Minggu, 30 Juni 2013

New rights for boarding house occupants in New South Wales


Today the Boarding Houses Act 2012 commences in full.




Until now, only the provisions of the Act concerning the registration (and register) of boarding houses have been put into operation. Today the remaining provisions, including those concerning occupancy principles and occupancy agreements, have also become part of the law of New South Wales.

The Tenants' Union has produced a new factsheet about the Boarding Houses Act 2012, and you can read about it in more detail in an updated chapter in our Tenants' Rights Manual. No doubt we'll talk a whole lot more about its ins and outs over the coming months, as we start to see it in operation.

But for now, let's take a minute to reflect on where this new law has come from,* and just how far it will take us...

Housing advocacy groups such as the Tenants' Union of NSW have lobbied for boarding house reform since the mid-1970's. For most of that time a convincing strategy to produce statutory rights for boarders and lodgers never materialised in Parliament, although some attempts were made.

When the Residential Tenancies Act 1987 passed through the Houses of Parliament in the late 1980s the then Minster for Consumer Affairs, the hon. Deirdre Grusovin, assured boarders and lodgers that legislative protections would be provided for them soon, too. But, although a Boarding Houses and Lodging Houses Bill 1991 was largely agreed to in Parliament, disagreement as to minimum periods of occupancy before the law should apply meant that the bill would never make it into the NSW statute books.

Some years later a differently constituted NSW Government indicated it would examine ways to protect the rights of people living in boarding houses. A period of discussion and consultation ensued, and in early 1998 it was expected that the then Minister for Fair Trading, the hon. Brian Langton, would release an exposure draft of new legislation. A coalition of organisations called the Boarders and Lodgers Action Group (BLAG) - of which the Tenants Union was a member - anticipated that the exposure draft would be riddled with shortcomings, and did not expect to be able to support it. BLAG drew up its own Boarders Bill 1999, to present a clear alternative to the policies anticipated in the Government's bill.

This effectively killed off the Carr Government's ambitions for boarders and lodgers rights. It sent supporters of reform within Parliament into a spin, of sorts, and presented uncertainty as to the way forward for boarders and lodgers rights in New South Wales. By this time the phrase 'boarders and lodgers' had come to describe the large and diverse group of renters that were not covered by the Residential Tenancies Act 1987. No agreement could be reached as to who should be covered by a new law, and which particular rights and obligations should apply to each of the identified groups of accommodation that boarding and lodging denoted. In the circumstances, the Government lacked the political will to argue in favour of a new bill, and the project was abandoned. The anticipated 1998 exposure draft never saw the light of day.

But BLAG's Boarders Bill 1999 lived on. For many years it was used by members of BLAG as an advocacy tool, in the hope that the Government would re-commit to a position on legislative rights for boarders and lodgers. It was a commitment that never came.

In 2005, the Tenants' Union of NSW moved away from arguing for the 'prescriptive rights' regime proposed by the Boarders Bill 1999, and began to advocate instead for a non-prescriptive 'occupancy principles' model based on changes that had recently been made to renting laws in the Australian Capital Territory. These principles would form the basis of a range of standard occupancy agreements, providing a minimum set of commitments to be made by a boarding house operator to a prospective occupant, while allowing the details of rights and obligations to be determined according to the needs of parties to each kind of agreement. This meant that a variety of occupancy agreements, based on a consistent set of rights-based principles, could be used across the range of rental accommodation types to which existing laws did not apply.

The policy gained traction, but was not picked up by the NSW Government during their review and redraft of the Residential Tenancies Act 1987. When the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 became law on January 31st 2011, there were still a number of rental accommodation types that were expressly excluded from the Act's coverage. For housing advocates, rights for boarders and lodgers - along with other marginal renters - became part of the unfinished business of tenancy law reform.

The Tenants' Union produced a four-point plan to reform the marginal rental sector, of which occupancy principles was a major component. The plan was endorsed and promoted by a coalition of housing advocacy organisations in early 2011. Not long after, an 'Inter-Departmental Committee on Reform of Shared Private Residential Services' released a discussion paper called Boarding House Reform. This paper recommended the adoption of occupancy principles and agreements for boarding house residents in New South Wales.

Then, on May 10th 2012, the NSW Government announced that it would introduce laws to reform the boarding house sector. A great deal of work has since gone into bringing the Boarding Houses Act 2012 to its full commencement today. Congratulations to all who have played their part - it's quite an achievement.

