Minister for Social Housing Brad Hazzard has today announced "the NSW Government is taking a tough stance on the “churn’’ of people from social housing to homelessness and is driving reform for an automatic rent deduction scheme from Centrelink payments." The scheme would see money handed directly from Centrelink to Social Housing landlords - which sounds remarkably like a form of income management - and could affect up to 90% of Social Housing tenants.
Driving the proposed reform is the Minister's concern for children. “I see too many children who have had their lives upended, their schooling disrupted and their health compromised by their family’s inability to pay rent and maintain a secure home,” Mr Hazzard said. “There are times when Governments have to make decisions for the common good and that is why we are driving this across-the-board reform.”
But there's not a lot of evidence to suggest that children are becoming homeless in great numbers because of rent arrears in Social Housing. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's latest report into Australia's Welfare (2015) makes no reference to rent arrears in its discussion about child homelessness, pointing instead to "sexual and physical abuse, parental drug addiction and family violence" as likely triggers.
Still, if this is a problem, there are other ways of responding to it. Working with households to get their rent under control springs to mind, rather than evicting them. Our observation is that Social Housing officers can be quick to take off to the Tribunal for an eviction order without first sitting down to talk through whatever difficulties a tenant may be having - or even just finding out what the hold-up might be with the rent. When you're the tenancy manager for some of the most vulnerable low-income households in the country, this would seem a reasonable place to start. It seems all the more important for struggling households that include children.
It's not the first time a reform agenda of this kind has been driven, either. Here's what we said when a similar scheme was flagged back in 2013:
It might sound like a good idea to the Housing Ministers, because it promises to reduce arrears. And lots of public housing tenants think it's a good idea too – so good, in fact, that they already do it, voluntarily, through Housing NSW's Rent Deduction Scheme.
But there are people for whom this sort of scheme doesn't fit. For example, we've an acquaintance who lives in public housing who has a few health problems. When he gets paid, he doesn't use the money to pay his rent straight away: he uses it to pay one of his doctors. Then he goes to Medicare, gets paid by them, pays another doctor, goes back to Medicare and gets paid by them again. Then he pays his rent.
This orderly process of payment and repayment would get stuffed right up if a Housing Payment Deduction Scheme got in and took the money first.
There's bound to be other examples where individual circumstances make the compulsory deductions a bad fit. Maybe the operational policy for the scheme could be so devised to anticipate them all, and provide for housing officers to make adjustments in those circumstances... maybe.
Or it might be more efficient and effective to let each person judge for themselves whether the scheme fits their circumstances and whether it suits them to use it. Lots of public housing tenants have already judged yes, it suits them – that's great. And that's probably as far as it should go.