Friday, February 28, 2014

TIS the way to get on the same page

The Settlement Council of Australia reminded us recently of the availability of interpreting services for free for real estate agents.

Many government and community agencies (including the TU!) use the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National) to provide free interpreting services to people who don't speak English to access services. Generally the agency pays for the service and need to be registered with TIS National.

In order to help non-english speakers, and particularly humanitarian entrants to Australia, find and maintain housing for themselves, TIS is conducting a pilot program in which real estate agencies are given free access to the service. After a successful initial period, TIS has opened up access until July 2015 for all real estate agencies in selected areas. It covers large parts of Sydney as well as many regional areas.

So far 104 real estate agencies across NSW have signed up, Good on them! You can see the full list here. We hope that it is utilised on a day to day basis, and avoids disputes that can arise from two people misunderstanding each other.

TIS National provided these tips to using an interpreter:

How should I use an interpreter most effectively?
You can use a TIS National interpreter most effectively by:
 preparing all information that you need for the session before calling TIS National
 being patient and waiting for the interpreter to finish interpreting before speaking again
 using short sentences
 avoiding using slang or jargon that the may be difficult to translate
 understanding the role of the interpreter
 not asking the interpreter for advice or to advocate for you
 notifying the interpreter, organisation or TIS National immediately if you are having difficulty understanding the interpreter.

As you'd expect, TIS also have this and many of their resources in a range of community languages.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Fact based reporting: part 2 - Commonwealth Rent Assistance

Welcome to part 2 of our reporting on the Productivity Commission's Report on Government Services of a couple of weeks ago. In case you missed it, we ran through the Report's sections on Public Housing.

Today, we look at the reporting on the Commonwealth Rent Assistance. Rent Assistance is a commonwealth funded program that has been running for decades as a support for private tenants who receive income support from the government, and since 2000 as support for families receiving the Family Tax Benefit. Since 2008 it has also been available to Community Housing tenants and other social housing tenants who are not in public housing. For an overview of how Rent Assistance works in private market and the social housing, we cover it in depth in this Henry Review post. It is worth keeping in mind that for much of these numbers, social housing tenants are included, though the benefit of rent assistance to them is negligible as 100% of it is collected by their provider.

There were 421 235 rent assistance recipients in NSW in the year 2013- a full third of the nation's recipients.

Numbers of recipients in housing crisis, paying more than 50% of their income on rent.
Nearly 20% of CRA recipients still spend more than 50% of their income on the rent. This figure would be 34% if not for the payment.
Back in 2003, it was just over 11% and it's been going up almost every year since then, as the caps rise much more slowly than rents do. Along with other government payments, the CRA maximum rates get adjusted with CPI every 6 months.

The recipients of CRA have stayed broadly the same demographic over recent years except for the inclusion of the various social housing tenants who started receiving CRA since 2008. This has effectively changed very little as the recipients of CRA are largely the same cohort as people who live in community housing. 

The age spread of CRA does favour a younger population, mostly due to the parenting payments which comprise almost a quarter of recipients in NSW. It is worrying that all the groups over 60 are overrepresented as well, as rates of home ownership are higher in those older age groups. This suggests elderly tenants struggling to pay the rent without this payment though we certainly don't have the data to say this for sure.

Rent Assistance is an effective payment at assisting vulnerable tenants in the private market, though its effectiveness is being reduced as rents continue to rise faster than the payments can keep up. As the sole government payment directed solely at tenants, we hope it can continue into the future.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Saving the day by paying more to stay...

It's been nearly six months since the vacant bedroom charge began to bite tenants across NSW public housing.

The idea was that charging extra rent for the spare room would 'encourage' tenants to downsize, allowing HNSW to give the roomier place to a more needy recipient. But from what we've heard, many tenants are paying more to stay put. Housing NSW won't be getting their hands on the lion's share of vacant bedrooms - but they do stand to make a few quid out of this caper, all the same...

Spare bedrooms - they always seem so roomy!

As soon as the vacant bedroom charge was launched, a handful of households - around a hundred of them - immediately put their hands up for relocation. Of these, just over a quarter have already been moved. Then there were the households who were already waiting to transfer to a smaller home. A 'small number' of these have now been moved, too. In fairness, we have to acknowledge this - it amounts to maybe 30 or 40 spare bedrooms being brought back into circulation...

But the big news is that of the 250 or so households that have actually been approached to relocate, only about 10% have agreed to consider it. The rest have decided to pay the extra $20 or $30 per week in order to stay where they live. We expect this was a tough choice for many - we can't help but wonder at the number of tenants now enduring incredible hardship in order to remain in their homes. How sustainable will their decision be?

Well, we hope they can hang in there, because they're doing us all a favour.