But the Boarding Houses Act 2012 is not the solution it could have been for all marginal renters in New South Wales. There will still be many people living in rented accommodation who have no access to statutory rights and formal mechanisms to resolve disputes about the terms of their rental agreements. Lodgers in private residences, some clients of refuges, crisis and supported accommodation, students in residential colleges, occupants of shared households and some caravan park residents are still waiting for a statutory regime that affords them protection against unfair eviction, rent increases, and refusal to meet minimum standards of repair.

This makes no sense. The occupancy principles model that is now law in New South Wales could very easily - and effectively - be applied to all who are not otherwise covered by renting laws in New South Wales.

This business remains unfinished.


*Some of the occurrences referred to in this post are a little before your correspondent's time. Parts of this account cannot be verified by reference to Hansard or other official records. Where required, The Brown Couch has relied on documents from the TU's archive. If you are able to provide an alternative account of the circumstances behind either the 1991 or 1999 boarders' rights bills, please leave a comment...


Rabu, 26 Juni 2013

Choose your poison...

Yesterday we were hit with the news that the NSW State Government will start imposing an additional charge on 'under-occupying' tenants in public housing who refuse to relocate to a smaller home.  Essentially, the government is asking tenants to make a choice: pay more to stay, or move away and pay the same.


No matter how you look at it, both of these cups have clearly been poisoned. If you choose the cup on the left, you'll pay a financial cost. If you choose the cup on the right, you'll pay a social cost.

As we discussed yesterday, opting to stay and pay could leave you on as little as $21 a day after rent. For many people, this is no choice at all. They will be moved out of established homes, and into new neighbourhoods. Some will adapt better than others.

A large number of affected tenants are likely to be older, having taken up a tenancy in a large family home many years ago. Now that the children have grown up and moved out, they might find themselves described as "under-occupying". They might have a sentimental attachment to their home that makes it difficult to let go. They might have relationships within the locale that will be difficult to live without. Or they might have particular medical or care needs that they can only access because of their current proximity to the service providers they use.

It's important that we understand just how this change in policy will be applied, and who it will be applied to. To that end, Housing NSW has produced a factsheet, which is as good a place as any to start - but it still leaves a couple of questions unanswered. The Tenants' Union of NSW, along with a number of other non-government organisations, attended a briefing yesterday at the offices of Housing NSW where some of those questions were addressed.

Here's what we know:

- Tenants who ask or agree to transfer to a smaller property will have their transfer considered as a 'priority'. This means they'll be in competition for properties with other priority applicants for housing, rather than waiting until there are no priority applicants in front of them on the waiting list.

- Tenants who ask or agree to transfer to a smaller property will be given two offers of alternative housing. If they refuse both, they will have their rental subsidy recalculated and will end up paying more in order to stay where they are. (The 'reasonableness' of these offers will be subject to appeal.)

- Tenants who had already applied to transfer to a smaller property before June 25th 2013 will not have their rental subsidies recalculated if they refuse two offers of alternative housing.

- Tenants who refuse to go onto the waiting list to transfer to a smaller property, when asked, will have their rental subsidy recalculated and will end up paying more to stay where they are.

- Tenants should not be asked to transfer to a smaller property before September 2013.

- Tenants should only be asked to transfer to a smaller property if they are under-occupying according to their entitlement. This means that if you have been approved to rent a three bedroom dwelling because you have part-time custody of children, but for some of the time you live alone, you should not be asked to give up your home. If you are not sure what your current entitlement is, you should contact your local Housing NSW office to discuss.

- Tenants should only be asked to transfer to a smaller property within the allocation zone for which they were originally approved. Tenants may elect to transfer to another allocation zone, but their request will be considered against the level of demand for social housing in the allocation zone they wish to transfer into.

- These changes only apply to tenants in properties owned by the Land & Housing Corporation, and managed by Housing NSW. They do not apply to tenancies in Aboriginal Housing Office properties, or tenancies managed by a Community Housing landlord.

No doubt there will be more questions, as news and discussion about this policy change makes its way through various networks. We encourage anyone with questions or concerns about this policy change to contact us for further discussion - we might not be able to give an immediate response, but we can take your questions directly to Housing NSW and seek their answers.

There are several ways that you can contact us:

1. Leave a comment on this blog
2. Find us on Facebook or Twitter
2. Send us an email or give us a call - find our contact details here.

