Dianna Evans: Land lease community advocate
Di Evans has worked with residents of parks and land lease communities in various capacities since the late 1980’s. She has seen permanent living in parks change from ‘housing of last resort’ to the upmarket over 55s lifestyle villages we are seeing today.
Di has witnessed the evolution of the legislation along with changes to the parks. From Local Government Ordinance No. 71 which gave people the right to live permanently in a park but did not provide tenancy rights, to a section in the Residential Tenancies Act 1987, to a separate Residential Parks Act (1998) and the current Residential Land Lease Communities Act 2013.
The history of Di’s work with residents is also varied. She worked in Blacktown City Community Services Network and the Western Sydney Housing, Information and Referral Network (WESTHIRN) providing direct services to park residents. Di also worked for the Western Sydney and South Western Sydney Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services, the Park and Village Service (PAVS) and more recently she has been doing project work for the Hunter and Central Coast Tenants Services.
We interviewed Di for this issue of Outasite so she could share her vast knowledge and experience with all of us.
When did you first start working with park residents and what was your role?
I worked for Blacktown City Community Services Network as a community development worker for caravan parks. It had only recently become legal to live permanently on a park and at that stage there were no tenancy rights. Residents could be evicted with little or no notice and if they owned their own van it could be towed out of the park. Much of my time was spent searching for emergency accommodation for residents who had been evicted.
There were four parks in the Blacktown Local Government Area, all very different to each other in appearance, the type of housing provided and the demographics of residents.
I worked with residents to establish residents’ committees and to organise groups and activities such as women’s health, craft activities, breakfast clubs and holiday activities for the kids.
What were the key issues people wanted assistance with in the early years?
In the early days it was about fighting for some form of tenancy rights for residents. There was a state-wide caravan representative group called the United Caravan and Campers Association (UCCA) and the newly formed Park and Villages Tenant’s Association (PAVTA) who took up the fight for tenancy rights.
Shelter NSW began convening a caravan park sub-committee with membership drawn from park resident groups and community organisations such as the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association (CPSA) and the Western Sydney Housing, Information & Referral Network (WESTHIRN). It was this group who were successful in having caravan park tenancies included in the Residential Tenancies Act.
Evictions were also common along with complaints about park owner’s bad behaviour and attitude. It’s funny how some things never change! Interestingly I don’t recall anyone complaining about rent or site fees but that may be because you couldn’t challenge rent increases in those days.
What are some of the most significant and challenging issues you have worked on?
Park closures were the most challenging. It was absolutely horrid seeing peoples’ lives uprooted and their beautiful homes badly damaged by forced relocations.
By the time the worst of the closures were happening legislation was in place that offered some protection to residents and covered the cost of relocating people’s homes. The problem was there were more closures and people looking for somewhere to move their homes to than vacant sites. People had to move long distances from their family and friends and their dwellings weren’t worth as much onsite in a little country town as they had been in their original spots in a beautiful beachside caravan park.
Tell us about some of the most rewarding projects you have been involved with
Overall, I think watching the increase in legislative protection for residents of parks and being involved in the shaping of that legislation has been the most rewarding.
However, there are numerous examples of rewarding projects mostly involving the community spirit that seems to be more pronounced in park communities. There isn’t the space to talk about all of them but I will give you an example of one that’s really memorable for me. It was a park closure situation at Ballina.
The park that was being closed was in the middle of town but the developer had purchased land to build a new park a few kilometres outside of town and was offering sites to residents of the old park. I was working with those residents and the developer to try to find a fair way of allocating the new sites. It was getting quite difficult because, of course, some sites were in more favourable locations than others. I was becoming quite frustrated by three women who insisted on being next to each other and in close proximity to a fourth woman. My frustration evaporated when they explained they needed to be next to each other because they shared many resources to save money – one woman had a phone that all three shared, another had a laundry and washing machine that they all used and the third had an outdoor setting that they all enjoyed. I was really humbled when they told me they needed to be close to the fourth woman because she had terminal cancer and they had organised a roster to provide her care.
How do you think the law change on 1 November 2015 has impacted on land lease community living?
The Residential (Land Lease) Communities Act 2013 is the first time in almost 30 years of watching the legislation change that I have actually seen park residents lose rights. Yes, there were a few small gains but these were far outweighed by the losses.
I believe the most detrimental change in the current Act are the provisions around fixed method site fee increases. Having increases that can never be challenged as excessive and that can bind a home owner for the duration of residency is a trap for home owners. Fixed percentage increases that compound each year, or even worse, increases that are made up of a percentage of site fees plus CPI plus a share of the communities increased operating costs are totally unfair. They result in site fees increasing so much and so quickly that home owners cannot afford to stay in their community. In some cases home owners are paying more than half the single aged pension in site fees. What is perhaps worse is that they are trapped. They cannot sell their homes because prospective purchasers cannot afford the site fee either.
What three things would you change to improve the lives of land lease community residents?
That’s easy. First, I would seek to change the behaviour and attitudes of community operators. I’d ensure that operators took part in compulsory ongoing education and introduce some form of licensing or points system that could be lost for breaches, poor standards or bad behaviour.
Very importantly I would introduce some way of informing prospective residents of lifestyle communities of exactly what they were buying into, what rights they will have and what they will not be able to control. Current disclosure statements are nowhere near good enough.
I would also get rid of fixed site fee increases and allow existing agreements to be assigned to keep site fees at an affordable level.
I would ensure that regulatory bodies such as NSW Fair Trading had sufficient resources to do the job they’re supposed to.
In my ideal world, Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services would have enough funding to allocate sufficient resources to support and assist land lease community residents.
That’s more than three... but I never was good at doing what I’m told.
This article was published in Outasite magazine issue 5, download a pdf version here. Outasite is published annually. Outasite Lite email newsletter, is sent several times a year – subscribe here. All past issues are available in the archive.