Shifts in the balance of power – reflecting on 15 years of Tenant Advocacy

Amanda El Gazzar • 03/02/2022

Amanda has been a Tenant Advocate at the Northern Rivers Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service for 15 years. She is now taking a well-earned break and looking at other possibilities. We took the opportunity to catch up with her and ask her for some reflections on her experiences, and on the situation of renters in NSW. 

When did you start working as a Tenant Advocate and what led you to take on that job?

I started as a volunteer at the Northern Rivers Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service in 2006, and then moved on to a number of different paid positions within the team. When I started, I was pretty new to the Northern Rivers area, and I was doing a business admin certificate at TAFE. My interest in the legal side of things had grown, and I began to think about my position as a renter. I realised how little I knew about the residential tenancy contract I had signed, which is probably the case for many tenants. I had never heard of Tenant Advocates before, but I came to realise that it’s very important work helping renters understand our rights and the law.

What changed and what stayed the same in the time you were an Advocate?

There have been many significant changes, particularly to the legislation that covers renting, such as the Residential Tenancies Act 2010, the Boarding Houses Act 2012, and the Residential (Land Lease) Communities Act 2013. The Consumer Trader and Tenancy Tribunal also became part of NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal. 

There used to be more face-to-face assistance for tenants – that has been changing for a number of years, but has accelerated dramatically with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For both tenants and Tenant Advocates, the situation has become more complex and challenging. Advocates need more legal knowledge and have to deal with different pieces of legislation. It can be complicated to understand how tenancy issues are impacted by other areas, such as domestic violence, consumer rights, criminal law, and local government legislation, to name a few. 

I think the balance of power has shifted due to the lack of appropriate housing. There is a bigger gap now between landlords and tenants. There used to be a more cooperative relationship – more landlords would do repairs promptly, and appreciated that they got the benefit of tenants’ rent. Now the status of renters has been greatly diminished. Being a tenant is often detrimental to your wellbeing – in terms of your ability to work, study, or do whatever it is you are trying to do in life.

What are some of the things a Tenant Advocate does on a day-to-day basis?

A typical day will involve a lot of giving advice, following up with existing clients, and strategising with other Tenant Advocates about how to get the best outcome for a client in a particular matter – not just in terms of the legislation, but also in terms of people’s lives. There is also plenty of data entry and legal research. It is often impossible to fit in everything that needs to be done in the day, so you have to prioritise and use time management skills. 

Being able to tap into the Tenants’ Union and the network of Tenancy Advice and Advocacy Services has always been invaluable. Tenant Advocates rely greatly on the work the Tenants’ Union does in producing legal resources, campaigning for legislative reform, and running strategic litigation.

What are some of the most memorable stories – the best and the worst experiences?

There have been many, many, good outcomes for tenants – all memorable, and all celebrated between the tenants and their Advocates. That helps keep us motivated to do the work. 

I remember assisting a client to overcome multiple termination notices that were clearly discriminatory and driven by the landlord’s prejudice. We also saved the tenancy of another client who had been in a situation of domestic violence and had received a notice of termination because of issues relating to the violence. We helped her avoid eviction and to stay in her home, which was now safe – the perpetrator had left.

A renter who was terminally ill with cancer was living in a social housing home which was badly infected with mould. The repair works weren’t getting done – only superficial efforts were made. The situation was not conducive to her wellbeing or to being as healthy as possible. She moved out to private rental with family and was accused of abandoning the tenancy, and pursued for costs. We were able to turn things around and make sure she didn’t owe anything, and she recovered a portion of the rent which she had overpaid while the repairs weren’t done. 

We also assisted an Aboriginal tenant to get significant repairs to his home, including new roofing and mould remediation. He also received a rent reduction and compensation, and rent was paid to the Tribunal until the repairs were carried out. That was around the time of the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which I think was a contributory factor to the Tribunal Member making the decision that they did. 

It was often fulfilling in the lead-up to Christmas when we were able to save a large number of tenancies. There tend to be a higher number of eviction applications by landlords in the Tribunal just before Christmas. So we would prioritise Duty Advocacy at the Tribunal, and were able to help many tenants stay in their homes. 

In terms of worst experiences, there have been so many heartbreaking cases. Overall, it’s the constant need to knock back clients who have legitimate needs. We know they have got a good case but without support they probably won’t get the outcome they deserve. But we just don’t have the capacity to give the support and the advice that the community needs – due to lack of resources. 

We also see clients who we know are in situations of domestic violence, but they feel they cannot get out. We can give good referrals, but help is limited. There are great programs, such as the Safety Access Meetings, but when the housing market is so tight, many clients feel like they have nowhere to go. They look at the renting crisis, and think that they won’t be able to get a house on their own. 

What have been the particular challenges you've faced as a regional Advocate in the Northern Rivers?

Every area has its different characteristics. Over the years I’ve found that the Northern Rivers is unique in terms of the diversity and variety of types of agreement and rental situation. Because of this our work has often made significant contributions to the tenancy case law. There are many informal agreements, rural agreements, additional agreements, agistments, and the like. Issues come up around tank water, utilities, fencing and boundaries, privacy and shared access on working farms. Many agreements are verbal, and that can make it difficult to help when the tenant runs into difficulties. 

