Thursday, October 30, 2014

Tenancy Culture Studies: I'm interested in apathy

The Institute of Tenancy Culture Studies returns with a quick look at TISM's song "I'm interested in apathy". There's a clever irony in the title (perhaps you spotted it?) which really gives us something to think about.

In a couple of recent-ish articles about Australia's housing system, and the way it leaves first home buyers (aka tenants) behind, economist Saul Eslake has said:
"I'm surprised there isn't more anger among young people about the way in which the housing system has been rigged against them by their parents" (SMH 5/4/14)
"In some ways I'm surprised there isn't more anger among young people about how the housing market has advantaged older people" (AFR 27/9/14)
It's something that occurs to us as well. But are we really as relaxed and comfortable as all that?

Does Australia's housing system make you angry? Does it make you burn with resentment for those wealthy enough to buy, or at least canny enough to buy before it became impossible? Are you merely resigned to a new reality, where owning a home is little more than an aspirational flight-of-fancy for people on extravagant incomes?

Or are you simply not concerned?

In a survey we conducted earlier in the year, we asked tenants in New South Wales to tell us why they rent. 57% of our respondents said it was because they couldn't afford to buy. By comparison, 15% said they were happy to rent because it was cheaper than buying where they wanted to live.

We also asked tenants if they were satisfied with their current housing, and 68% said they were. In the same survey, 92% said they'd worry about finding another place to rent if the landlord asked them to move.

... and worry they should. Because in New South Wales your landlord can ask you to move without giving you any reason at all.

And if that doesn't make you just a little bit angry, then we don't know what will.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Real waste

The NSW State Finance Minister, Dominic Perrottet, recently wrote an article on government finances and government 'waste'. The Minister notes all manner of waste – CBD heritage buildings used as government offices, government car fleet maintenance, warehouses of paper records – but he misses the most appalling waste over which governments preside.

 (Russell Drysdale, The Deserted Town Hall)

That's the waste of leaving 219 000 persons unemployed (5.7 per cent of the New South Wales labour force) and a further 303 000 persons underemployed (6.2 per cent). Across Australia, 747 000 persons are unemployed, and 1.05 million are underemployed.

That's a big part of our labour resources not working to capacity – and in many instances, simply standing idle. And that's an appalling waste, in terms of the skills and abilities of these people; their aspirations, dignity and sense of worth; and the additional goods and services that they would otherwise have produced and made available to the rest of us.

Indeed, some of them might have the skills and ability to do office fit-outs, maintain cars, digitise paper and solve other problems that frustrate government ministers and their fellow citizens. In the area of our particular interest, some could help build houses, or repair them, or get activities going in local communities to simply make life more interesting and enjoyable.

All this may be had simply by paying them a wage. The private sector isn't doing it and won't – in fact, it can't, where it also wants to accumulate net financial assets (not to mention pay taxes).

Instead, the money to pay wages for jobs for the otherwise unemployed must come from the non-private sector – in particular, the Australian Government, which should embrace its role in eliminating the waste of idle labour by becoming the employer of last resort (or, putting it more positively, operating a Job Guarantee).

In returning for socially useful work, the Government would pay a living wage, which would thereby become the effective minimum wage in the private sector too. It would make for the economy a buffer stock of employed labour, rather than than unemployed labour, and a mechanism for stabilising wages, other prices, and the currency.

And the Australian Government would pay for this by simply crediting the bank accounts of Job Guarantee employees. The total amount spent would depend on the state of the wider economy – in a recession, when the private sector sheds jobs, the program would grow; and when the private sector is growing, rising incomes and wages would draw labour out of the program – but in any event, the amount spent would be the appropriate amount to maintain full employment. And as issuer of the Australian currency, the Australian Government can always afford whatever is for sale in Australian dollars, including unemployed labour.

The Government's role in the elimination of wasteful unemployment is occluded, however, by misconceptions about the Government and money. The Finance Minister perpetuates them when he writes:

the overarching obligation of politicians is to the taxpayers who fund us. Governments do not actually earn, own or generate any money of their own. Our funds only exist because we tax the labor and efforts of our citizens and businesses. They keep their part of the social contract by entrusting us with this money.  We need to keep ours by using it wisely. [Emphasis added.]

This does not reflect the true position of the Australian Government, and it hardly reflects that of the NSW State Government either (which does not issue currency, and which does spend monies raised by taxation, but which is nonetheless part of a federal system that has placed the power to issue currency with the Australian Government and which gets a bit less than half its funds directly from the Australian Government).