Selasa, 25 Juni 2013

Taxing times for public housing tenants

This morning the Minister for Families and Community Services announced NSW's own version of a 'bedroom tax' for public housing tenants.
We'll look more closely at the proposed policy changes when they become available. For now, we just have a few observations on what we do know.
First, a little perspective. 17000 public housing dwellings have spare bedrooms, the media release states. It is not clear how this number is reached- the ABS put the number in 2011 closer to 11000. We've written about this before, but note that the ABS also shows there were at least 375000 vacant bedrooms in owner-occupied dwellings (ABS: 2011 Census of Population and Housing). Perhaps revenue could be raised by placing a $20 per week charge on each of those bedrooms- that $390m a year could build a lot of houses for the people on the waiting list!
Speaking of the waiting list, Housing NSW updated the social housing waiting list timeframesone year ago- we're not sure where the figures stand now, but at the time even the waiting list for bedsits and 1 bedrooms in the 'targeted areas' were very long indeed. Liverpool (2-5 years for bedsits, 5-10 for one bedrooms), Shellharbour (no bedsits in the area, 10+ years for one bedrooms) and Mt Druitt (2-5years for both bedsits and one bedrooms). We're not sure where these smaller properties that people are to be moved to is going to come from- we certainly hope that there aren't families squished into bedsits who will be able to move out!
We are also concerned about the rate of the tax. The pensioner who uses the spare room for when the daughter and her grandkids come to stay now faces an effective rent hike of 20%- catapulting them past the housing stress line of 30%, to now spend over 35% of their income on housing costs. This pensioner will now be left with almost the same amount to live on per day (about $36) that a person on the Newstart Allowance currently has.
As for people actually on Newstart - they will be left with just $21 a day to pay for food, transport, medical bills, etc.
The final impact is on the people who fall into rent arrears due to the added stress of the bedroom tax. If a person is terminated due to the arrears they may find themselves ineligible for public housing again until they pay off the debt- not an easy thing for someone already doing it tough, and now doing it from a position of homelessness.
It's unavoidable to draw comparisons to the recent introduction of a very similar bedroom tax in the UK- the lack of 'smaller properties', the negative impact on the ability to afford to live with losing $20 per week are all ringing true. We hope that the NSW government will learn from the UK's experience
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Senin, 24 Juni 2013

The 3 Golden Rules of Renting


We've talked before about the history and work of Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services, and the value they represent. Part of that value is in the depth of experience and knowledge of these services (and even some dedicated individuals!) who have been assisting tenants for 20 or even 30 or 40 years. TAASs get asked all sorts of questions by tenants every day. Sometimes, we hear of problems that have never been asked before, and require a bit of lateral thinking before they can be resolved. More often, we hear variations on the same theme: "Am I in the right here, or are they?"

But sometimes that doesn't matter - all that matters is what the available evidence can tell you... If we are ever to give tenants some simple advice before a dispute arises, it is to simply follow the three golden rules:
1. Get everything in Writing

We mean everything!

International relations were for a little while ruled by an old russian proverb that translated to "trust, but verify". This can be a good way to approach your tenancy as well. All too often we hear from tenants who have trusted their landlord or their agent to keep a promise that was made with nothing more than a handshake. But when it comes down to it, these promises are not worth the paper they are written on.

Having a chat on the phone is often much quicker and more convenient than a full blown sit-down - but it's also much harder to prove that the conversation ever happened. It's harder still to prove who said what about when, where, why and how...

It's always wise to follow a phone call with a letter - signed and dated - recording your understanding of all the key issues and outcomes of your conversation. Always keep a copy for yourself. That way if the details of the conversation are ever in dispute, you have a solid piece of evidence that can be relied on to support your own version of events.

2. Keep your own records

Memory is a fickle thing - you might still remember the name of the first person you kissed decades ago, but not the name of that slightly boring person you met at a party only just last week. Whether you're reporting repairs, making agreements about rent reductions, or discussing a date for an inspection, you want to be able to show that the conversation happened the way you remember it.

People have different filing systems (which aren't always the most reliable). Sometimes landlords change agents and documents don't make it across the switch. Sometimes things get lost... and sometimes promises and agreements are made that are just not adhered to.

Keeping your own copies of letters sent and received, receipts for rent paid, invoices, bills and agreements made can save you a lot of grief when it comes time to sort out the history of the tenancy.