When it was first announced, Minister Goward said there were over 17,000 public housing households who were holding up the social housing waiting list by hanging onto a spare bedroom instead of moving to a smaller home. HNSW have since said they won't approach all of these households, and we know that some have already agreed to relocate... but let's imagine they've got in mind another 15,000 households to approach.

On their current rate of success, HNSW might end up unlocking as many as 1,500 larger homes with vacant bedrooms (pending somewhere to move the occupant/s to), and 13,500 households paying the extra charge. That would mean taking in an extra $270,000 in rent each week, if every household were paying the $20 weekly rate. It would be $405,000 per week at the $30 rate. Of course, the actual figure will be somewhere in between.

Reflect on that for a moment. Thousands of low income tenants, paying extra to stay in their homes, could see HNSW net somewhere between $14million and $21million per year in additional rent collections. We look forward to a run of articles in the tabloid papers expressing gratitude for this very generous contribution.

But what will HNSW do with all that spare money?

One thing they might consider is building a few larger properties to help house all those living in over-crowded conditions... and perhaps a couple of smaller ones, too, so those who have agreed to relocate can make the move and free up that vacant bedroom all the sooner. Because if the Minister really wants to get that waiting list moving, there's simply no better way than building more houses.

In any case, we should be clear - tenants opting to pay more to stay should be applauded for making this difficult choice. We live in hope that FACS and HNSW will find a use for their new pool of spare money that will be equally worthy of our admiration.

Fingers and toes crossed.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Fun and horror with The Economist's house price index

The Economist has updated its interactive global house price index gadget, offering a fun way of viewing Australia's horrendous house price inflation in historical and international perspective.

Follow the link and play around with it (for maximum fun/horror, do a comparison with Germany). Or just behold the indices for Australia, below. Results are to the third quarter of 2013.

(House prices (index), Australia)

 (Real house prices (index), Australia)

(House price/average income ratio (variation from long-term average), Australia)

(House price/rent ratio (variation from long-term average), Australia)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Bidwill: stigma and pride

The ABC has produced a couple of reports on the public housing estate at Bidwill: read here and here, and watch here.

The following quotes caught our eye. Housing NSW Executive Director, Paul Vevers, says of Bidwill:

There aren't role models for young people here.

A 16 or 17-year-old girl or boy if they leave school, the rite of passage for them is that the parents would take them down to Centrelink.

No role models in Bidwill?

What about Samantha Russell, interviewed by the ABC, who's doing year 11 at the local high school, busting down gender stereotypes in the metalwork class, working part-time and looking forward to a career in journalism, and praising her time at school as 'challenging [but] awesome'?

Or Samantha's parents, both of whom are studying at TAFE, with a plan for university and careers after that?

Or the Bidwill residents who have volunteered their labour in the Bidwill Community Garden, or with Habitat for Humanity, or in the weekly community breakfast and other activities organised by Bidwill Uniting, or in any of the other community activities – playgroups, youth groups, parents groups – that try, in difficult circumstances, to make life a bit better in Bidwill?

To say that 'there are no role models for young people' in Bidwill is wrong, and an unwarranted slight on all these good people.

And we have never seen anyone apply to Centrelink for income support as some sort of 'right of passage'.


We asked Mr Vevers if he was quoted correctly. He confirmed that those were his words. He further said:

The point I made is one which Housing NSW and others such as the Auditor General have made many times before, which is that the vast majority of tenants of working age are on Centrelink benefits, with only 5% of all tenants having wages as their main income.  In many families that has been the case for a couple of generations, so young people in those households have never seen a parent or grandparent go to work....

That of course does not mean that there are not other people who stand out and it does not mean that there are not younger people in public housing who are seeking to change that for themselves.

A person out of work can be a role model, in the way they deal with that and the way they go about things at home and in their community. They, and the public housing tenants who do work – despite all the discouragement given by Housing NSW's policies for hiking rents and kicking out wage earners – shouldn't be forgotten when Housing NSW is in the media making points.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Fact based reporting: part 1 - social housing

