A day in the life of Esther Smith, Tenant Advocate
How long have you been an Aboriginal Tenant Advocate?
I've been a Tenant Advocate at the Greater Sydney Aboriginal Tenants' Service (GSATS) for three months. I’ve returned after previously working in this role for 2 years. I have also been an Aboriginal outreach worker at South West Sydney Primary Health Network’s (PHN) Close the Gap programme for nearly two years which was also tenancy work, and I already had a connection with GSATS in that role. More recently, I worked in Aboriginal Legal Service Care and Protection and Family Law as a field officer.
How has your previous experience helped you with this new role?
My life experience and previous work means I already had some experience and understanding of both private and social housing issues. I have been working in my community for years. I come from a multicultural family and this has equipped me with the ability to assist and understand the needs of people who come from different backgrounds. This includes understanding culture and language.
What area does the Greater Sydney Aboriginal Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service cover?
The whole of greater Sydney from Gosford to the Shire to Lithgow to Bowral – it’s a pretty big area! I went from working just in South Western Sydney to working in Greater Sydney where I have clients all over. At the moment I am assisting tenants in Campbelltown, Tahmoor, Bankstown and St Marys.
What is a success that you have had as a Tenant Advocate?
One tenant came to us because DCJ Housing were demanding access to her backyard to remove a tree that was sacred to her because her mother’s ashes were planted under the tree. The tree was still living and just some of the branches needed trimming, but Housing wanted it cut down instead. Housing didn’t understand the cultural significance of the tree to the tenant so they took the tenant to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) on the basis that they had a permit for the tree to be removed – without an inspection of the tree.
We stepped in and corresponded with the local council. The day before the Tribunal hearing, the council sent a halt on the proceedings of the permit in order to do a more detailed inspection of the tree. We still attended the Tribunal hearing and it was agreed to adjourn for two weeks to allow the council to carry out their inspection. When it went back to hearing, Housing were still trying to insist on being able to remove the tree but the Tribunal Member encouraged them strongly to withdraw, given that the report from the council was recommending pruning only. Housing withdrew their application.
Recently, another tenant was sued for $200,000 by Housing due to alleged rental fraud and the case proceeded to the Supreme Court. My client did not get evicted and the damages owing were reduced to $20 000.
More recently, I have helped tremendously with homelessness prevention and stopping evictions from occurring.
Tell us a little about your position and what you do on a day-to-day basis?
I mediate between tenants and other service providers and refer tenants to other service providers where necessary, but as well as this I am regularly at the Tribunal or preparing for Tribunal hearings with my tenants, which can include preparing and reviewing evidence, drafting submissions and applications and home visits to clients (which are a major part of my day). We do try to keep matters out of the Tribunal as much as possible. I also deal with a lot of the domestic violence cases that come into GSATS. Repairs and maintenance and compensation in relation to that makes up a lot of my work. I also do community outreach work at places like the Tharawal Aboriginal Land Council, Women’s Group and duty advocacy.
A substantial amount of my work is negotiation. This includes ensuring tenants understand the implications of obligations imposed upon them as well as ensuring Housing and landlords understand the position of the tenant.
What keeps you motivated to go to work each day?
What are the challenges in your job?
Sticking it out until the end because some matters can really drag out. You are always feeling for your clients but you have to stay calm and handle it and keep them calm until the end. I have some clients that I have been working with for over two years and they are still not finalised.
Communication also poses a challenge as it can be difficult to communicate between tenants, landlords and real estate agents especially given the implications of COVID-19 and working remotely. Evidence needs to be submitted in a timely matter and it is important that this evidence is conveyed appropriately.
Do you have any hobbies outside of your work?
I am a grandma to 17 grandkids, the oldest is 16 and the youngest is 4 months. I don’t have much time for anything else after that!
You help a lot of people maintain their homes, what does your home mean to you?