Most importantly, sometimes there is no document to retain in the first place. Make a brief note outlining all the key facts you wish to keep track of - ie who said what, when, where, why and how. Date it, and put it in your file. That way, you've got a record of the conversation, taken contemporaneously, which will be seen as a more reliable account than a later recollection of the same facts.

3. Know your rights

There's nothing harder than being in an argument where only one side knows what they're talking about. There are a lot of myths out there about renting, too, so knowing your rights can be easier said than done. But there are lots of resources available for tenants, so you can always know what the deal is.

Here are our three favourites for tenants in New South Wales:

Read something!

There are 26 factsheets available. They cover the main topics TAASs get asked about all the time, and we add new ones periodically as well.

Read something else!

Available online and for free at the NSW State Library's Legal Information and Access Centre is the Tenants' Rights Manual, written by the Brown Couch's own Dr Chris Martin, with the rest of the Tenants' Union and many Tenants' Advocates and other workers contributing. The online Manual is updated as the law changes, and fleshes out much of the information contained in the fact sheets.

Ask someone!

Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services are just a phone call away - you can find your local service's details here. As we've discussed before, Tenants' Advocates are under the pump with ever increasing demand for their time and services - but if your question hasn't been resolved by looking at the above information, they'll be happy to take your call.
The Tenants' Union of NSW is also on Facebook and Twitter (and you'll find some of the TAASs using social media, too).

Come by and say hello!


The 3 golden rules of renting are the mainstay of Tenants' Advice & Advocacy Services. They are articulated here in a form made famous by Sundar Mahtani, a legendary Tenants' Advocate who has been giving advice and assistance to tenants across Sydney for the better part of 30 years.

Kamis, 20 Juni 2013

A quiet word on the budget

It would be remiss of us to let the week pass without a quiet word on the NSW State Budget for 2013-14.


... And a quiet word is really all that's required.

It's not a particularly exciting budget for tenants - it's pretty much business as usual.

There'll be no significant change in the supply of housing and tenancy management services from the NSW Government.

There will be no increase in funding for Tenants Advice & Advocacy Services, even though it is sorely needed. (The Consumer, Trader & Tenancy Tribunal gets an increase of half-a-million bucks, though...)

Tenants who are also potential home buyers might have been on the look-out for changes to the First Home Owner Grants scheme. This controversial scheme was restricted to new builds in New South Wales in last year's budget (and similar restrictions apply in other states as well). Well, there was no change, but the planned reduction in the grant from $15k to $10k, which was scheduled to occur in Jan 2014, was put on hold until Jan 2016.

We'll leave it to others to comment on that.

Senin, 17 Juni 2013

Chill your winter power bills

A timely word from the Energy and Water Ombudsman NSW (EWON):

The July 1 energy price increase combined with quarterly billing also means that many households won’t see how charges add up for several months, so it's important to act and think now. With a little bit of planning and a few simple steps, your household can make informed decisions about energy use that will help you avoid bill shock, debt and disconnection.



Visit EWON's Chill Your Winter Power Bills page for more information and tips on reducing your power consumption.

Kamis, 13 Juni 2013

A quest to save one million tenancies...

It's time we had another look at the work of Tenants' Advice & Advocacy Services.


These services - TAASs - have existed across New South Wales for many years. They offer free advice and information to tenants about the rights and responsibilities that come with renting a home.

We've spent some time of late talking about the cost of these services to tenants, and the value that they represent. We've spoken about the need to increase funding to TAAS, and observed the rollercoaster of uncertainty that similar services in Queensland are currently facing.

Today, we'd like to talk a little more about the services themselves.

There's a Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Service in every region of New South Wales. No matter what your postcode, there's a locally based service that you can call for advice when you need it. There's also a website - www.tenants.org.au - where you can get the phone number for your local service, and find out when their advice lines are open. Or, if what you need is a little bit of information to help you sort an issue out for yourself, you can find a series of Tenants Rights Factsheets providing answers to a range of common questions about renting in New South Wales.

During the period between 1 July 2011 and 30 June 2012*, TAAS provided direct assistance to a total of 30,629 tenants. That represents about 4% of the state's tenants, according to the latest census data. But it represents about 19% of people who have a question about renting in New South Wales: the Fair Trading Information Centre (FTIC) reports** handling 131,000 tenancy related inquiries over the same period, and that includes calls from landlords and real estate agents, too.

Interestingly, FTIC noted an increase of nearly 7.5% in tenancy related calls over the year. TAASs would probably have seen such an increase in the use of their services, too, if they had the resources to handle it. Instead, they saw the demand on their services increase, but their ability to respond to calls remained the same as previous years.

