Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Renting versus owning: interactive graphs

The Reserve Bank's recent paper on renting versus owning has been given the interactive graph treatment by the Sydney Morning Herald.

It is well-worth playing around with, particularly to get your head around the sort of comparison the Reserve Bank was making between the two tenures.

Also worth playing around with: the Economist's interactive graph of house prices in real terms and relative to incomes and rents for various countries. These are different sorts of comparisons to the RBA's, and are the more usual way of considering whether housing is over-priced.

Finally, picking up on something that is missing in the RBA's purely financial analysis, here's our own graph of rental insecurity in New South Wales. Those areas where landlords can give termination notices of just 90 days, and without any grounds, are marked black.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The big stick

Legendary tenants advocate and TU Older Tenants Project Officer, Dr Robert Mowbray, looks at who's using the 'big stick' in tenancy – that is, the Tribunal.

Big stick: a policy of acting or negotiating from a position backed by a show of strength. Origin from ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’, portion of African proverb quoted by Theodore Roosevelt.

Who were the big users of the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal (now amalgamated into the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal) in the twelve months to 30 June 2013?

Well, landlords of course …in sheer numbers. They lodged 23,888 applications in the Tenancy Division (75% of all applications) and 16,897 applications in the Social Housing Division (95% of all applications). 

But it's not as simple as that. Park residents lodged 1,739 applications in the Residential Parks Division and, indeed, this is 88% of all applications in that Division.

Looking a little deeper at the market share of each type of housing provision, a simple analysis shows that the biggest users of the Tribunal are community housing providers, with 14.5 applications for every 100 premises managed by community housing providers. They are followed by Aboriginal housing providers (13.0), Housing NSW (10.5) and park residents (7.7). And social housing tenants (including community housing tenants) are the least likely of all groups to use the Tribunal.

This can be visualised in the column chart below.

Why might this be the case? 

Let’s look first at community housing providers. There are a number of possible explanations as to why community housing providers are heavy users of the Tribunal – and in particular, why they are heavier users than Housing NSW.

Compared with public housing, community housing has fewer elderly tenants, who tend to have a stable fixed income, such as Age Pension, and also relatively stable expenditures. More of these tenants can pretty much ‘set and forget’ their rent payments which, of course, means fewer problems for Housing NSW.

Another explanation is the practices of community housing providers when dealing with rent arrears and disputes.

Housing NSW’s ‘Community Housing Access Policy’, February 2012, states:

4.4. Termination of Resident and Tenancy Agreements

Community housing providers must have fair and transparent processes in place to determine the termination of any resident agreement or a residential tenancy agreement under the Residential Tenancies Act 2010. This must include a process to advise residents and tenants about the circumstances in which a resident agreement or residential tenancy agreement may be terminated. Following a decision to terminate a residency agreement or a residential tenancy agreement, a community housing provider must issue, in writing, a notice to the resident or tenant explaining the termination and setting out a reasonable timeframe for the resident or tenant to vacate the premises. The termination of a residential tenancy agreement must be accordance with appropriate provisions under the Residential Tenancies Act 2010.

So, there is discretion for each community housing provider to decide in what circumstances they might initiate an application to the Tribunal. The policy of one Sydney-based community housing provider suggests that it uses the Tribunal as a ‘big stick’. This community housing provider applies to the Tribunal for a termination order, even though it is their expressed intention to obtain a performance order. And, they do this regularly, forking out the application fee each time.  This may or may not be common practice amongst other community housing providers.

In relation to managing rent arrears, this community housing provider’s ‘Policy and Procedures’, published on-line, states:

If a tenant is more than 14 days in rent arrears they will be served a letter for non-payment of rent, giving them 7 days to amend the arrears.
If the tenant does not respond and the arrears fall further behind, after 7 days, the Manager will issue a Notice to Terminate.
If the arrears are not cleared by the end of the Notice Period we will apply to the [NSW Consumer and Administrative Tribunal] for a Specific Performance Order where tenants have entered into a formal repayment agreement.
Where tenants have not signed a formal repayment agreement we will apply to the [NSW Consumer and Administrative Tribunal] for an order giving us vacant possession of the property and an order that the tenant pay all rent owing.
[However] at the Tribunal hearing we will not pursue an order for possession if the tenant consents to a Specific Performance Order to repay all arrears owing. If the tenant breaches this order we will apply to the Tribunal for vacant possession of the property.

