NEWS

Public housing maintenance: a 'real fix' needed

Published on 11/05/2021

Yesterday the Tenants' Union NSW's CEO Leo Patterson Ross and Policy and Advocacy Coordinator Jemima Mowbray attended a public hearing of the Follow Up Review of the Management of Public Housing Maintenance Contracts. We were able to speak to the submission made by the Tenants' Union and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. We've published our opening statement below. A full transcript of the session will be available on the Inquiry website, along with our submission in full (submission 7). You can also download the submission here.

Leo Patterson Ross:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the committee, and thank you to the NSW parliament for taking the time to consider this vital issue. I acknowledge we are meeting on lands of the Gadigal.

The Tenants’ Union is a specialist community legal centre, the peak body representing tenants interests in NSW and the resourcing service for a statewide network of local services in the Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Program. The local services speak to approximately 25,000 people each year about their tenancy issues. In 2016, we advised  just over 1000 cases to people living in public housing calling about repairs issues in their home. Of those 1000, around 45% needed additional assistance including negotiation or representation. Since then the number of public housing tenancies has reduced by 14% but over the last 12 months we spoke to 24% more people and 62% were needing additional assistance. So we have seen an increase in both the number and the complexity of cases.

We want to impress upon the committee that while the approach of reviewing maintenance contracts is a good exercise in its own right, the contracts can’t fix a system that is being run without the resources it requires to meet the outcomes it is expected to meet.  

We should seriously reconsider the current residualisation model that restricts the amount of income people can earn whilst remaining in public housing and therefore the amount of rent income the system can generate. Of course public housing should prioritise people in greatest need, but it need not remove assistance from people who take the solid foundation public housing provides and begin to earn higher wages. This would have a range of economic and social benefits , but primarily it returns the system to having its own self-sustaining income base from which to carry out maintenance in an effective way. As the Land and Housing Corporation noted, public housing is primarily funded by the tenants themselves. It is very close to self-sustaining already with tenants paying $5 in rent and other charges for every $1 of other income, primarily government contributions. 

This would allow government greater ability to start addressing the shortfall in genuinely affordable housing - conservative estimates of need from the UNSW City Futures Research Centre show we need to be building or converting around 20,000 additional homes a year to meet the projected need in 2036. We are achieving less than half this number. 

The inability to meet the maintenance needs of the portfolio are indicative of the inability to meet the needs of the community. The committee rightly is asking whether the changes to the maintenance contracts have delivered improvements for tenants. We hope, like a good tradesperson the committee recognises that there is no long term benefit from a patch-up job - we need to get to the real fix.

We provided a significant number of recommendations to the inquiry which we are happy to speak to. We would also welcome the opportunity to clarify some points made in the Land and Housing Corporation submission particularly around the responsive and planned maintenance system.

To name an area that has improved since the previous inquiry, we note that since the Bott decision, LAHC and DCJ are notably more responsive to Tribunal applications and have much improved processes - although it is not acceptable for repairs to need Tribunal input.  

My colleague Dr Mowbray will now share one story of a person who has been supported by an advocate in their local Tenants’ Advice & Advocacy Service.

Jemima Mowbray:

Thank you Leo and again thank you Committee for the chance to speak to you.

In our written submission with PIAC we shared 20 stories from public housing tenants who had contacted their local Tenants’ Advice Service to highlight the various ways in which the current repairs and maintenance systems for public housing are making it difficult to get very necessary repairs done. We share another one today.  

Anne lives in a public housing community on the Central Coast. In May last year during a storm a large tree branch fell on her home’s roof, over her bedroom. Contractors attended quickly to the urgent request, but only provided a temporary fix: a tarp on the roof until - they said - more substantial work could be approved. The roof continued to leak and despite numerous calls to the repairs hotline, no progress was made on a permanent repair.  Just before Christmas - just as submissions were closing for this Inquiry and just over 7 months after the tree branch had first fallen - the roof over Anne’s living room caved in. The failure to do adequate repairs at the time of damage meant the leak due to missing tiles had now done significant structural damage. Anne had been sleeping in the living room, because the leaking roof had led to significant mould in her bedroom. 

At this point Anne contacted her local Tenants Advocacy Service to get assistance. It still took 3 months of advocacy and escalation to get a permanent repair. And the final ‘ scheduled list of works’ included a significantly expanded scope of works. Recognising their failure in this instance LAHC provided Anne with a reduction to her rent of 40% for the 10 months since the tree branch first fell.

What does Anne's story highlight? It highlights that for many public housing tenants an advocate is essential to getting a repair matter escalated through the system - but so many tenants do not have access to an advocate. It highlights how the failure to address in a timely manner leads to further damage and significant costs. It also highlights a failure in the contract’s current approval processes for more significant work such that the repair gets stalled and lost in the system. All the while the roof literally caves in, and the contractor and Land and Housing Corporation have lost sight of the tenant. 

Keeping the stories and experiences of public housing tenants like Anne front and centre refocuses our efforts and resolve to do better, and find solutions that more effectively address the problems we know still exist with our public housing repairs and maintenance system.