There’s a lot of talk about social housing at the moment- the NSW government's select committee inquiry into social and affordable housing, the Federal government's senate committee inquiry, and nearly weekly updates from A Current Affair.
Last Friday, the Productivity Commission handed down its annual Report on Government Services, including a whole chapter on housing and another on homelessness. For those interested in the NSW information but too time poor to trawl through all 533 pages, we present a two-part series of brief digests of some of the most interesting parts relating to housing. The next post will deal with the Commonwealth Rent Assistance and housing stress.  We shall start today with some key indicators around social housing provision.
For context, at 30 June 2013, there were 137238 public and community housing dwellings in NSW which represents 4.9% of all dwellings in NSW. Of those, 136047 were occupied. 110000 were public housing and the remaining 26000 were community housing.
There were also about another 9000 dwellings that were either Aboriginal Housing Office or indigenous community housing which, amongst other organisations, includes land councils. The data is patchy for indigenous housing so we'll drop in and out of referencing those dwellings, despite their importance in understanding the social housing system in NSW. We’ll take a look at three aspects of the social housing system- the satisfaction levels of the tenants, the standard of accommodation, and the cost of service provision.
Satisfaction is a tricky thing to measure- as one bad aspect can throw out an otherwise satisfied tenant. The survey used does try to cover a range of factors and has been running over ten years now, making for a fairly reliable measure.
Overall, only 56.1% of Housing NSW tenants expressed some level of satisfaction – the lowest level nation wide, just beating out Western Australia, and well below the national average of 65.4%. It’s also down from previous results. 
Community housing fares better, 69.6% expressing some level of satisfaction. However this is another fall over time from much higher levels. Again unfortunately NSW had the lowest rate in the country though the figures were much closer together- the national average was 73.9%.
Satisfaction levels in public and community housing- on the way down
Part of why satisfaction is low might be the standard of the dwelling. Almost 68% of Housing NSW households passed an acceptable standard test- which we think sounds more like a minimum standard. To pass, properties need to have facilities for washing people, for washing clothes/bedding, for storing/preparing food, and sewerage and not more than two major structural problems. Perhaps we should say 32% failed to pass the test.
That means nearly 35700 Housing NSW dwellings do not meet that most basic standard.
In community housing, the pass rate is much higher at 81.4%- though that still leaves almost 5000 households in unacceptable standard dwellings.
Indigenous housing in general- both state owned and managed, as well as indigenous households community housing reached a significantly lower number meeting the acceptable standard. For instance NSW public housing households with indigenous family members have a rate of only 49.6% passing the acceptable standards test. There are a number of reasons that may affect this but aren’t explored in this report- higher proportionate levels of remote housing where maintenance is harder to come by, lower levels of engagement with housing providers, different forms of usage and relative age of stock are all factors which may play a part.
Providing social housing costs clearly, and luckily (for some) we’re below the national average for spending per dwelling on public housing- quite an achievement in one of the most expensive housing markets in the world!
The net cost for housing a tenant in public housing in NSW is $7751 a year, or $21 a day. Even in adjusted values, this is on an upward trend, whilst the number of dwellings is falling. For comparison, the cost of support for a homeless person expressed in a yearly amount is $9490 and average cost for housing a prisoner is over $77000 a year!  For those wondering about their hard earned tax dollars- it costs each person in NSW $163 per year to fund our public housing system.
Finally, let’s look at rent collection- contrary to what you might imagine if listening to some sections of the media, public housing tenants paid 99% of the charged rent in 2012-2013. Of that 731 million dollars charged, slightly more than 7million was outstanding as at the 30 June 2013, or a measly $66 per household for the year. It is important to remember that this figure will include accounts that are already under payment arrangements. Also worth noting this is $31million more income than HNSW forecast in the Auditor-General’s report last year.
Community housing tenants and tenants in AHO properties both managed to pay more than 101% of their rent in the most recent year report (2011-12), again showing the effect payment arrangements have on these numbers.
Next time, we’ll recap what the Productivity Commission has to say about CRA and low income households.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Please check if your blind cords are safe

This week two children – two girls, 15 and 16 months – have died after being strangled by blind cords.

As we said a few months ago, after another child – an 18-month old boy – died the same way, please:

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.

Housing economics for non-economists

Shelter NSW is again hosting its popular lecture series, 'Housing Economics for Non-Economists'.

(Housing for economists – 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, where John Maynard Keynes rented rooms)

The series is held across four Mondays – March 3, 10, 17 and 24 – from 3.45pm to 6pm, in the training room at Shelter (377–383 Sussex Street, Sydney).

Register online, or ring Shelter on (02) 9267 5733. Registrations close 28 February.

We highly recommend the series, and so does everyone we've spoken with who has attended. Register now!

Monday, February 3, 2014

It's FAIRbruary!

February is FAIRbruary at the NSW Council of Social Service (NCOSS) – and, we hope, throughout the wider community too.

NCOSS is talking about greater fairness through:
  • greater access to transport, particularly health transport; 
  • greater investment in early intervention services for vulnerable children; 
  • action to prevent electricity disconnections; and 
  • more social housing. 

There's more info on the FAIRbruary website, and all the details in NCOSS's Pre-Budget Submission for 2014-15.

Why not write a letter or email to your local MP and tell them how they can make New South Wales fairer for all its citizens.