The same community housing provider states:

Any Notice to Terminate issued for breach of the lease agreement will follow the same principles applied in the Eviction for Rent Arrears policy.

It is probable that community housing providers have a lower ratio of tenancies to tenancy managers compared to Housing NSW. Accordingly, they have more time to vigorously pursue disputes. This, in itself, is worth further investigation. However, in tandem with an explicit policy such as above, it will inevitably lead to a greater number of applications before the Tribunal. 

The figures for Aboriginal housing combine both properties owned by the Aboriginal Housing Office (but managed by Housing NSW) and Aboriginal community housing organisations. Their numbers are of the same order, with around 4,500 to 4,700 properties respectively. This would explain why their use of the Tribunal also is mid-way between that of Housing NSW and community housing providers.

Now let’s look at residents of residential parks. There are a number of possible explanations as to why residential park residents are heavy users of the Tribunal. 

Seventy-six percent of applications in the Residential Parks Division were about excessive rents and excessive rent increases. Because it is so costly for park residents to move, park owners have disproportionate market strength and therefore are in a position seek to extract a higher rent than may be justified. 

However, the park residents live in close proximity and enjoy solidarity in numbers. As a general rule, notices of rent increases are issued to all residents at the same time and this leads to their banding together to dispute excessive rent increases.   

Also, the more residents that dispute the rent increase then the greater the chance of success, because of the ‘comparable site fee’ argument and park owners saying things like 'we have 96 residents and only 20 of them are here – the other 76 are happy to pay the increase’.  The fact that a successful challenge often depends on numbers pushes the numbers up.

Also, unlike tenants of residential properties, residents of residential parks are not subject to no-grounds eviction and therefore are less vulnerable to retaliatory eviction for exercising their rights.

The low rate of applications from private tenants and social housing tenants requires a comment. A major reason for the smaller number of applications by private tenants would be their fear of retaliatory notice of termination. This interpretation is reinforced by results in the ‘Affordable Housing and the New South Wales Rental Market, 2014 Survey Report’, published by the Tenants’ Union of NSW on pages 11 and 12:

77% of respondents have put up with a problem or declined to assert their rights as a tenant because they were worried about adverse consequences.

It may be that social housing tenants hold the same fear. This shouldn't be the case, however, because social housing landlords are required to be more transparent. Nevertheless, in the case of social housing tenants, they may be discouraged because they are up against a big authority in their lives and a repeat player in the Tribunal. They may feel that they lack the information and skills to make their case. This is one reason why Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services are so important.  

Having said this, the higher rate of applications from private tenants than from social housing tenants is probably is probably at least partly explained by claims for return of rental bond at the end of tenancies. In the 12 months to 30 June 2013, there were 4,543 bond disputes in the Tenancy Division, compared to just 48 in the Social Housing Division. 

When considering the use of the Tribunal, we should keep in mind that Tribunal applications mean different things between different types of applicants. Applications cover a wide range of types of applications. A few examples will suffice:

       42% of applications in the Tenancy Division were lodged by private landlords seeking orders for termination for non-payment of rent.
       2% of applications in the Tenancy Division were lodged by tenants seeking orders for repairs.
       54% of applications in the Social Housing Division were lodged by social housing providers seeking orders for termination for non-payment of rent.
       1% of applications in the Social Housing Division were lodged by tenants seeking orders for repairs.
       9% of applications in the Residential Parks Division were lodged by park owners seeking orders for termination.
       76% of applications in the Residential Parks Division were lodged by park residents for orders relating to rent / excessive rent increases.

