Selasa, 16 Agustus 2011

A postcard from the Older Persons Tenants Service

We like getting mail at the Brown Couch, especially when the sender is legendary tenants advocate Dr Robert Mowbray... and doubly especially when the subject is the excellent work of the Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services. Robert points out that it is now over 100 years since this sort of work first began in New South Wales:

Tenancy services existed as early as 1910 when the New South Wales Rent Payers Association acted as advocates for tenants in early cases before the Fair Rents Court.

(No harpies! An election dodger c 1910)

Contemporary tenants' services only appeared in the 1970s due to the fillip provided by the Commonwealth Government’s Commission of Inquiry into Poverty. The Tenants' Union of NSW emerged in 1976 and has played a crucial role in lobbying for tenants. From its establishment it built up a network of tenants' services, initially relying on volunteers.

In 1986 the NSW Department of Housing funded a Housing Information and Tenancy Services Program. In 1994 NSW Fair Trading refunded a revamped program now called the Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Program.

The need for tenants' services in 2011 is as great now as it was one hundred years ago, as tenants get pushed from pillar to post, with a shrinking private rental market and landlords extracting very high rents. 'Affordability' and 'housing stress' are now words in our lexicon.

To illustrate his point, Robert has kindly provided a 'postcard' from the Older Persons Tenants Service, noting some of the cases that he and his fellow tenants advocates have been conducting recently.

Hello from OPTS.... let's take a look at some of the cases that crop up on a typical day at a Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service.

First, an update on an OPTS client, Arthur, an elderly tenant in the southern suburbs who has developed dementia. Arthur's family had moved him to a nursing home, but forgot to place a stop on rent payments from his bank account to the real estate agent and these continued for many months. After the threat of legal proceedings against the real estate agent, combined with a complaint to NSW Fair Trading, the real estate agent has refunded the full amount overpaid, which was around six and a half thousand dollars. Apparently the real estate agent had re-allocated the account number to another landlord at another address, who never queried getting two lots of rent for the same property!

Now the case of Hilda, a tenant of a social housing provider in Western New South Wales, who sought our help to recover $2,500 overpaid rent. After a letter plus reminders over a number of months, the social housing provider has written back acknowledging double payments because, in bureaucratic language: ‘We were installing a new computer system. The retrospective subsidies created in the new system duplicated actions taken in the old system just prior to the implementation of the new system’.

A case under the Landlord and Tenant Amendment Act 1948 – Maria lived in a small cottage on the Lower North Shore for over 60 years, and with her now-deceased husband raised their family there. Maria is a protected tenant under the 1948 Act, but that legislation is silent on the issue of repairs. Nevertheless, Maria asked for some essential repairs and in response received a ‘Notice to Quit’. The house timbers had become riddled with white ants, so we organised a builder’s report and this advised that the house was fix-up-able without the need for Maria to vacate. However, Maria has decided to negotiate a settlement payment in return for her giving vacant possession.

Another protected tenant, Shirley, lives with her son in a beachside cottage owned by her local government council. Her landlord applied to the Fair Rents Board, asking that it set a fair rent on the property. There have been very few fair determinations across New South Wales in recent years. However, Council were unable to pull together the necessary documentation. (Remember ‘Yes, Minister’ and ‘the floods of 1967’.) After three hearings of the Board, we're negotiating a new rent through a deed to be signed by both parties, which also will comply with the requirements of the legislation.

Bob and Beryl have rented a flat over a shop front on the Northern Beaches for 27 years. The landlord has done his little repairs over the years and the flat needs a good coat of paint. But when the hot water system broke down, Bob sent a letter to the real estate agent asking for it to be fixed. The next day he was served with a termination notice. The landlord's story is that he intends to refurbish the flat. Bob and Beryl have stayed put and so the real estate agent has taken them to the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal. Bob was prepared to defend the matter on the grounds of a retaliatory application and his and the landlord’s circumstances, but we had to advise him that there was no certainty that the Tribunal Member would dismiss the landlord's application, even if it ruled that the application was retaliatory. The Tribunal still might give more weight to the landlord's intention to refurbish the flat, given its age and condition. If this was the case it might only give Bob and Beryl 90 days to leave (this being the statutory minimum for long leases under the new legislation). Besides, even if the Tribunal had dismissed the landlord's application, the landlord may have re-applied for the same orders at any time or increased rent upon 60-days' written notice. Bob and Beryl feared that any rent increase would make their rent unaffordable and thus force them out, given that their current rent is substantially below market rent. So, in the end, the parties have settled, with Bob agreeing to give vacant possession some six months down the track.

Isabelle and Claude are both in their seventies. Claude faces hefty medical bills because of emphysema. They have been renting their current house on the South Coast for nine years and have a long association with the area. Recently they received notice of a hefty rent increase of $55 per week. They cannot afford the new rent. And then they were told that the property is to be auctioned. They received a no-grounds termination notice. Isabelle seized the initiative and approached the owner of a holiday house a few blocks away. She asked whether he would be interested in renting. The owner said that he didn’t want to rent to strangers, but he’s would consider renting to her. But first he’d need to finish some building work. Isabelle said that that would be OK … let’s hope it works out, because it would take years for Isabelle and Claude to re-establish a network of friends in a new area and, also, Claude needs to be close to his specialist.

Kris has only just moved into social housing. His landlord has provided him with a copy of his residential tenancy agreement and a condition report, the landlord's part of which is clearly fudged, with all squares marked 'Y' saying everything was rosy, including for one non-existent room! We're seeing a lot of this sort of thing. In total there were 45 discrepancies and eight matters requiring immediate attention ... although, overall, the premises were in good shape. OPTS has asked the social housing provider to re-do its part of the condition report. We're also looking at recent changes to the law in New South Wales – both under the new residential tenancy legislation and the Australian Consumer Law – that may give redress to a tenant in this situation. Hopefully that won’t be necessary here.

The injustices and anomalies that occur in the lives of tenants who seek advice and help from OPTS all get fed into the policy development activities of the Tenants Union, so that in the long term tenants get a modicum of justice from the system. The day is never dull at a tenants’ service…
Too right, Robert. Thanks for the postcard, and thanks OPTS for everything it does for older tenants in New South Wales. (Thanks also to Shelter NSW, which has previously published some of Robert's case studies in its newsletter, Around the House.)