Reflections of a Blue Mountains Tenant Advocate
Jo Hibbert has been a Tenant Advocate at the Blue Mountains Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Service for seven years. Now she’s retiring for a well-earned break, so we took the opportunity to ask her for some reflections about her time in the world of tenancy.
When did you start working as a Tenant Advocate?
I started in May 2012. Before that I had quite a multifaceted work life – from managing a Neighbourhood Centre with a range of services, to working with homeless youth, to teaching cooking to kids and older people.
What has changed and what has stayed the same in the time you’ve been a Tenant Advocate?
Well, one thing that’s stayed the same unfortunately, is that too many tenants are still getting a raw deal at the Tribunal. They get penalised with compensation claims and costs, while landlords almost never get prosecuted. Even landlords and agents who are repeat offenders – who fail to lodge bonds and who rent illegal dwellings for example – only ever seem to get reprimanded, not penalised.
For Tenant Advocates, the workload has gone up and the funding has gone down! The Tenant Advice Services haven’t had a funding increase in many years. At our service that means that renters aren’t getting the support they need. There’s so much demand, but we just can’t meet it – we don’t have the capacity. We’d like to help more tenants with their Tribunal appeals and applications, and with support at the Tribunal in both Katoomba and Penrith. But we just can’t – I haven’t been able to go to the Tribunal in Penrith for some time, even though tenants from the lower mountains are directed there. I can only make it to the Tribunal in Katoomba.
What are some of the things a Tenant Advocate does on a day-to-day basis?
When I come in, I check the advice line for messages and do intake for new advices and cases. I probably spend some time chasing people for evidence. It’s a challenge trying to keep a hold of all the cases and advices that are open. And it’s often not possible to get everything done. Sometimes there’s not even time for a toilet break!
But it’s a great job – I love fighting for tenants’ rights and facing up to the other side. Getting a win is great. And my colleague at the Blue Mountains Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Service is a gem! I want that written! Ben Connor is an absolute gem! Also, the support we receive from the Tenants’ Union is invaluable – having legal back-up just a phone call away is so important.
What are some of the most memorable stories – the best and the worst experiences?
One memorable case was a tenant in social housing. She was really doing it tough and had problems with drug addiction; and often she would fall behind on her rent. I ended up having to defend her from eviction about six times over four or five years. Her social housing landlord didn’t seem to care or act on their responsibility to provide support and work with other relevant agencies and instead responded immediately with Termination Notices with intention to evict. At the last of many Tribunal hearings the landlord was determined to obtain a speedy eviction and the Member was clearly in agreement. My response to the Member was that the tenant had engaged with drug support and health services and I put it to him – “How do you know, if she is given another chance by the Tribunal, that she will continue to default on her rent? What if this is the time she will actually make real change if given the opportunity to keep her tenancy?” It was good to have an ongoing supportive relationship with her – and I made sure she never lost her tenancy, her home.
There have been lots of other long-term cases where I feel I’ve made a difference – working with renters who have hoarding problems for example. There are some clients that I feel I’d like to call up and say goodbye to!
The worst experiences have been the tenant versus tenant disputes. We try and get conflict mediation and get the landlord to help if it’s happening in social housing. We won’t act for someone to get someone else evicted – that’s not what we do. The Community Justice Centres can be helpful sometimes and help people to reach a compromise, but not if both parties won’t voluntarily participate. Most tenants just want to live in peace, but in some communities there are multiple problems and disadvantage that result in threatening and unacceptable behaviours. Most people don’t want to see their neighbour evicted, but they want the problem behaviour to stop. It is my experience that social landlords fail in their duty to ethically manage such situations.
What would you like to see change for tenants in NSW?
Well, number one is the 90-day “no grounds” eviction notice. This really undermines any other rights tenants have. These evictions are unfair and need to end. The landlord should have to give a reason if they’re going to evict someone. And a lot of these evictions are retaliatory – but it’s so hard to prove! One retaliatory eviction I managed to prove happened when a landlord hadn’t lodged the bond. We succeeded in getting the Complaints Unit at NSW Fair Trading to ring this landlord and give him some counselling – explain to him that he had to lodge the bond with the Rental Bond Board. But his response was that within half an hour he had delivered a 90-day “no grounds” eviction notice to the tenant! That time we managed to get the eviction overturned in the Tribunal, because it was clearly a case of the landlord retaliating for the tenant asserting their legitimate rights. But it’s often hard for tenants to prove this. The Tribunal tends to lend too much weight to landlords, and to make quick assumptions. It’s particularly hard for tenants who haven’t had any advice from a Tenant Advocate.
Another thing that needs to change is having stronger legislation around having pets. Tenants should be allowed to have pets if they want to – anything else is discrimination. Another totally discriminatory feature of the law is the ‘antisocial behaviour’ provisions in social housing. These need to change.
Repairs are always one of the biggest issues. In the Blue Mountains we see a lot of issues with mould and cold. We see urgent repairs not getting done. Heating issues that aren’t being resolved even when it’s freezing cold, like fireplaces that don’t work. Trying to get those fixed can be a struggle. A lot of the houses up here are old weatherboard cottages. They’re not suited to the conditions. But landlords still charge substantial rent – and don’t do the repairs that are needed. Landlords and agents love to blame tenants for causing the mould or “choosing” to live in a cold place.
You have helped a lot of people stay in their homes over the years, what does “home” mean to you?
For me, “home” spells security and safety. It’s not just about having four walls, but about being safe. It’s also about community. And stability. Renters need to be able to stay in a place for 10 or 20 years, to keep their kids in the same school, to raise a family. It’s too hard to move homes every few years.
What are some of the ‘top tips’ you would you give to tenants?
Always send an email after a phone conversation! So that you’ve got something in writing. Always make sure you’re at the final inspection! And preferably have someone with you, like a friend. When you move in, do your condition report and take photos! Don’t delay in exercising your rights – some things have limited time periods. There are lots of tenants who don’t get the rights they deserve because they miss the time period for taking action. Act early, not late! Check out tenants.org.au and get advice from your local Tenant Advocate.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to build a tree house! There are 4 big Norfolk pines in my backyard, and I’m going to build a platform up there and sit and look at the view! I’m also going to build an old prop-style clothes line. I’m going to read books, go to the beach, and do some more volunteering.