So, what's at stake is very different, depending on who is applying. When a group of park residents apply against a rent increase, what's at stake? The park operator might end up getting the same rent as as they currently get, or perhaps more (but not quite as much as they had wanted). When a landlord applies for termination, a tenants' home is at stake. Many orders sought by social housing providers for termination for non-payment of rent would have led to performance orders without the tenancy being terminated. This is the ‘big-stick’ interpretation cited above on how some community housing providers use the Tribunal.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Support Ending HIV. Support the HIV/AIDS Legal Centre

The TU supports the Ending HIV campaign resourced by ACON.

Please visit the campaign site and join in the social media promotion of the cause.

We also support our colleagues at the HIV/AIDS Legal Centre, which is currently fundraising.

As HALC supporter Michael Kirby observes,

One of the least appreciated downsides of HIV/AIDS is that it can cause serious legal problems for the people involved. This is why, from the start, I have supported HALC. I still do. It helps some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

Please consider helping out at HALC's crowdfunding page.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Overvalued Ownership

A young couple walk into a bar, and have a look at the wine list. The first wine they see is $50 a glass, and the second is a more reasonable $8. They decide to buy one of each to test this apparently amazing wine. To their surprise, the more expensive wine is only slightly nicer than the other. They conclude, quite rightly, that the first is overvalued. The comparison of two basically similar products is the gist of the analysis recently published in relation to housing by the Reserve Bank of Australia in a paper entitled "Is Housing Overvalued?"

It is an interesting approach, and not one that often appears in media, with price-to-income (such as Demographia's Housing Affordability Survey) and price-to-rent being the common measures. Whilst we don't agree with the RBA authors when they say that it doesn't matter whether house price rises are outpacing incomes when discussing whether house prices are overvalued, looking at the alternative does provide a useful insight into why people might choose one or the other.

Their answer is, at first glance, a little surprising. They find that if the house price appreciates at the same rate as it has, on average, over the last 60 years, then there's no clear financial winner between renting and owning. They go on to say that if, as the RBA expects, house prices appreciate at less than that rate then you will be better off renting than buying. The less expensive wine leaves a nicer taste in the mouth.

They do make it clear that they are only talking about the financial position, and so there may well be a premium people are willing to pay to own rather than rent. This is for a range of reasons that the authors try not to take into account, however this leaves a number of assumptions in their data that may change the numbers significantly. The authors note some of these assumptions but proceed nonetheless, dismissing them as insignificant. It is looking at only some aspects of the wine, and ignoring other factors.We'd like to take a closer look.

This form of user cost analysis relies on the person being able to make the choice. But there is no choice if you cannot afford the alternative! So this analysis is useful only for those able to choose between buying and renting effectively the same property. Having access to the finances, both cash and credit, for the deposit, stamp duty, and other sale fees limits the cohort of people making the choice to a fairly limited number.

We know for instance, that the particular market that this choice is most relevant to - first home buyers - are buying less and less property as investors take advantage.

Respondents to our own affordability survey cited being unable to buy as the main reason they rented, and while it is a small sample-size, the margin of error would need to be truly astounding to ignore the result.

Tenure costs
Whilst inevitably we need to allow some lee-way with the data, there are a couple of crucial differences between the experience of home ownership and the experience of renting that do change the financial situation.

Chiefly, the length of tenure- the paper uses an average length of home ownership of ten years as the basis of comparison. The authors note that they "exclude moving costs, which would be incurred whether one owned or rented."

This is true, though incomplete. We'll accept the average length of home ownership as 10 years, though the source for that may include investors, who buy and sell at a much faster rate. We also know that of the bonds held by the Rental Bond Board in NSW, two thirds are returned within 2 years. This is supported by our affordability survey in which 79% have moved within the last 5 years, and our respondents averaged moves every 2 years.

When excluding moving costs the authors have removed a cost that renters bare approximately 5 times as much as owners- and given we're talking about a cohort of people who are choosing whether to be renting or buying, we can't say that they simply have less stuff to move.