Taxpayers do not 'entrust' money to government. They give it up, more or less willing, as part of participating in an economy with a sovereign currency. Government keeps its part of the bargain by using its special role as issuer of the currency to allow all citizens to participate and contribute, through work, to the wealth of the whole community.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Vale Gough Whitlam

Gough Whitlam has died. Whitlam was Prime Minister for two abbreviated terms of government (1972-74 and 1974-75) and the greatest egalitarian reformer to hold that office.

We reviewed the Whitlam Government's achievements in housing and urban policy in our series on the centenary of public housing in New South Wales. It's extracted below.

Whitlam's most ambitious initiative was the creation of a new Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD), conceived of as 'virtually co-equal with the Treasury', to coordinate the  allocation of urban resources by all levels of government. Under Minister Tom Uren, DURD programs included the establishment of the State land banks (Landcom in New South Wales) to better manage suburban development; funding for suburban sewerage; and the development of Area Improvement Plans that brought together and directly funded local governments to plan and work on local and regional infrastructure.

Early in its first term, the Whitlam Government also negotiated a new Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement (CSHA), which made a few notable changes to public housing policy. Whitlam had gone to the election critical of the recent decline in building activity by State public housing authorities, and promising instead to 'request each State authority to estimate the funds it will require to reduce the waiting period for houses to twelve months.' The 1973 CSHA didn't quite do that (fastforward to the present and see how far waiting lists have run out here), but it increased funding, reined in sales of public housing dwellings, and stabilised the level of construction for a time.

The new CSHA also slightly shifted the target of public housing policy. Traditionally directed at working class households, and exclusive of very poor and vulnerable persons (you could be knocked back by the Housing Commission's allocations committees if you didn't keep your current house well, or had too many children), State housing authorities were henceforth required to make not less than 80 per cent of public housing allocations to households whose incomes were not more than 80 per cent of the average. This attempted to balance responsiveness to households in need with the system's need for higher income households.

Apart from the CSHA, DURD purchased and rehabilitated old dwellings at Glebe and Woolloomooloo for public housing, and demonstrated an alternative approach to redevelopment at a time when the NSW Housing Commission was at the height of its enthusiasm for 'slum clearance' and high-rise construction. The first programs for Aboriginal housing on principles of self-determination were also commenced. And under its Australian Assistance Plan, the Whitlam Government established Regional Councils for Social Development and funded other local, non-profit organisations to employ community development workers and improve the social fabric of public housing estates and other disadvantaged areas.

Finally, the Whitlam Government initiated the first steps towards tenancy law reform, by expanding the scope of the Inquiry into Poverty (originally commissioned by the McMahon Government) to include a report, by Adrian Bradbrook, into the landlord-tenant relationship, which set out the basic model of residential tenancies legislation subsequently enacted by (with considerable differences in the details, and delays in the commencement) by the State and Territory Governments.

No subsequent Federal Government has been so active in housing and urban policy. If you live in or visit a place like Claymore (which we visited recently with IUT Secretary -General Magnus Hammar), where residents and community workers meet around a table in a community laundry to connive at ways of getting and keeping basic facilities and resources like decent houses, footpaths, parks and playgrounds, and the occasional bus-run to shops that don't rip you off, you'll see the continuing relevance of Whitlam's agenda. Both sides of politics should see that it's time for a strong and just housing and urban policy again.

We hope the remembrance of Whitlam today revitalises egalitarian principles in Australian politics and policy.

Vale Gough Whitlam.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Children in rental housing

It's NSW Children's Week 2014, and on Wednesday Australia observes Universal Children's Day. Both are occasions to 'celebrate the right of children to enjoy childhood' and to 'consider those conditions in society which affect the lives and future of our own children.'

About a quarter of all persons living in rental housing in New South Wales are children aged 14 years and younger. The rate is even higher amongst Aboriginal households: about half of all Aboriginal persons living in rental housing are children (14 years and younger).

The NSW State Government promotes NSW Children's Week and Universal Children's Day, and we'd like it to keep in mind how these children may be affected by tenancy laws.

In particular, when the government allows tenancies to be terminated without grounds, on 90 days notice (or just 30 days notice, when at the end of a fixed term), it makes the housing of children needlessly insecure.

And when, as the landlord of the State's 110 000 public housing tenancies, it thinks about 'getting tough' and evicting tenants, it should consider that they are getting tough on vulnerable children too. 

We're thinking in particular of where there's been a 'use of the premises for an illegal purpose' – most often, but not always, drug offences. Housing NSW already undertakes 'illegal use' termination proceedings, including where it means people not involved in the illegality – including kids – may lose their housing. Under the current law, you can at least ask the Tribunal not to terminate, considering the circumstances of the case (eg kids would lose their housing; court has seen fit to order non-custodial sentence; offence not actually committed by tenant), and the Tribunal will make up its own mind. 

