Reflecting on 21 years of advocacy for renters and land lease community residents
After more than two decades’ work as a dedicated advocate for tenants and then land lease community residents, Julie Lee is moving on to new pursuits. We took the opportunity to ask for her reflections on her work and particularly the issues faced by land lease community residents in New South Wales.
When did you start working as an Advocate for tenants and land lease community residents? What led you to take on the job?
I started work as a Tenant Advocate in April 2001, shortly after I moved to Australia from the UK. I had wanted to become an advocate for a long time and I had experience working in the housing field so becoming a Tenant Advocate seemed like a really good fit.
Initially I was mainly providing advice and assistance to tenants however, John MacKenzie was the Residential Parks Officer at the same Tenants Service, and he lured me into residential parks.
What has changed and what has stayed the same in the time you have been an Advocate?
Since I became an advocate, the biggest changes have been in residential parks/land lease communities – even the name has changed. When I first started specialising in this area the majority of parks were owned and operated by park owners who had only one or two parks. There were still a lot of homes that were caravans with an annex and rents were pretty low. All of that, and more, has changed.
Over the last eight to ten years there have been huge changes in land lease communities, sparked in part by changes in the law. In 2015 the Residential Parks Act 1998 was repealed and the Residential (Land Lease) Communities Act 2013 commenced. Corporate operators began buying up communities and that brought change to those communities. Older homes were bought by operators at every opportunity and new homes installed, new community rules were introduced, and access to the operator became more difficult. We have also seen the creation of new, purpose-built communities, which had not occurred for many, many years. These new communities have extensive community facilities including bowling greens, cinemas, libraries and computer rooms, and in some cases a bar and restaurant.
Land lease communities are now marketed as lifestyle villages and arguably they can no longer be described as affordable housing. Not only have house prices increased, so have site fees. In residential parks, homes were commonly available for less than $100,000 and site fees were less than $100 a week. Homes are now selling for anywhere between $300,000 to $1 million and that includes some pre-loved homes. Site fees have also increased massively and in some communities residents pay more than $300 a week.
What has stayed the same, thankfully, is the passion residents have for their fellow residents and communities. Over the years I have met and had the pleasure of working with the most wonderful people who live, or have lived, in parks and communities. It is the residents who make the communities – operators would do well to remember this.
What are some of the most memorable stories – the best and the worst experiences?
The thing I have enjoyed most about being an advocate, particularly in my role at the Tenants’ Union, is being able to work directly with tenants and land lease community residents. I have travelled throughout the State visiting communities, delivering community education and meeting with residents.
As a Tenant Advocate, one of the best and most rewarding outcomes is saving a tenancy. One I remember in particular was a long-term public housing tenant with three teenage children. The family had become involved in a dispute with neighbours and been issued with a termination notice. The mother had not had an easy life but she had raised three kids and maintained her tenancy for 23 years prior to this dispute. I advocated for her at the Tribunal and she was given a Specific Performance Order. Over the following years I continued to see her around the community – she was still living in the same home.
Unfortunately, the worst stories are from land lease communities. Some operators are just unscrupulous and don’t seem to care about residents – always seeking to take advantage of someone with fewer resources and less power.
A few years ago, I assisted a resident advocate who was representing a home owner at the Tribunal. The operator had taken her to the Tribunal seeking orders for her to pay around $6,000 to replace a retaining wall on her site. This wall had been installed by the operator around 20 years prior and, because it was made from wood, it had deteriorated. The wall was in place when the home owner bought her home on site and in my view, it was clearly the operator’s responsibility to repair or replace it. Instead, the operator pursued the 84-year-old home owner, putting her through Tribunal proceedings, which caused her a great deal of distress. The operator’s application was dismissed, however the stress was too much for the home owner and, rather than face further Tribunal proceedings, she paid for the wall to be replaced.
More recently I assisted another resident advocate who is representing home owners in her community on the issue of fair market value site fees in new agreements. The Tribunal has found in favour of the home owners, reduced their site fees to fair market value, and ordered refunds of overpaid amounts. The operator is now disregarding the Tribunal’s findings and again trying to charge these home owners higher site fees! The blatant disregard of Tribunal findings and orders by some operators is a serious concern. If home owners can’t rely on the decision of the Tribunal where does that leave them?
What have been the particular challenges that you have seen in your work in land lease communities?
The most challenging part of my work in land lease communities is, without doubt, dealing with operator conduct. The Residential (Land Lease) Communities Act has various provisions to protect home owners from bad behaviour, but the provisions are ineffective. Conversely, if a home owner contravenes a term of their site agreement, or a community rule, they can face termination of their site agreement.
There is a genuine need for better regulation of land lease communities and operators, but an apparent unwillingness on the part of government to acknowledge and address this. Individual home owners and advocates are trying to tackle this problem but they don’t have the tools or resources. As mentioned above, even when home owners succeed at the Tribunal and get a fair outcome, operators ignore the decision. There needs to be a fundamental change in the approach to regulating the land lease community industry.
What would you like to see change for land lease community residents in New South Wales?
The Act is currently under review and I hope that amendments will be made that bring more balance into the legislation. Land lease communities are still described as affordable housing, but I don’t think that description will continue to apply unless site fees and site fee increases are addressed. The Act currently requires site fees in new agreements to be set at fair market value but I am not aware of a single operator who complies. This is one of the most significant issues in land lease communities yet the government regulator has taken no interest and it is left to individuals to take applications to the Tribunal.
Site fee increases are also affecting affordability, particularly for long term residents on fixed incomes. The process for challenging an increase as excessive is difficult and burdensome for home owners. The operator holds all the information about why an increase may be necessary yet home owners bear the onus of proving to the Tribunal that the increase is excessive. This should be reversed – operators should be required to satisfy the Tribunal, or another independent body, why an increase is necessary.
Fixed method increases in site fees should be phased out. A fixed method increase cannot be challenged no matter how excessive and an operator does not have to provide any justification for the increase. This leads to increases not commensurate with the increase in outgoings and operating costs of the community, or with the services and facilities provided.
Finally, the government regulator needs to step up and start doing its job. If it cannot, government needs to find another way to deal with poor operator conduct. Residents should not have to endure bullying and harassment or have to deal with operators who ignore the legislation and Tribunal orders – they should be able to make a referral to a body that will investigate, resolve complaints, and take action against those operators who believe they are above the law.
What are some of the ‘top tips’ you would give to land lease community residents?
My top tip for land lease community residents is to get independent advice as early as possible about your rights, or a dispute, and to put everything in writing when dealing with an operator. Find the details for your local Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service, along with factsheets and other information at tenants.org.au/thenoticeboard
Also, use the complaints process – you probably won’t get the outcome you are seeking but unless residents make complaints, the government is not made aware of the problems.
And don’t be afraid to go to the Tribunal – it is there to resolve disputes and residents should use it. You have helped a lot of people understand their rights around their homes and communities over the years, what does ‘home’ mean to you?
To me a home is a place where you can feel safe and secure. It is somewhere you feel comfortable, where you can sleep, relax, spend time with family and friends, and where you can keep your personal and treasured possessions.
Any other reflections?
I feel very privileged to have been part of the Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Services Network for 21 years. I have worked with passionate, committed and creative advocates – all striving for a better system for people who rent their homes. Even though I am leaving my role, my heart will always stay with the Network.
Likewise, the residents and resident advocates I have talked with, laughed, cried and worked with. Their dedication to fighting for the rights of residents inspired me to do the best job I could every day. I will miss them.
This article was published in Outasite magazine issue 8. Outasite is published annually. Outasite Lite email newsletter, is sent several times a year – subscribe here. All past issues are available in the archive.