There are a host of costs, both economic and non-economic, related to moving including removalist fees, breaking utility and communication contracts, time spent updating records like driver's licenses, increased travel times, changing schools, and even the possibility of missing out on money entirely.

The researchers also set rent as the rental yield on a property, and leave it to sit at the rental yield every year, so that rent is effectively increasing at the same rate as the property appreciates. Given they are expecting the appreciation to occur at relatively low levels, they also come up with low rent increases year on year.

Unfortunately, this doesn't really play out in the real world. The best data we have available to compare to their data is the CPI for rent across Australia. The series runs back to September 1972, and averages 6% per year over that series- about 3% per year higher than the increases considered in the paper.

This wouldn't matter if the renter in the RBA's calculation was staying in the premises for the whole ten years. Unfortunately, they are moving about 5 times, and leasing out a vacant property is the easiest time for a landlord to increase the rent. This is an important factor that is missing from the data.

We thank the RBA for this research, as it highlights in a number of ways the inequity between renters and home owners plays out in the real world, and the gaps in knowledge in the way many policy makers talk about renting. We have created differences between home ownership and renting through legislation, taxation and expectation that make it difficult to compare the two tenure forms very simply. In other words, its possible you may be better off financially with the cheaper wine, but the headache is worse.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

NSW State Budget 2014: part 2 – where is the money coming from?

In his Budget speech, NSW State Treasurer Andrew Constance said:

  1. The money to rebuild New South Wales must come from somewhere. Our best option is to recycle capital from our existing infrastructure. It doesn't place a debt burden on our children, or a tax burden on enterprise.

Does the NSW State Government need to get its money from somewhere? From the perspective of Modern Monetary Theory, Treasurer Constance is... quite correct.

Unlike the Australian Government, which issues the national currency and so can never run out of it, the NSW State Government does not issue currency. This is a fundamental difference between the Australian Government and each of the State and Territory Governments. The NSW State Government is a currency user, and like other currency users, such as households and firms, the NSW State Government must finance its spending. It does indeed have to get money from somewhere.

Treasurer Constance indicates some of the ways in which the NSW State Government can finance its spending. Like other currency users, the NSW State Government can sell things it owns (the Treasurer's preferred method); it can also borrow money from financial institutions (which the Treasurer does not like doing). However, the NSW State Government has another means of getting money that's not available to households and firms: it can tax.

The NSW State Government uses money it collects through State taxes to finance its spending (unlike the Australian Government). This includes what it spends on interest on the money it has borrowed. It must be kept in mind, however, that the ability to raise money by taxation – that is, taking money from citizens by force of law – makes the State Government, in the eyes of lenders, a very safe prospect (AAA credited rated), and so it can borrow at lower rates than other currency users.

Which is why we find it baffling that the State Government should be so averse to debt that it won't borrow money to grow the stock of social housing... but is happy for community housing organisations to borrow for the same purpose, and will engineer intricate regulatory regimes and private sector consortia to try to make this happen, even though the State Government is innately better able to get cheap debt.  

Now let's look more closely at how the NSW State Government taxes.

The NSW State Budget predicts that for the coming year, 38 per cent of the NSW State Government's revenues will come from States taxes. (By contrast, 43 per cent will come from payments from the Australian Government; and the remaining 19 per cent will come from sales of goods and services, royalties, fines and other incomes.)

(NSW State Budget 2014, Budget Paper 2, Chapter 6)

And here's how NSW State tax revenue breaks down. The big three are: payroll tax (comprising 30 per cent of total State tax revenues), followed closely by transfer duty (AKA stamp duty – 24 per cent), then land tax (10 per cent).

(NSW State Budget 2014, Budget Paper 2, Chapter 6)

As well as raising revenue for the State Government, these taxes affect the behaviour of economic agents – in troubling ways.

Payroll tax is levied on firms at the rate of 5.45 per cent of the wages they pay to New South Wales employees above a threshold of $750 000 pa. Firms pay the tax, but because it increases the cost of putting employees on, it will cause some firms to choose not to put additional employees on, thus reducing demand for labour and hence labour's price – ie higher unemployment and lower wages. Not a happy result.