We understand, however, that the NSW State Government is currently considering a proposal to change the law in this regard, such that when Housing NSW takes these proceedings, the Tribunal would have no choice but to terminate. This change would produce serious injustice, particularly where children and other blameless persons would be evicted into homelessness. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Storm damage

We hope you got through the storm in one piece.

If you need it, you can find our storm damage factsheet here, and your local TAAS can give you further information and advice.

A thought for Anti-Poverty Week: a colleague at Homelessness NSW estimates that about 300 people would have been out in the storm last night, 'sleeping rough'.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Anti-Poverty Week 2014

It's Anti-Poverty Week, when everyone is encouraged to get a discussion going about poverty: its causes and consequences, and what we can do to do end it.

The TU will be hosting a discussion with the Federation of Community Housing Associations and other housing sector workers about social housing rent policies – including how aspects of current policies discourage work and trap social housing tenants in poverty. 

As for what you might do: what about a letter to the paper or your MP? About how speculation has changed the shape of the rental market and led to the loss of low-cost housing? Or how cutting young people's social security entitlements could damage their housing prospects, and hence their employment prospects? Or how governments don't really 'deliver' surpluses – they take surpluses, and this is incompatible with sustainable economic growth and full employment? 

There's no shortage of things to talk about....

Friday, October 10, 2014

Tools for Success (and eviction)

Women living in social housing can apply for a $5 000 scholarship to help them train for a trade, under the Tools for Success program announced this week by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services.

This is a great opportunity for social housing tenants, and a great initiative by NSW FACS.

Not so great is the fact that if a public housing tenant actually takes up the opportunity and gets a job paying more than a certain amount, Housing NSW will terminate her tenancy at the end of its fixed term.  

And even if she's not near the threshold, she might think twice about doing any overtime, because Housing NSW will take up to 55 cents in each additional dollar she earns, because of its higher rent rates for 'moderate income' earners.

The State Government is to be commended for initiatives like Tools for Success, but it hobbles these initiatives, and the efforts and aspirations of public housing tenants themselves, with policies – reviews as to continuing eligibility, and moderate income rent rates – that discourage work.

To make a success of Tools for Success, Housing NSW should abolish those policies and make it so that public housing tenants have nothing to lose from training and working.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Agents and their commitments

Now seems as good a time as any to remind tenants that the real estate agent you deal with may not be the person you think they are.

Talking with tenants, we find many who think of the agent either as 'their' agent, or as an impartial intermediary between themselves and the landlord.

But neither is true. The agent is always your landlord's agent. The agent may be helpful to you, kind, with a GSOH... but always remember, they act for the landlord, and look out for your landlord's interests – not for you or yours. The agent promises faithful service to the landlord – in return for money, paid by the landlord.

Where a person, for reward, carries on business as an agent for a real estate transaction, rent collection, or other property management services, they are required to be licensed under the Property Stock and Business Agents Act 2002 (NSW) (section 8). That Act imposes numerous obligations on agents, including rules of conduct in relation to anyone with whom the agent deals: for example, an agent must act 'honestly, fairly and professionally with all parties in a transaction' and  'not mislead or deceive any parties' (PSBA Reg 2014, Schedule 1, clause 3(a) and (b)). They must also 'not engage in high pressure tactics, harassment or harsh or unconscionable conduct' (Schedule 1, clause 5). They must also not ask a person to sign a document unless all material particulars have been inserted (Schedule 1, clause 16) and must provide a copy of the document to the person who signed (Schedule 1, clause 17).

But those rules also make clear that the agent must act in the client's best interests and in accordance with the client's instructions, except where doing so would be unlawful (Schedule 1, clauses 6 and 9). And in the case of a tenancy, the agent's client is always the landlord. 

There are also rules of conduct that relate specifically to rental property management. An agent must accompany a prospective tenant on any inspection of a property, and must not give the keys to the prospective tenant even for a short time (Schedule 2, clause 11). They must promptly respond to and 'subject to the instructions of the owner, attend to' your requests for repairs (Schedule 2, clause 13(a)) – and if the landlord's refusal to do a repair would be a breach of your agreement, the agent has to tell them so (clause 13(b)). And if you are in breach of the tenancy agreement, the agent must immediately tell the landlord (Schedule 2, clause 14). If the agent becomes aware that the property is for sale, they must immediately notify you in writing (Schedule 2, clause 15). Finally, the agent must not ask you to sign a claim form for the bond before the end of your tenancy, unless all the bond is being paid to you (Schedule 2, clause 17), and when your tenancy does end, they must take all reasonable steps to ensure that the final inspection is done in your presence.