Of those 30,629 contacts by TAAS, at least 19,074 were tenants renting in the private rental market, and 3,308 were social housing tenants. 2,479 identified as Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islander, and 4,431 were from a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse background.

TAASs put 10,201 tenants in touch with other services to help them solve a problem. Factsheets and other printed material were sent to 26,674 tenants - but with in excess of 4,500 factsheets downloaded from www.tenants.org.au each month, there are plenty of tenants being referred to this information from other sources as well.

TAASs advocated directly for 4,638 tenants, and assisted 3,564 in the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal. They helped tenants to write letters, draft applications, negotiate, conciliate, and attempt to resolve their tenancy disputes with landlords and real estate agents all over New South Wales. Sometimes they stood before the Tribunal and made submissions on a tenant's behalf.

Rumpole of the Bailey, sure loved a court-room drama

We sometimes hear that TAASs are a little too keen to race off to the Tribunal whenever they meet a tenant in distress. Frankly, we don't see any reason to apoligise for that - the Tribunal is there to help resolve disputes when all else has failed. Often, by the time a tenant gets in touch with a TAAS, much has already transpired between the parties, and the situation warrants some pretty strong intervention. But when we looked at this data, it made us wonder where this perception actually comes from...

3,564 appearances by Tenants' Advocates in the Tribunal, out of a potential 30,629, hardly seems like they're banging the doors down. But when you consider that TAASs provided ongoing support or advocacy to 4,683 clients over the period, it means that in 76% of cases this included a trip to the Tribunal.

To really give us the context in which these figures should be considered, we need to look over the Consumer, Trader & Tenancy Tribunal's data from the same period. There were 32,626 applications in the Tribunal's Tenancy Division, and 16,084 applications in the Social Housing Division - 48,710 all counted. Tenants made a total of 8,128 of those, across both divisions, with the vast majority being a claim for a bond refund.

The most common applications were in fact made by landlords - overwhelmingly, for the termination of a tenancy. In the Tenancy Division, there were 19,373 of these. In the Social Housing Division, there were 9,536. That's a total of 28,909 - almost as many contacts as TAASs had over the year!

As we pointed out a couple of months ago, TAASs are successful in preventing homelessness in 82% of matters where their clients face such a risk. One of the key reasons for this is that a Tenants' Advocate from a local TAAS will sometimes attend the Tribunal with a tenant, and assist, when their landlord has asked for the tenancy to be brought to an end.

Take this recent example: a tenant had received a notice of termination that alleged she was causing nuisance and interfering with the peace, comfort and privacy of her neighbour. The matter ended up in the Tribunal, where the landlord's evidence was pretty thin on the ground. They had a letter from another landlord saying that his tenant (ie, the neighbour) was threatening to leave because of the behaviour he was subjected to from next door. There were no real details about what that behaviour was, but it seemed to have something to do with small children playing loudly.

The Advocate who assisted this client said "I asked the landlord - if there really is a problem, why not just ask the tenant to be more mindful of the neighbour, instead of sending her a notice of termination?" The landlord agreed that the tenancy did not need to end, as long as the tenant agreed to abide by all the terms and conditions of the residential tenancy agreement.

Said the Advocate: "This tenant was very intimidated by the whole Tribunal process. Without help I'm sure she would have been convinced by the landlord that leaving was her only option." But the landlord in question was a social housing provider, and the tenant's prospects of finding another home after losing that tenancy would have been pretty slim.

Not every application to terminate a tenancy can be so easily disposed of, and in fact many of them proceed through the Tribunal without a second thought. The Tribunal recently celebrated its 1,000,000th order, and although we'll never know if it was an order to terminate a tenancy, it's a reasonable bet that it was. Given the vast majority of the Tribunal's work is tenancy related, and most of the applications it hears are made by landlords seeking to end a tenancy, it hardly seems to matter. A very high proportion of those one million Tribunal orders resulted in someone losing their home.

Tenants' Advocates who work with TAAS are highly skilled and compassionate people, but they can't fix every problem that comes their way. Even if they could, it would take awhile to be able to boast that they've saved one million tenancies. Wouldn't it be nice if they could?



*This is the latest period for which we have complete sets of data across a range of sources.
**See the 'Rental Bond Board Annual Report 2011-2012' page 10.