Transfer duty is levied on purchasers of property at rates applied to the value of the property bought; the rates apply progressively from 1.25 per cent up to 7 per cent on 'premium' properties above $3 million. Purchasers pay the duty, but because it otherwise increases the cost of purchasing a property, it will cause some would-be purchasers to bid less. Insofar as it discourages some would-be speculative buyers, that's a good result, but this effect also applies to other would-be purchasers, with unhappy results. In particular, people who just want to move house – to downsize, or to be closer to work, or to take up a job opportunity elsewhere – get punished by transfer duty, and as a result may not move. This makes the uses of property generally less efficient, contributes to long trips to work, and holds back economic opportunity. On balance, not a happy result.

Finally, there's land tax. Land tax is levied on owners of land at the rate of 1.6 per cent of total assessable land value above a threshold of $412 000 (increasing to two per cent on total values above $2 519 000). Land tax is levied annually, regardless of the amount of income – if any – the owner has derived from the land. This means the burden of land tax cannot be passed on by owners to the users of land (ie tenants), because owners cannot defer the liability while holding out for a higher price to cover it (contrast, say, a sales tax, which is payable only when the sale is made, thus allowing the vendor to hold out).

It also means that owners are encouraged to put land to productive use – or sell it to someone who will. This tends to discourage speculative hoarding and reduce the cost of land, making housing more affordable.

And, by its nature, land cannot be taken out of the jurisdiction or hidden – making land tax hard to avoid – and its supply cannot be reduced.

Finally, keep in mind that the increases in value that land tax gets at are increases that come from the economic development of the community generally (such as developments in transport infrastructure, and developments in uses of adjoining sites). Taxing these increases allows them to be 'recycled' for community use, rather than leaving them to accumulate, unearned, to the land owner.
These are the numerous happy results of land tax... the trouble is that we don't get anywhere near the full benefit of them, because of the defective way in which land tax is applied in New South Wales. Far too much land has been made exempt from land tax: in particular, land used for owner-occupied housing, which accounts for about 60 per cent (by dollar value) of the potential tax base. This undermines the discouragement of speculation in land and makes housing more expensive.

There's other problems too: the threshold is too high ($412 000 cannot be justified as an exemption for low-cost housing) and the increasing marginal rates discourage large institutions, such as super funds, from owning residential rental properties.

The NSW State Government should be making much greater use of land tax, both for the revenue it the Government needs, and the encouragement land tax – properly applied – gives to productive economic activity and housing affordability. The NSW State Government should broaden the land tax base to include owner-occupied housing, reform the structure of the rates, and replace other taxes that burden work and enterprise.

Read the TU's land tax policy here.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Aboriginal Tenants' Services, serving country

During NAIDOC Week 2014 we've recognised the contribution Indigenous Australians make to our country and our society. Specifically, we've talked about Serving Country, marking the centenary of World War I and paying tribute to Australia's Indigenous service men and women throughout the years.
As NAIDOC Week wraps up today, we'd like to pay tribute to another kind of service: the Aboriginal Tenants' Advice Services in New South Wales. These services are run by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people, and they do an incredible job. Recently the TU's Aboriginal Legal Team paid a visit to one of these services, where they spoke to Legendary Tenants' Advocate and service Coordinator, Jim Allen.
Interviewed by Galit Aflalo and John Mewburn during the Tenants’ Union Service Visit of 4 July 2014

Why did you first decide to be a tenants’ advocate?
It wasn’t a decision to become a tenants’ advocate, I have always been involved in Aboriginal affairs, whether it be Land Rights movements or trying to work through the issues to get more and better housing for Aboriginal people. A position became available in tenancy advocacy and it was a bridge between my work at a community level and paid employment.
Housing has always been one of the basic human rights that Aboriginal people have been denied for as long as occupation of Australia has taken place. Aboriginal people have been made to be fringe dwellers, their own land has been taken from them. Aboriginal people have been put onto missions, segregated from the white community and denied the basic human right of housing. Aboriginal people are still being denied the basic right of proper housing today in 2014.