All these things are useful to know, and if you ever need to you can remind the agent of their obligations under the PSBA Act. And if the agent breaches these obligations, you could make a complaint to NSW Fair Trading about it. But that's not going to get you a remedy. In most cases, you would be better off considering whether the agent's misconduct is a breach of the tenancy agreement between you and the landlord, and dealing with it that way. After all, because the agent is your landlord's agent, your landlord is ultimately responsible for the things the agent does, and doesn't do, on their behalf.

So, for example, if the agent is not responding to your emails about a repair that needs doing, don't worry too much about whether it is a breach of the agent's obligation under Schedule 2, clause 13(a) of the PSBA Reg – treat it as a breach of your landlord's obligation under your tenancy agreement to provide and maintain the premises in a reasonable state of repair, and proceed accordingly.

And if, on the other hand, the agent gives you advice on how to deal with a tenancy issue, or promises to do something for you, that's all well and good, but keep your wits about you, and don't rely on what the agent says. Speak with a TAAS instead – they look out for tenants' interests.

Monday, October 6, 2014

International Tenants Day

Happy International Tenants Day!

(Artwork from the TUACT's International Tenants Day Art Competition and Exhibition)

We hope you enjoy the long weekend. Your Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services will be back at work on Tuesday, answering calls for phone advice (they took more than 22 000 phone advice calls last year), advocating for tenants in communications with landlords and agents (more than 4 600 cases last year) and representing tenants in Tribunal proceedings (more than 2 000 cases last year).
They're funded to do this work with interest generated on tenants' money – that is, the $1 billion in tenants' bonds lodged at the Rental Bond Board, and monies in agents' statutory trust accounts. We think using interest on tenants' money is an excellent way to fund services for the benefit of tenants.
However, as we noted previously, most of the interest on tenants' money does not go to services for the benefit of tenants.
Worse, the amount that goes to TAASs has not increased in real terms in 12 years – even though the number of tenancies has grown by 25 per cent in that time.
This means TAASs are stretched thin, and tenants are missing out on the services they need and deserve.
We're asking the NSW Government to increase funding to TAASs by $5.15 million per annum now, and to ensure that going forward, funding grows in line with the number of tenancies.
That $5.15 million would restore value to TAAS funding, as well as properly fund the duty advocacy that TAASs do at the Tribunal, and an additional much-needed Aboriginal TAAS for southwest New South Wales.  
This is affordable – after paying its share of the increase, the Bond Board's interest account would still be running a surplus – and a fairer use of tenants' money.
Please, let your State MP know that you want more of your money to go to your services – the TAASs. 

Labour Day

Of course, it's also Labour Day. As a thought for the day we offer a quote from John Maynard Keynes, on employment and government spending. It's as relevant today as when he wrote it, in 1929.

The Conservative belief that there is some law of nature which prevents men from being employed, that it is ‘rash’ to employ men, and that it is financially ‘sound’ to maintain a tenth of the population in idleness for an indefinite period, is crazily improbable – the sort of thing which no man could believe who had not had his head fuddled with nonsense for years and years.
The objections which are raised are mostly not the objections of experience or of practical men. They are based on highly abstract theories – venerable, academic inventions, half misunderstood by those who are applying them today, and based on assumptions which are contrary to the facts . . .
Our main task, therefore, will be to confirm the reader’s instinct that what seems sensible is sensible, and what seems nonsense is nonsense. We shall try to show him that the conclusion, that if new forms of employment are offered more men will be employed, is as obvious as it sounds and contains no hidden snags; that to set unemployed men to work on useful tasks does what it appears to do, namely, increases the national wealth; and that the notion, that we shall, for intricate reasons, ruin ourselves financially if we use this means to increase our well-being, is what it looks like – a bogy.

Read more about contemporary proposals for a government-funded Job Guarantee in the series of posts, beginning here, at New Economic Perspectives.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Farewell, Animal

A public housing tenant died recently. When his friends went to sort through his flat, they found boxes and boxes of gifts. Christmas gifts, for children, hospital patients and others in the local area. This wasn't surprising, as this tenant was well known for giving gifts. He'd been doing it every year for decades.

