I have worked and researched in housing law for one-third of my life. When news of the Grenfell Tower fire broke, our network of tenant advocates and housing researchers was heartbroken and angry, but not necessarily surprised.
People who know public housing in New South Wales (including the residents themselves) know that many of these homes are desperately in need of repairs and maintenance.
The Grenfell Tower fire is an example of the potentially tragic consequences of failure to keep rental properties in a safe and habitable condition. Watching the surviving Grenfell residents finally get to express, in national and international media, their frustration at how poorly their housing had been managed, one is struck by the thought: what would residents of public housing in NSW and other Australian states say if the cameras were finally turned on them?
Failure to repair is systemic
In an alarming trend, the NSW Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC) consistently fails to adequately repair, maintain and manage its public housing properties. As this trend continues, the principal policy response has been to sell properties or outsource management.
The 2016 NSW parliamentary report into management of public housing maintenance contracts provides countless examples of what can only be described as systemic failure by the LAHC to meet its obligations as a landlord. In NSW, that legal requirement is to provide and maintain the residential premises in a reasonable state of repair.
This is a strong and clear obligation. There is little confusion in the community or among housing workers about what it means. However, both public and private tenants know there are few options for actually ensuring repairs are carried out.
In the private sector, tenants fear retaliatory evictions or rent increases when they attempt to assert their rights to repairs. In public housing, where tenure security is stronger and rent increases are manageable, tenants still wait for unacceptably long periods for repairs. Further, the work of contractors in some areas was described as “patch jobs”, resulting in recurring issues.
The parliamentary report shows that the majority of tenant requests did not result in responsive maintenance. Instead, they were assigned to a schedule of planned works stretching many months into the future. As a result, tenants who do seek repair orders from the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) were considered “queue jumpers” by some LAHC staff.
Cost is nominated as a significant factor. Among Redfern Legal Centre’s submissions to the report were accounts of tenants being told the LAHC could not afford to carry out repairs.
However, analysis of the LAHC annual reports shows that rent collected from tenants was more than enough to cover the costs of repairs, council rates and tenancy management. Rents represent 75% of the corporation’s total revenue.
A restructuring of the LAHC’s maintenance contracts in 2015 improved matters in some areas. However, tenants’ advocates continue to report large numbers of calls from public housing tenants relating to repair issues. In 2016, some 20% of the issues tenants raised in calls to the Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services related to repairs.
This amounted to nearly 1,000 complaints, which compares unfavourably to both private and community housing tenancies. Despite heavily subsidised NCAT application fees, social housing tenants made only 163 applications for repairs to the tribunal in 2015.
A problem of attitude
The accessibility of the NCAT and the strong legislative protections relating to repairs and maintenance should put tenants in a position of confidence when it comes to enforcing their rights.
The core of the issue may very well be attributable to attitudes to public housing tenants. The Grenfell fire has been likened to Hurricane Katrina and Flint as a situation where poor communities live in conditions in which they are vulnerable because, as David Madden put it:
They routinely faced a level of risk that would never be tolerated for wealthier city-dwellers.
Public housing tenants in Australia are often spoken of in terms of their cost to society, not their contributions.
Demand significantly outweighs the state’s willingness to supply public housing. A result of this is that tenant demographics become less diverse and reflect complex needs, which are compounded by an inability to afford market rents.
Tenant participation processes in public housing systems are effectively non-existent. And, as we saw with the Grenfell residents, any calls for change are likely to fall on deaf ears.
The NSW government points to satisfaction surveys and consultations held in public spaces. But that’s not really listening – anyone who has engaged in that process knows there is no real conversation happening.
While governments have easy access to media to share their opinion, too few journalists are willing and able to probe their claims. Public housing tenants’ voices are too often dismissed. What needs to happen for us all to start listening, and will we start before it’s too late?
This article was written with assistance from Leo Patterson Ross, Advocacy and Research Officer at the Tenants’ Union of NSW. Assistance included supplied statistics, reference material and guidance.
Authors: Gemma McKinnon, Associate Lecturer, Law School, UNSW