Senin, 10 Juni 2013

Queensland TAASs and the State/Federal rollercoaster

More news just in from Queensland: the Federal Government will fund Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Services north of the Tweed for a further six months.


Perhaps we should back-track a little. You will recall that, only three short weeks ago, the Federal Government offered Queensland TAASs a "life-raft" - $2.5 million for the Queensland Government to keep TAASs going for another six months, on the condition that the State would ensure these services continue into the future.

Queensland rejected the offer, declaring that they would not formulate policy around what money they get from the Federal Government.

Today the Federal Government has announced it will give that $2.5 million straight to the Tenants' Union of Queensland, so that they can administer Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Services for a further six months.

This is great news, and we congratulate the tenants of Queensland for taking such a strong stand in support of their services.

But without a commitment from the Queensland Government - a commitment that they seem determined not to give - Queensland TAASs are still in limbo. All the more so, as the federal election looms.

This commitment from the Federal Government will carry Queensland tenants through the looming electoral storm. What happens next is anybody's guess.

In the meantime, some Queensland TAASs are closing their doors for the last time, as their highly skilled, experienced and committed staff must make tough decisions in the face of an uncertain future.

Follow Save Tenants Services for regular updates on the continuing struggle for funded Tenants Advice and Advocacy in Queensland.

Selasa, 04 Juni 2013

Tenant activism: the emergence of the Tenants Union of NSW

The Institute of Tenancy Culture Studies presents a guest appearance by Visiting Fellow, Dr Robert Mowbray.


Today just under 30 per cent of Australians live in rental housing. One hundred years ago the figure was over half, but in the second half of the twentieth century the proportion in home ownership increased due to the massive subsidisation of this tenure by the federal government, largely through the taxation system. Today, 24 per cent live in private rental and 5 per cent live in social housing where the main players are state housing authorities and, increasingly, not-for-profit community housing providers. In the 1950s social housing developed as an alternative to home ownership, but from the 1970 it increasingly was targeted to the most needy and in recent times no longer guarantees the expectation of a life tenure for new tenants.

Residential tenancies legislation is a state government responsibility but, in all States of Australia, it provides little security of tenure because, when the fixed term of the agreement expires, landlords are able to evict their tenants without having to give a reason. Fixed terms generally are no more than 6 or 12 months. In addition to poor security of tenure, housing affordability is a major problem in the private rental sector, with only one affordable, available dwelling for every five low income household. At the same time there are one quarter of a million applicants for social housing.

State-wide tenant organisations have existed across Australia since the middle of the 1970s and their major focus is lobbying for a better deal for both private and social housing tenants. This discussion looks at the emergence of the Tenants Union in New South Wales, which is the most populous of the States within Australia. However, the situation is not dissimilar in other States. The earliest reference to a tenant organisation in New South Wales is the Rent Payers Association who campaigned for fair rent legislation in the period 1910 to 1916.

During the Depression of the1930s houses in the coal fields of were declared ‘black’ and left to rot because of unfair evictions by landlords. The Unemployed Workers Movement in Sydney employed tactics that included occupation and sieges. The situation became volatile and there were major confrontations between large numbers of tenants and police carrying batons and guns. This forced the State Government of the day to introduce a law postponing evictions where there was hardship.

During the 1950s and 1960s the source of tenant power was their potential, not their actual activity. Legislation which was a legacy of the Second World War controlled rents and restricted evictions, and tenants wielded political influence through their concentration in certain electorates. However, with the phasing out of this legislation and the growth of home ownership, tenants declined as an electoral force. New tenants outside of rent control legislation were not easily identifiable as a voting group.

By the early 1970s these new tenants comprised the bulk of tenants across New South Wales. The Australian Government Commission of Inquiry into Poverty at the time reported that landlord and tenant legislation across Australia was in many respects unfair to tenants, particularly the poor and disadvantaged. Indeed, a major report to the Poverty Commission stated that the law contained grave deficiencies that needed to be remedied in the interests of tenants. The Poverty Commission’s report acted as a fillip to tenant activists and Tenants Unions emerged in a number of States.

In 1976 The Tenants Union of NSW was formed to act as a spokesperson for tenants across the State. It grew out of a working group of Shelter NSW, a fledgling housing organisation at the time. Early members of the Tenants Union of NSW were activists drawn from a variety of backgrounds. Initially it focused on establishing a network of tenant services across the state and campaigning for consumer rights-style reform legislation along the lines advocated by the Poverty Commission.

