Waterloo Neighbourhood Advisory Board as the Peoples Precinct representative. He was a member of Counterpoint Community Services, King Cross Community Centre and South Sydney Community Aid, Treasurer and long-standing member of REDWatch, and volunteered with the South Sydney Herald. He was also an active member of the Australian Labor Party.

Ross was always willing to say what many others would not regarding social housing policy - or as he would say 'public and community housing' policy. He strongly disliked the term social housing.

He was a strong advocate. He was always a touchstone for those who might stray too far from hearing tenants' voices. He was also keen to stay in touch with tenants from across the state and would travel across Sydney to be at tenants' events. He had a passionate commitment to tenant participation.

Ross was well known in Waterloo and the wider public and community housing community for his tireless advocacy work. He will be sadly missed.

Our thoughts are with his family and friends. Vale.

Bonds for public housing? Credit where it's due...

We recently grumbled about the lack of consultation leading up to the proposed introduction of bonds for public housing tenancies.

Since then, FACS Housing has expanded the handful of non-government housing peaks it has asked to comment on a draft operational framework, and the Minister for Social Housing himself has invited several of us to meet with him to discuss our concerns.

It's entirely possible that none of this would have happened if not for our grumble, but it's likely the grumbling of others has had a fair bit of impact, too. We know we're not the only ones put out by the proposal, and we're not the only ones who've said as much.

This is an indication that the NSW Government is prepared to stop and listen when it aims wide of the mark on policy, and we've got to give them credit for that. But even so, the Minister has confirmed his commitment to bonds for public housing tenancies.

Numerous advocacy groups have implored him to reconsider, and this includes the TU. Our comments on the draft policy and operational framework can be found here.