Selasa, 17 Maret 2009

Public housing water cases flood Tribunal

The other day I was leafing through the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal's Quarterly Management Report – as you do – and was taken aback by the number of proceedings by Housing NSW (previously known as the Department of Housing) against public housing tenants in relation to, of all things, water usage charges.

Prepare to be taken aback yourself. In the quarter to December 2008, Housing NSW made 232 applications against tenants alleged to be in breach of their obligation to pay water usage charges. By contrast, private sector landlords made just 128 such applications.

Even more alarming, Housing NSW made an additional 633 applications for orders terminating the tenancies of public housing tenants for failure to pay water usage charges. Private sector landlords made no such applications – not a single one.

Put another way, water usage proceedings represented over 30 per cent of all Housing NSW's proceedings in the Tribunal. In fact, of all the applications for orders made in the Tribunal's tenancy and social housing divisions – by landlords and by tenants – about one in twelve was by Housing NSW about water usage.

This level of litigation over water usage charges is absurd. That this litigation should put at risk the tenancies of 633 households – who are very likely to be poor and vulnerable households who would end up homeless if they were evicted – is outrageous.

Sure, I accept the argument that public housing's poor households are more likely to fall behind in water usage payments than household generally. And I accept that Housing NSW has a legal right to take proceedings in the event of breach. But the absurdly high level of litigation about water usage really calls into question the general standard of decision-making by Housing NSW officers.


It also calls into question the way Housing NSW charges for water use – though that's always been dubious. No-one in private rental or homeownership pays for water like public housing tenants do – and governments would not think of asking them to.

Since 2005, special amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act have allowed Housing NSW to charge for water usage under 'guidelines' specific to public housing. Under these guidelines, tenants of properties without water meters (and about half of all public housing properties are not metered) are charged according to their rebated rent and, hence, their household income. This 'water usage charge', therefore, has nothing to do with the amount of water the household actually uses.

For public housing tenants in metered properties, the situation is less daft, but still odd. At first they pay according to their rebated rent, like those in unmetered properties, until they've been there for a complete billing cycle from the local water authority and Housing NSW can work out the actual water usage. This becomes the basis of the water usage charge over the next billing cycle, and their actual water usage over the second billing cycle becomes the basis of the charge over the third cycle, and so on, with credits and debits added to account for differences from cycle to cycle.

It really is daft, and makes you wonder in how many of those Tribunal proceedings is there a tenant, deliberately or otherwise, reacting against the irrationality and injustice of the system.