It increased its visibility by distributing posters, leaflets, car stickers and t-shirts, running stalls at festivals, seeking regular media coverage and giving talks to community groups. It was part of a coalition that campaigned around a report called ‘Reforming a Feudal Law’ as a blue-print for new legislation. A model residential lease was promoted. Other campaigns around tenancy law reform included one called ‘Campaign Action for Rental Reform’ or CARR for short, a cheeky play on the name of the then Minister for Consumer Affairs.

Tactics such as rent strikes kept the issue of tenancy law reform alive. There was a struggle to save the tenancies around a large Sydney public hospital which decided to bulldoze half its stock and sell off the rest. There were campaigns on broader issues of housing justice, including the setting up of a Tent City. Early campaigns ran in tandem with one run by resident groups to save large tracts of inner Sydney housing seen as slums from being demolished by the state housing authority (which were retained but now are totally gentrified).

It wasn’t till 1987, ten years after the establishment of the Tenants Union of NSW, that residential tenancy law reform was introduced in New South Wales. Today the Tenants Union of NSW is the State’s peak non-government organisation for people living in rental housing. It relies largely on legal aid (Commonwealth and State funding) and a small part of interest that accrues on the lodgement of tenants’ rental bond and real estate agents’ trust funds (State funding). It is a specialist community legal centre with its own legal practice in residential tenancies law, and is the primary resource body for the State-wide network of twenty-three Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services.

It is recognised by both Government and industry groups as a major stakeholder with whom to negotiate. Unlike some of the tenant organisations in Europe, Tenants Unions across Australia do not enjoy mass membership. This is because the bulk of tenants in Australia are tenants of private landlords and the types of landlords who dominate in this market are small scale individual investors (some referred to as ‘mum-and-dad’ investors) with one or two properties, attracted to rental property investment by tax breaks.

Indeed, Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that in June 1997 (at the time of its last survey on this topic) one in fifteen income units (comprising singles and couples) living in private dwellings across Australia were investors in residential rental property. This is a huge proportion of the population who are landlords. To organise tenants and sustain their membership where there are so many landlords has always been a daunting task, even though the Tenants’ Union of NSW is committed to as broad a membership as possible.

But it is for this same reason that Governments are reluctant to introduce reform legislation that provides increased security of tenure. Small scale individual investors in the private rental market usually have their eyes on the long term capital growth picture. In Australia rental properties are enmeshed in the owner-occupied market. This means the rental investor’s ability to sell the property with vacant possession on the owner-occupied market is crucial in order to maximise capital gain. This works against the legislative provision of increased security of tenure.

Yet, lobbying for law reform that promotes increased security of tenure remains a major objective of the Tenants Union of NSW. This may only become achievable when the types of landlord who dominate the rental market become large institutional investors, such as entities financed through superannuation funds; with a distinct rental housing market in which rental housing stock is traded as such. Australian workers have over one trillion dollars in superannuation assets. Australians have more money invested in managed funds per capita than any other economy.

In recent years a powerful coalition comprising peak social service, union, housing industry and community housing bodies has been lobbying for superannuation funds to invest in affordable rental housing, but so far with limited success. Certainly, a proportion of these funds directed to community housing providers would help address the affordability problem for low-income households.

In the meantime, tenant activists across Australia will continue to chip away …


Other versions of this article with photos have been published in ‘Global Tenant’ (April 2013), the quarterly magazine of the International Union of Tenants, and ‘Around the House’ (no. 92, March 2013), the newsletter of Shelter NSW.

Robert Mowbray was the founding Secretary and is a life member of the Tenants Union of NSW. He currently works with the Older Persons Tenants' Service.




Minggu, 02 Juni 2013

Not-for-profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Bill

You wouldn't know about it from the media, but last week the Federal Parliament did something good – in fact, very good, for the quality of our democracy.

The Not-for-profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Bill 2013 was debated in the House of Representatives, where it was supported by both the Government and the Opposition. The Bill originated in the Senate, where it also received support across the chamber.

When passed the Bill will prohibit Commonwealth agencies from including in agreements with not-for-profits terms that prevent them from 'commenting on, advocating support for or opposing a change to any matter established by law, policy or practice of the Commonwealth' (cl 5). It will also void any such terms in existing agreements.


This is an excellent reform and Federal MPs should be proud of it. The NSW State Government should introduce it in relation to State agencies and not-for-profits, including community legal centres.