22 September 2015
(Debate, 17 September 2015, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
I commence my contribution by putting on the record the Minister's willingness to listen to community concerns and to make improvements through amendments to the Residential Tenancies and Housing Legislation Amendment (Public Housing—Antisocial Behaviour) Bill 2015. I also acknowledge in general the time that he spends meeting with public housing tenants from my electorate and a number of other electorates. I understand the rationale for this bill—it is based on a number of meetings and discussions that the Minister has had. However, I still have concerns about the bill.
While the overwhelming majority of social housing tenants are law abiding and good neighbours who care about their homes and community, I have seen instances of dysfunction and intimidation of vulnerable tenants and agree that the Government must work to ensure safety in social housing estates and to protect all tenants. The current system already provides for the eviction of tenants who cause serious problems—at the discretion of the tribunal based on specific circumstances.
Under the original bill, the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal [NCAT] was to lose discretion to refuse an application to evict a tenant when the tenant or someone living in his or her home uses the premises to conduct certain serious offences including storing firearms, manufacturing or dealing in illegal drugs, or causing grievous bodily harm. The relevant offences are serious but removing the tribunal's discretion is not appropriate or needed. Fairness can be guaranteed only if the tribunal can make a decision after considering all relevant circumstances and the merits of the case.
We cannot predict all the circumstances surrounding offences on social housing properties. Undoubtedly there will be situations when it would be unfair and unsafe to evict a tenant if premises are being used to commit serious offences. I am pleased that once the bill is amended tenants will not automatically be evicted for the actions of someone else living in their home. The highest risk will be to tenants who are victims of domestic and family violence, whose English is limited and who are elderly, and who could get evicted for the actions of a spouse, boyfriend or child. Even when the tenant knowingly permits the activity, it may be due to intimidation by the offender. I am aware of constituents in this situation and of neighbours reporting tenants being stood over by unwanted visitors or residents.
Redfern Legal Centre tells me about cases where women have been forced by an abusive partner to permit drug dealing and would likely lose their homes if the tribunal were unable to consider their record of paying rent on time, getting help for any addiction and having a family to care for. I understand that the tribunal often uses discretion in cases where an eviction will impact on other members of a household who are not the offender, especially dependent children, and this is appropriate. The tribunal's discretion is a safeguard against unfair termination. If a housing provider is unhappy with a decision by the tribunal, it can apply to the appeal panel, which has the power to evict a tenant if the tribunal has chosen not to and the evidence supports this. Amendments clarifying the definition of brothels will help to ensure that these provisions focus on neighbourhood impacts or risks to other tenants' safety.
I acknowledge commitments from the Minister that evicted tenants will be rehoused either in another social housing property or in the private rental market, but this will be a difficult task. There is a long queue for social housing and the private rental market is tough on people with past evictions. Evicted tenants are likely to experience homelessness and disruptions to medical treatment, employment, rehabilitation, education and training. The bill will require the tribunal to take into account impact statements with summarised reports from neighbours on the impacts of a tenant's behaviour. I welcome the amendment which provides for this to occur only when the tribunal has found that there is a tenancy breach.
I share the Government's aim to give neighbours who are too frightened to testify the opportunity to state their case. However, tenant advocate groups are concerned that this will allow malicious or unwell people to make mistaken, false and misleading statements, while reducing an accused person's ability to challenge claims against them. I have seen situations in which tenants accuse their neighbour of wrongdoing based on personal disputes or motivations, including cases where a neighbour hopes that the unit next door will become vacant for a family member on the waiting list. In large estates, tensions among tenants due to historic enmities, mental illness and prejudice can be common and these should not be allowed to become the catalyst for easy evictions. I understand that while the tribunal will be required to consider impact statements, amendments will allow the tribunal to exercise discretion over the weight to give them. I hope that this balances giving fearful neighbours a voice and protects against vexatious claims.
The bill creates a strike system where a breach of a tenancy agreement incurs a strike and three strikes within a 12-month period result in eviction proceedings. The tribunal will have discretion to refuse an application for eviction in such cases. The Minister's office has provided information that in Queensland and Western Australia where three-strike systems operate, more than 80 per cent of tenants who get a first strike notice do not go on to get a third strike. While this is positive, how does it compare with behaviour changes achieved under the existing New South Wales system of behaviour agreements and antisocial behaviour orders?
Not all tenants who are subject to strikes will be able to change their behaviour and they must be given procedural fairness. I am concerned that the bill does not provide for this. I understand that the bill requires the tribunal to take a strike as evidence of a breach, regardless of whether there is evidence. This makes it essential for tenants to be given the opportunity to appeal a strike against them. I am pleased that the Government has responded to tenant advocacy groups who called for a longer time to do so—from 14 days to 28 days. There is concern that social housing providers may not bother with other potentially more time- and energy-consuming but more productive conflict resolution and early intervention strategies because the strikes process provides housing providers a quick and easy way to deal with tenants who create challenges. Making eviction the easiest option to deal with problems undermines the core purpose of having a social housing system. I ask that the Minister monitor this process to ensure that it does not occur. The bill contains provisions that require the tribunal to accept the cost provided by the Department of Family and Community Services for repairs for damage that a tenant must repay. I share the concern of tenant groups that this removes the option of competitive quotes to ensure that the tenant pays a fair price.
People live in social housing because they do not have the means to secure housing in the private market due to social disadvantage, trauma, mental and physical illness, and disability. The increasing concentration of tenants with complex and longstanding health and welfare concerns in social housing increases the likelihood and difficulty of addressing conflict and problems. Dysfunction can occur, particularly in larger estates and concentrated low economic areas. I am concerned that a legalistic response does not ensure adequate mental health, trauma, drug and alcohol services are provided to people with high levels of need. I regularly hear of tenants with serious health problems getting help only after a crisis has been reported, sometimes repeatedly, because the services are limited, especially those programs designed to reach people in the community. I urge the Government to increase prevention and early intervention services because it would help a great deal to prevent those difficulties. My concerns about the bill remain. However, I commend the Minister for Social Housing for the approach he has taken to ensure improvements have been made.