The geographical challenges are also significant. It’s very difficult for an under-resourced service to cover the area from Tweed to Grafton. For Duty Advocacy, too much time is consumed on the road. Tenant Advocates play an important role in terms of mediation, especially in rural areas, but we can’t do it if we can’t get to Tribunal hearings. In rural areas we also have many clients without good access to the internet, scanning, printing, and the like, which makes life harder for them. 

What would you like to see change for renters in NSW?

We need two kinds of change: legislative change and a cultural shift. We need all of the community to recognise that housing should be available and accessible for everyone. This needs to start at the application process – the questions on some rental applications go well beyond what’s needed to show that a tenant can pay the rent. The landlord doesn’t need to know the make and model of the applicant’s car! From the get go the rental system creates a division between the ‘desirable’ and the ineligible. To get a place you’ve got to show that you are a ‘desirable’ tenant, that you fit the mould. Not everyone can do that, and if you can’t, you end up without a voice and in the most marginal housing. 

In terms of the law, ‘no grounds’ evictions [also called 'no reason' evictions, where you can be evicted and the landlord doesn't have to provide a reason] have to go. How can you make use of the rights you have under the legislation, with the threat of a ‘no grounds’ eviction hanging over you? That threat has to be removed. 

An easy legislative change that I’d like to see is an extension of the notice period when a landlord ends a tenancy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we had extended notice periods, and that worked well – people were calmer and more able to find alternative accommodation, storage, etc. There was less animosity and conflict thanks to the extra time. The notice period of 30 days at end of fixed term, or sale, is just absurd – it’s not enough. 

Culturally, landlords and agents need to accept that they have a role in making a better community. They need to recognise that when they say no to pets they’re contributing to abandonment of animals; when they say no to people on statutory incomes they’re marginalising those people; when they don’t offer support to a person experiencing or coming from a situation of domestic violence, they’re putting women and children at risk. They need to stop making assumptions based on prejudice. 

What are some of the ‘top tips’ you would give to renters?

The first piece of advice I’d give is to read your whole agreement – I know I didn’t! Do some research to understand your rights and obligations. If you run into any issues, get advice as early as possible to prevent things getting worse. Call your local Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service or Fair Trading if your local service is too busy. Some issues involve time limits, and some issues can be solved before they end up in the Tribunal, so don’t delay. 

Another top tip is to get everything in writing and keep it together in one place. Keep a journal or chronology of events. If you speak to the landlord or their agent, follow up in writing (e.g. send an email) so you have a written record. When there’s a lack of certainty about what was agreed, things come undone. The wording does matter. 

Always remember that although the landlord and agent may be friendly, when the crunch comes it’s a business relationship. You need to protect yourself as you would in any consumer transaction. 

You were very involved in advocating for residents of land lease communities. What are your reflections from those experiences?

The Northern Rivers has a large population of people living in residential land lease communities, and in my work I assisted many clients from those communities. They are interesting places! I was first introduced to caravan parks, as they were then called, by senior advocate Deirdre Dowsett, who taught me a great deal. There have been some major changes – there used to be more caravans with rigid annexes, now there are more substantial and expensive homes. The legislation has also changed dramatically. But the thing that hasn’t changed is that residents still rent the site. Also, there are still major issues with site fees, utilities, operator conduct, and local government regulations, to name a few areas. 

Most people who opt to reside in a land lease community are seniors who want to retire in peace. Unfortunately, they’re often met with unforeseen difficulties, which can be detrimental to their peace, comfort, and health. It’s relatively easy to get into a land lease community, but getting out can present many complexities. I wish there was more information available to people considering entering land lease communities, to see if it’s a good investment for them. 

The way that site fee increases work can be confusing, and the increases seem to have no end. Often people are on a statutory income, or at the lower end of self-funded retirees, so the financial impact can be huge.

The rules that exist in communities sometimes mean that residents don’t have the freedom they expect and deserve. 

There is also a clear imbalance in the legislation in relation to operator and landlord conduct. The Residential Land Lease Communities Act and the Residential Tenancies Act address issues around resident/tenant behaviour towards operators/landlords. However these Acts are indirect and have no equivalent remedies where operators/landlords harass, threaten or intimidate residents/tenants. Residents and tenants are often told that it's a police matter, yet operators and landlords can take such matters through the Tribunal.

One particularly memorable case that I was involved in was the electricity charges saga. Margaret Reckless is a land lease community resident who, like many residents, is not afraid to research and pursue her rights. She is incredibly persistent, even in the face of complex issues. I was proud to work closely with her to understand the problems around electricity charges, and pursue the case through the Tribunal. Together with the team at the Tenants’ Union, and Ken Beilby (Principal Solicitor at the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre) we got a good outcome for Margaret. The outcome has had relevance to a huge number of land lease community residents across NSW. 

You have helped a lot of people stay in their homes over the years, what does 'home' mean to you?

I know what home should mean. But I also know how different it is for renters, compared to home owners. Your home should be your foundation, and give you the safety and security to live your life autonomously. For tenants, there are many additional restrictions – such as a higher expectation of cleanliness, having to mow the lawn, pay every bill on time, etc. Home owners can let more things slide – live how they want, not mow the lawn if they don’t want to, pay a bill a bit late – and not worry that it will lead to homelessness. 

We need a cultural shift in the community – less division about the fact that there’s a renter in the street, and more equality in the meaning of home. 

Any other comments?

I’m still passionate about the work of tenant advocacy, and I’ll miss helping people in that way and having an impact on their lives. I just need some time to decompress. I wish all the very best to my fellow Advocates and to the renters of New South Wales!