DIY housing: public tenants ignored by department
Today concludes a special investigation by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism on mental health and housing in western Sydney.
By Paul Farrell, Franziska Weigelt, Richard Barry, Jonas Lovschall-Wedel, Veronika Pitrová, Michael Davis, and Simona Suciu.
Public housing tenants are taking matters into their own hands – and a recent ruling by the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal (CTTT) could mean Housing NSW is legally liable if it ignores complaints about abusive, disruptive and dangerous tenants.
A Safe Place: Searching for Solutions
In previous stories we’ve documented the difficulties faced by public housing tenants with mental illness who need to move away from where they’re living because they’re being harassed or victimized by neighbours.
If they want to stay in public housing, the only option is a transfer.
But this can be a long and arduous process. Housing NSW runs a ‘Mutual Exchange Program’ for tenants who need to swap houses.
Peter, a long-time public housing tenant, has attempted swaps using the exchange program, but has given up long ago.
“I only got action when I did it independently of Housing NSW. I’ve been in housing 14 years and I don’t recall one time when I’ve actually done a successful swap through Housing NSW,” he said.
Tenants like Peter told the ACIJ the NSW Housing exchange system has become so gridlocked that many are instead using a private swap site called ourhouseswap.com.au.
Ourhouseswap.com.au is run by Jackie Kennedy. She’s lived in public housing for many years, and set up the site to allow tenants to find suitable matches to suit their needs.
“There was the official channel through housing but you would fill in a form and it would just go into the black hole. You were never contacted, nobody ever worked actively to try to find you somewhere better to live.”
Kennedy says her site has had over 17000 registrations for swaps since she started it 10 years ago, with over 500 successful swaps a year.
“Housing NSW really don’t care. Transfers and mutual exchanges are really low on their list of priorities. They really do not care about making the tenants lives better. And that’s all it’s about”.
The ACIJ requested that Housing NSW supply the number of successful swaps facilitated by their own Mutual Exchange Program in a year. The department did not supply the figures, but a spokesperson said:
“Housing NSW tenants can transfer out of one social housing dwelling into another location by applying for a transfer or registering with the Mutual Exchange Scheme. Providing a mutual exchange scheme frees up the workload of Housing NSW staff and allows them to concentrate on serving people who are yet to be housed.”
Many of the vulnerable public housing tenants interviewed by the ACIJ for this series, and the workers and carers who support them, say Housing NSW ignores complaints about the disruptive or abusive tenants who make their lives hell.
But that could change.
Recently, Jackie Kennedy brought a successful legal action against NSW Housing for failing to act against bad tenants.
The action was heard in the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal for failing to protect her right to quiet enjoyment under the Residential Tenancies Act.
Despite a constant stream of complaints to NSW Housing, NSW Police, and government ministers dating from 2008, the Tribunal found NSW Housing failed to act on Ms Kennedy’s complaints.
“No action was taken to adequately deal with the protracted problems between the neighbours,” the Tribunal found.
“The landlord needed only to rely upon the tenants’ willingness to give evidence against [the tenant], to either issue a notice to termination or to seek a specific performance order. Either action would most likely have avoided the subject claim.”
The ACIJ sought comment from Housing NSW regarding Kennedy’s case, but a spokesperson said: “Housing NSW doesn’t comment on legal matters, including issues arising in the CTTT.”
Kennedy said that after 3 years and over 40 complaints from her and her neighbours she finally decided to take action, and the tribunal forced Housing NSW to refund Kennedy part of her rent.
“When they don’t enforce those rules the tenants learn that they can get away with anything, and that’s what happened and that’s escalated into the problems that we had,” Kennedy said.
“The point was to make housing accountable for their own policies. I wanted to make them live up to what they are supposed to do, and that’s be my landlord. I’m not asking housing to do anything more than their job. Their job is to look after the tenants.”
Kennedy’s experiences are not isolated incidents and may pave the way for similar claims.
Garry Mallard, from the Tenants Support Network, says more actions could be brought by housing tenants against NSW Housing if tenants provided sufficient documentation. But he says one of the key reasons more actions aren’t brought is because tenants feel increasingly disempowered:
“When you have a clientele that is increasingly disaffected in some way from society, people who aren’t coping very well, whether they be age frail, mentally ill, physically ill in some way, all those things come together in one low socio-economic client group and those people are disempowered. They don’t feel they can represent themselves adequately.”
Mallard was also critical of O’Farrell government’s decision to remove the position of Housing Minister.
“The cowardice of politicians is amazing. They are unwilling to address the issues appropriately and decisively.”
There are, however, some success stories in public housing – where community groups and support services have worked together with mentally-ill tenants to create safe places for them to live.
The inner city model
Douglas Holmes, 61, has been living in public housing since 1979. For the last ten years he’s been living in government subsidised housing at South Coogee, ten minutes walk from the beach.
Douglas used to work for the NSW Consumer Advisory Board, a state-wide organisation that provides ongoing opportunity for mental health consumers to participate in policy and service development, implementation and evaluation.