In your view, how and why have Aboriginal people been the denied the basic right of proper housing?
It goes back to the original white settlement of Australia, the colonialisation of this country. White settlers expelled Aboriginal people from this land. In doing that, they segregated Aboriginal people away from the white development that took place in the 200 years that followed.
If you segregate people away from a developing economy, leave them out of a financial system, leave them out of the education system, steal their wages, steal their children, push them onto missions, put them into homes, incarcerate them and don’t allow them to be a part of the overall development, at some point in time there is going to be poverty amongst that segregated group of people.
The segregated ‘White Australia’ policies of government have left Aboriginal people without employment, without education and higher education, without positions in medicine, science, agriculture, mining and has left Aboriginal people out of the wealth and financial system.
All of the things that white people enjoy have been denied to Aboriginal people over 200 years.
Racism has denied Aboriginal people the same choices as other Australians. Racism has allowed Aboriginal people to be left behind.
When you leave Aboriginal people out of the financial and legal system, it is easy to stigmatise Aboriginal people for not being able to read or write, not being able to own or care for a house, not being able to abide by white man’s law. Aboriginal people have been stigmatised for their disadvantage over 200 years.
If we had walked together side by side as a country, walked together as equals, we would have developed in step with each other. Instead, today we have high rates of suicide, alcoholism, high infant mortality, suicide, poverty and disadvantage amongst Aboriginal people
If we had walked together side by side as a country, we would have all had the same standards of living today. If we had walked together as a country, there would be less racism and disadvantage today.

Could you describe some of the policies that have impacted on the state of repair of Aboriginal Housing in NSW?
It is a fact that the vast majority of Aboriginal people now are reliant on social housing and that can be government managed social housing or Aboriginal managed social housing. The two systems have not walked side-by-side in their development.
Where government managed social housing is financially supported by the government, Aboriginal managed social housing has been left without financial support for 40 or 50 years.
The locations where most of our Aboriginal communities have been able to acquire housing are usually on the former reserves and missions. The former reserves and missions do not receive local shire council support or funding for roads, the delivery of power, garbage collection, water or sewerage and therefore the liability falls with the local community, a local community that has minimal government support.
Once again, Aboriginal housing is now in a state of wholesale disrepair. Governments are still saying that they will not financially support further development or capital growth for Aboriginal housing even when all of the statistical data states that we need thousands of more houses across the country to meet the homelessness, the overcrowding and the aging stock of some of the housing that is 40, 50 and 60 years old.

What do you see as the three key tenancy issues for Aboriginal tenants in NSW?
The three key issues would be:
(i)              Repairs and maintenance issues;
(ii)            Overcrowding;
(iii)          Policy around housing that addresses the uniqueness of Aboriginal culture.
Aboriginal people often get into difficulty because of their close kinship ties and the visitors that may come and go during the course of the tenancy. This could be seen as breaching public housing policy regarding noise and overcrowding. This could also lead to a tenant’s rent subsidy being cancelled because there are constantly other people staying at the social housing property.
All Aboriginal people still have strong associations through family, clans and their tribes that have evolved over thousands of years. Those associations still exist today. Our people will travel from one end of the coast to the other and stay with their relatives and they are passing through many many towns. This happens constantly. This places a burden on those people they visit who are living in social housing. Social housing managers don’t understand it, neighbours don’t understand it and it becomes a crisis point in most tenancies at one point or another. Housing policy doesn’t allow for extended family and the relationships that we have with the extended family, our clans and our tribal history.
For example, if there is a funeral in Wilcannia, there are no motel rooms around so all visiting family members will stay in the tenancies of their relatives. If there are a lot of funerals in Wilcannia over a particular period, there will be a lot of Aboriginal people staying with their relatives and you will see a lot of notices of termination issued for overcrowding. There is no understanding of that cultural difference in public housing policy.

