10 August 2018
(Bills - Second reading Debate, 7 August 2018, Legislative Assembly, Parliament House)
Social housing exists to keep vulnerable people safe, to give them support and security to get back on their feet, and to prevent homelessness. Almost 40,000 people in this State are experiencing homelessness and the rate of people becoming homeless has increased by 37 per cent since this Government came to office. This week is Homelessness Week, a time when we should focus on strengthening the housing safety net and getting more people safely housed. But the Residential Tenancies Amendment (Social Housing) Bill 2018 will create hardship, homelessness and significant stress for tenants, many of whom are already experiencing disadvantage, poverty, and social and health challenges.
Provisions to make it mandatory to evict a tenant convicted of rental rebate fraud could have devastating impacts. It is likely that these people will be evicted to homelessness as many will have no other option. Fairness can be guaranteed only if the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal retains its discretion. The tribunal should be able to make a decision after considering all the relevant factors and merits of a case. We cannot predict all the circumstances surrounding fraud-related offences and there will be situations when it would be unfair or unsafe to evict a tenant. A victim of domestic violence or elder abuse could be held responsible for fraud caused by their persecutor, for example. Fraud could be the result of someone's mental health condition or from an unintentional mistake in disclosing income, which can change from week to week for tenants due to variable working hours. Without tribunal discretion, there is no safeguard to protect vulnerable tenants or to ensure evictions are fair. 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. Tenants with debts arising from fraud can also be evicted for failure to pay off the debt.
The bill would allow Family and Community Services [FACS] to charge a bond to an existing tenant and evict them when the bond is more than 14 days overdue. I understand that the bond will be calculated at four weeks of rent to a maximum of $1,400; however, it is unclear whether this will be based on the tenant's subsidised rent or market rent values. The bond will be payable even if a tenant has taken responsibility and paid for the damage. The aim is to charge the bond to a tenant who has caused $500 worth of damage to a housing property at any stage of their tenancy. There is no evidence that charging existing tenants a bond will be an effective measure in protecting social housing property. However, it will likely cause significant hardship to already vulnerable people.
Tenants could be subject to a bond because an inspection of their home identifies damage caused long ago by a previous tenant. There is no provision to limit the bond to tenants who have caused damage intentionally. Tenants may have to pay a bond because of damage they caused under psychosis for a mental health condition that they now have under control or for damage they accidentally caused due to a condition such as blindness. Tenants who suffer from hoarding disorder may have to pay a bond for their psychologically diagnosed mental illness. If the maximum $1,400 is charged and tenants are permitted to repay it in instalments, the bond will add $26.90 to fortnightly payments for two years. This is a considerable impost for someone on a very low income.
Most people on the Newstart Allowance earn under $550 a fortnight and pay around 30 per cent of their income on rent. Paying more than 30 per cent of income will put tenants in extreme cases of housing stress. The pressure could impact on their mental health and wellbeing and some will forgo spending on essentials such as food and energy. The bond risks becoming a disincentive for reporting damage which could be quicker and easier to fix if reported immediately. The bond will only compound the challenges many tenants face in accessing and keeping social housing.
The Minister says that guidelines will be developed to provide safeguards to protect vulnerable people, including victims of domestic violence. It is unlikely that guidelines will be able to protect all vulnerable people or cover all victims of domestic violence. The Redfern Legal Centre reports that victims of domestic violence have often been made liable for damage to their social housing homes caused by a violent partner. With the increasing concentration of tenants with complex and longstanding health and welfare concerns and high level needs, it is unlikely that many tenants will ever leave their social housing homes and get the opportunity to have their bond refunded. We are also not building enough social or affordable housing in New South Wales, meaning the likelihood of them being able to get the bond back by moving into private housing is further reduced. This policy will only make poor people poorer.
Tenants have few options to raise revenue and it is unclear where the Government expects them to come up with the bond. One option would be to obtain it from a local homelessness or other community service, which would have to take it from existing brokerage funds that come from FACS anyway. This is just cost shifting and diverts funding away from better investments from the sector. Tenants already cover the cost of damage that they are responsible for and have to pay any outstanding debts incurred from damage before they can return to social housing if they have left. The bond is just another pathway to eviction and homelessness. The overwhelming majority of social housing tenants are law abiding, good tenants, who care about their home and their community. While a small minority of tenants present challenges, the Government should not respond with policies that create unfair and unsafe outcomes for tenants. Increasing evictions and costs for tenants with complex needs undermines the core purpose of the social housing system. The bill will ultimately result in more people becoming homeless. Rather than trying to reduce the social housing waiting list through eviction, the Government should seriously expand social housing stocks across the State, including the inner city where there are jobs, transport and services. We need to build 5,000 new social homes every year until 2026 just to keep up with the need and all major redevelopments should provide at least 15 per cent social and affordable housing. In Homelessness Week, we should be dealing with legislation and government initiatives to reduce homelessness, not legislation which could mean that people become homeless in a State which has more than twice the growth rate of homelessness than the national average and nearly 40,000 homeless people. The focus of the bill is wrong and the outcomes will be devastating. I oppose the bill.
To read the speeches of other members on this issue, click HERE.