Animal OAM, also known as Randall Nelson, or the Kings Cross Santa, thoroughly deserves all the praise that will be heaped upon him at his funeral tomorrow in Kings Cross. He made an enormous impact on the lives of people around him.
To us, he represents the big heart, the resilience and the generosity of thousands of public housing tenants in the state who give back to their communities.
The unkempt hair, browning teeth and deafening motorcycle roar were part of Animal's package, but to dismiss a person merely on how they present themselves, or where they live, is foolish in the extreme. In his case, you would have missed out on humour, spirit and an unrelenting dedication to his cause.
In the case of other public housing tenants around the state you would be dismissing mums, brothers, lunch ladies, cleaners, community workers, politicians, entertainers, and sportspeople. Their contributions aren't always as visible as Animal's have been, but they do make a difference in the lives of people around them.

Boarding House Residents Stories: Ronald

Welcome to our series of Boarding House Residents Stories exploring a range of residents experiences in boarding houses. The stories have been collected and written by Sally Chalmers, Resources & Development, Boarding House Services, Newtown Neighbourhood Centre.

When he was a young man, Ronald Bell moved with family to Sydney where they lived in a boarding house in Pyrmont for five years. The place had eight rooms, board was $2 per week and included a furnished room with a laundry service.

It was close to the railways where Ronald and the boys worked doing mail runs across NSW. He laughs as he tells a story about catching (and occasionally missing) the mail bag with a giant hook!
At that time, boarding houses were for men only and mostly housed people from country areas, who needed somewhere affordable to stay while they visited or worked in the city.

When his father passed away, Ronald moved to another boarding house in Glebe where he lived for 10 years. Again this place had eight rooms, all the residents worked, and there were never any problems living there. You got good cheap accommodation for a good price.

Visitors were allowed, and sometimes stayed over. Ronald talks about sleeping on the floor in his room or another resident’s room when someone came to stay with him. There was no curfew or visiting hours, but all residents tended to respect one another’s privacy. There were furnished communal areas inside and out where residents got together and socialised. As there were a number of bathrooms and a good-sized kitchen with working appliances, there were seldom issues with sharing facilities. The house was well kept by the owner.

Ronald has been living in a Newtown boarding house since 1983. His only remaining family connection lives outside of Sydney.

The boarding house has 10 rooms and he says that he loves living there. He knows all of the residents – even the 18 year old! He feels as though there is a sense of community in the house.

Sometimes the other guys check in on him and see if he wants help with washing or chores. Although the house is old and could do with some repairs, it doesn’t bother him.

Ronald’s room is small but homely and hundreds of his drawings and DVDs cover every available space, with a big TV in the middle. He loves his Meals on Wheels, which he heats up in his microwave. He is very content with his private space in a communal house. He doesn’t have to be social all the time but can join other residents when he feels like it. Ronald is spending a lot more time in his room of late. He used to get out regularly for shopping and social outings but he is due for a hip replacement in coming months.

Although he lives on the ground floor, the steep steps up to the front door are more and more difficult as time goes by. He’s hoping the boarding house manager will invest in a rail soon.

Ronald's story originally appeared in the Tenant News #107. For more information on boarding houses, why not subscribe to Onboard, our new e-bulletin all about Boarding Houses? For individual advice about issues in a boarding house, or any tenancy issues, contact your local Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Young people, welfare, housing and work

The Federal Government's Budget proposal to deny social security payments for 26 weeks to young people out of work is in breach of human rights, says the Federal Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Australian Council of Social Services and the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition agree, and so do we.

On the other side of the argument, the Social Security Minister has justified the denial of payments as 'a measure to address youth unemployment by encouraging young people to accept jobs rather than relying on income support at the risk of becoming disengaged – both socially and economically', while another Government member thinks that young people 'in this space' would just spend those payments on cheezels and video games.

The 26-week no-payment period poses a greater threat to young people's social and economic engagement and employment prospects than MSG-laden extruded cheese snacks.

The 26-week no-payment period means young people out of work wont be able to pay their rents. That's bad news for young people out of work – and bad news for young people in work, because landlords and agent will see them as a riskier proposition, and will be less inclined to rent to them.

We were speaking last week with a regional TAAS advocate, who despaired of the 26-week no-payment proposal for just this reason. She explained that in the far-flung catchment of her service, there are some towns with very high rates of youth unemployment and no jobs going, and other towns where the unemployment rate is lower, and jobs can be found. To get a job, those unemployed youths will have to move towns – and they'll need somewhere to live. As the advocate said:

If they're lucky, those boys might be able to line up a job, but if they cannot line up somewhere to rent, they can't take the job up!
 Damage young people's housing prospects, and you damage their mobility and hence their employment prospects. The 26-week no-payment period does this and should not proceed.