What have been some of your most rewarding moments as an Aboriginal tenants’ advocate?
My most rewarding moments have been when I have been able to save an Aboriginal family from an unjust outcome. When I say unjust, I mean when all of the facts become available and it might be through a Tribunal, that we save a tenancy that was definitely going to be ended because the social housing provider had not really fulfilled what they should have done in trying to sustain a tenancy and have unjustly taken action that they shouldn’t have taken. In terms of an Aboriginal family, I mean a mum and dad and children.
When I walk away from the house, when I know them people are going to have a place to stay and all them little children are not going to be homelessness tonight, that makes me really happy.

What has been your most disappointing moment as an Aboriginal tenants’ advocate?
The most disappointing moment is when good people in social or public housing management don’t do the right thing and allow unjust treatment of our people.

What are some of the key challenges that Murra Mia encounters in advising Aboriginal tenants?
A major challenge is our lack of resources. We only have 5 workers and we cover a geographical area that you could fit France, Belgium, Switzerland, England, Ireland and Wales into.

What is the value of community partnerships and relationships to the outcomes that Murra Mia achieves?
Without community partnerships or working agreements with all involved in housing, Murra Mia would be unable to provide not only advocacy at a basic level but advocacy at a policy and tenancy management level.
Murra Mia highly regard the strong networks, the working partnerships that we have developed over 17 or 18 years with social housing providers, Housing NSW, community housing providers, the Aboriginal housing sector and land councils right across our geographical area. Those partnerships and working networks allow us to advocate for Aboriginal tenants in every part of our working region.

What key development would you like to see in the Aboriginal tenancy sector in the next year?
Housing NSW, the Aboriginal Housing Office, the Aboriginal Tenants Advocacy Services and other associated agencies and NGOs need to work towards developing an in-depth policy document around sustaining Aboriginal tenancies in social and public housing.

What key messages would you like to give to Aboriginal tenants before they first enter into a tenancy agreement?
Keep any documents relating to your tenancy and have them stored in a secure place.
You need to keep your lease, ingoing report and any letters from your landlord. You need to reply to the letters from your landlord. Most of all, you need to keep all documentation and rent receipts.
Try and maintain a positive, secure home.
Any Aboriginal person who gets into a conflict in their tenancy needs to contact their local Aboriginal Tenancy Service. We have got extensive networks and we are highly professional advocates. We are experienced representatives at the Tribunal and through conciliation and mediation with Housing, real estate agents and all landlords.
The TAAS network has the highest reputation and does an incredible job around sustaining tenancies for Aboriginal people in the rental system.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

NAIDOC Week 2014

From the TU's Aboriginal Paralegal, John Mewburn:

It is once again that time of the year that the Tenants Union’ of NSW celebrates NAIDOC Week to recognise contributions that Indigenous Australians make to our country and our society.

For those who don’t know, NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. This year’s theme is ‘Serving Country: Centenary and Beyond’, honouring all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have fought in defence of country.

(Artist: Harry Alfred Pitt)

Aboriginal people have been part of every theatre of war from Federation to now. It’s estimated that approximately 500 Indigenous soldiers fought in World War I and 5,000 in World War 2. This was at a time when Indigenous people weren’t considered Australian citizens, they weren’t counted in the census and most couldn’t vote.

Despite the discrimination Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers faced, many Indigenous Australians still enlisted to serve their country. This year’s theme is about ensuring the proper recognition for all Indigenous soldiers. In particular highlighting the sacrifices that have been made and the heroics and bravery that has been, and continues to be, displayed.

A couple of months ago Ned reflected on war, Aboriginal country and Australia's development as a property-owning society: read it here.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

LIAC cut

The Legal Information Access Centre (LIAC) is a specialist information service of the State Library of NSW. Since 1990 LIAC has done a great job by making specialist legal research services, and plain English legal information and educational resources – including the TU's Tenants' Rights Manual – available to the general public.

But now LIAC's funding (from the Public Purpose Fund) has been cut.

We understand that LIAC will continue to operate, but there will be no longer a specialist information service point staffed by legal librarians, nor specialist support for HSC Legal Studies students.