Douglas now works as a case manager at Northcott estate, in inner-city Surry Hills. He’s based out of St Vincent’s Hospital, and when dealing with mentally ill people in the community, he tells them that he is a member of the BAD club, an acronym for Bi-polar Affective Disorder.
Douglas proudly says that he has not relapsed in ten years.
On average, bi-polar affective disorder takes 11.8 years to correctly diagnose. 15% of sufferers commit suicide. This has only heightened Douglas’ passion to help the community.
Douglas explains that as part of a concerted effort in community development they have arranged workshops at Northcott estate to involve tenants. Northcott estate comprises four large towers that house some 900 people. Prior to various community supports coming into effect in 2005, the environment was regarded as unsafe and feared by some of the tenants.
Since then, bright lights have been installed in dark areas, fences have been erected to create a sense of security, and CCTV surveillance has been implemented.
An ‘Issues’ workshop was inaugurated to shed light on any particular issues concerning the residents – the main one being a desire for increased support- while the last Tuesday of every month is now host to a Mental Health Recovery group.
Douglas believes that the model of community development that began and flourished in Northcott estate is transferable to the housing system in Western Sydney.
“We keep telling them if they actually put some bodies on the ground they can replicate what we’re doing here,” he says.
Douglas illustrates the changes that inner city housing has undergone through one of his current cases: a man who lives in a unit on the sixth floor of the estate who’s become mentally ill. He suffers from agoraphobia and fears ascending the storeys to his apartment in the lift.
“Previously, his rent would have stopped being paid and he would have been evicted,” Douglas says.
Behaviours like this are now questioned prior to action, as case managers are allocated to individual cases, and neighbours are made aware of affected people’s conditions. In the past such tenants would have simply been “tossed out”, but now “there’s a lot more social supports around”, says Douglas.
As part of a new advanced mental health project which commenced in June, entitled the Cadre Project, residents, workers and interested parties alike can undertake a mental health first aid course, which ultimately empowers them to know what to look for “if people start to travel a bit rough”.
In 2005 the World Health Organisation awarded ‘Safe Community’ accreditation to the Northcott public housing estate as a result of its tremendous progress. Despite this, the estate still experiences some adversity.
“We still get suicides off the [13-storey] building. Some of those are what we call death by misadventure,” says Douglas. He tells the ACIJ that it is suspected certain people have been thrown off the building by drug dealers to whom they owe money, although those in the know are reluctant to come forward, “due to the nature of the people involved”, and authorities cannot act on hearsay.
Meanwhile, a partnership between Housing NSW, Landcom and a Christian charity in the heart of Sydney’s West suggest there are successful models which can work for vulnerable tenants – but at present they are the exception rather than the rule.
Affordable houses for underprivileged families
25-year-old mother of two Bethany Gordon is a lifelong public housing tenant. More recently, however, she has found an enterprising alternative established to deliver decent, simple and affordable houses to low-income families.
Habitat for Humanity is a charity organisation whose donations of land, finance and labour are mainly used for the provision of houses in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.
Habitat’s project in collaboration with the NSW Government in Bidwill caters for underprivileged families willing to purchase their own homes.
“The family is not given the house; they have to buy it from us. How it is supportable is that we don’t charge interest,” explained James Allardice, executive director of Habitat For Humanity (HFH) NSW.
Land for the project was secured from Housing NSW but public housing tenants are selected on the basis of independent (non-government related) criteria.The pre-selection process commenced with attendance at a public meeting.
“We told people what our program is about, what the responsibility of Habitat is to the chosen family and what the responsibility of the partner family is to Habitat. It required an extensive process to let people know exactly what they are getting into, thus we wanted to ensure that people had actually heard the story and heard it correctly. So we weren’t accepting applications from anybody who was not at that meeting.”
A basic criterion requires that the applicant be living in “housing stress” at the time of application.
“Housing stress” may be defined as a house inappropriate for tenants’ needs, a building in deterioration, or where 40 per cent or more of household income is spent on mortgages or rent. A $500 deposit and further means testing of applicants is required in order for them to be eligible buyers.
Seventy applications were submitted to the HFH NSW office following two public meetings in 2007. At present, nine houses have been offered in Bidwill and another three are currently under construction. Another requirement is a commitment to 500 hours of “sweat equity” to the building of the house by the applicant or another person in their network.
Public housing tenants interviewed for this series who are living in “housing stress” can only hope the Habitat for Humanity experiment in Bidwill is replicated elsewhere. But many of them cannot afford the repayments on a mortgage, even when it’s interest free.
Making it possible for them to live with safety and dignity will require a massive shift in attitude on the part of Housing NSW, and the other government agencies that are ultimately responsible for their care. It will also require bold and determined action from the new Minister for Mental Health, Kevin Humphries – and the Mental Health Commissioner he’ll appoint in 2012.
Paul Farrell, Franziska Weigelt, Richard Barry, Jonas Lovschall-Wedel, Veronika Pitrová, Michael Davis, and Simona Suciu are reporters with the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.