We hope full funding is restored to this valuable service. Please consider telling your local State MP how much you value LIAC.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Life in a share house: from personality clashes to great parties

By way of introduction to today's article, a mini entry into the Institute of Tenancy Culture Studies. Many years ago the Sandman character shared his wisdom about living in a sharehouse, presenting a view of sharehouse living in line with the raucous, chaotic lifestyle portrayed in other Tenancy Culture Studies entrants like The Young Ones, or a possible future article, He Died with a Felafel in his Hand.

However, todays' real guest appearance is Glyn Mather, Residential Parks Project Officer at the Tenants' Union of NSW. Glyn looks a bit more seriously into the experience of living in a sharehouse. She shared accommodation for more than twenty years in about a dozen places and talked to several other people with different experiences.

You’re a student and you’re living in shared accommodation of some kind, probably because that’s what you can afford. There are problems and frustrations but also great benefits that mean you might decide to keep living like this for many years.

As someone who survived a variety of shared accommodation styles, I was interested to hear about other people’s experiences. I spoke to seven people who had shared for between six months and twenty years, in two to ten places.

It turns out that they were quite positive about sharing. Brian for instance said it meant that, “You could be sharing in a nice house instead of living in a poky bedsit.” They had met difficulties but generally these were outweighed by the benefits.

The most frequent problem raised was getting the bond back when leaving. Almost everyone I spoke to had stories to tell of either losing the bond or having to fight to get it back. Rhys put it this way: “They sting you at the end about the bond.” The best way round this is to make sure the ingoing condition report clearly lists the damage existing when you move in – this is well worth arguing about if necessary – and take photos of any damaged areas.

Personality clashes are also a concern, and “people’s personal habits” as Ed put it – but don’t be alarmed. There are indeed horror stories of people causing disruption and even fear in households, but those people usually end up moving out of the household. Remember though that you can contact the police or mental health services if you are concerned for your safety.

No-one felt they properly understood their rights as tenants, except for Milly who had sought out information, “because they kept our bond and wanting to know our rights after that.” When people strike problems they tend to discuss them with friends and family.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence for payment of bills as a source of conflict and Ed said that, “there’s always someone who doesn’t pay on time.” This can be especially problematic if it’s your name on the utility account since you are then liable for any debt. Although leases are often done in multiple names, this is rare for utility accounts. There is little legal recourse here so the best approach is to establish a clear agreement from the beginning about how the bills will be shared, for example everyone could put in a certain amount each week or divide the bill equally when it is due.

The behaviour of landlords and agents may be an important factor in your life. For my sample there were two main sources of annoyance. One was interference, such as landlords turning up unannounced even though they are obliged to give notice. The other was maintenance, as Sara put it: “The property maintenance and repair were pretty sloppy in both places.” Brian had found that, “quite often the landlord wants to do it themselves and it’s not the best.” A further problem Milly raised related to a situation where each person paid their rent separately to the agent: “The real estate agent couldn’t keep track of it and we had no control over monitoring it inside the house.” 

Unless the situation becomes extreme, in all these cases the main solution is to hold your ground with the landlord or agent – you are entitled to live in a place in a reasonable state of repair, and have reasonable peace, comfort and privacy.
So far it all sounds like doom and gloom! But everyone I spoke to said the reduction in rent made share housing worthwhile overall as well as the capacity for pooling resources (such as electrical appliances) and the sharing of housework.

Then there are the social benefits such as “companionship” and “great parties”. People said, “it’s a lot of fun when it works”, “it’s like having an extended family”, “I get to expand my circle” and “meet new people”. There’s a great deal of pleasure in sharing our lives with others, not just co-residents but their friends too.

So find out your rights, establish ground rules for cleanliness, bills and the like, and test out the people you might live with before you begin if you can. But remember, “When it works it’s just fantastic, I wouldn’t have it any other way” as Rhys said.

For more info, check out the Redfern Legal Centre’s share housing survival guide: sharehousing.org and Factsheet 15, Share Housing, at tenants.org.au.