Kamis, 29 November 2012

Maintenance of NSW public housing to be 'reviewed'

Anyone who has been visiting the Brown Couch for more than a year will know that we've long been keeping watch on the state of repairs and maintenance of public housing in New South Wales.

Since 2008, 'housing services' and 'asset management' have been operating as two entirely separate functions of the NSW public housing system. Combined with a focus on cyclical maintenance at the expense of prompt action on tenants' requests for repairs, this has been to the detriment of both tenants and the properties they live in.

We started to notice some big problems soon after the State Government formalised the split, and sent the NSW Land & Housing Corporation - that is, the legal entity that owns all of our public housing - off to sit under a completely different government department to it's erstwhile overlord, Housing NSW. Since then, tenants have dealt with Housing NSW on matters relating to the management of the tenancy, while the Land & Housing Corporation has kept to itself on matters relating to management of the asset. Now, in order for this approach to work there must be a clear focus on responsive repairs as a priority for asset management, so that when a request for repair is raised by a tenant it is promptly and satisfactorily seen to. The Land & Housing Corporation's current practice doesn't reflect this - tenants are often told they need to wait for repairs, or that the repairs they need are simply not a priority.

This creates a second, and much more insidious problem.

Under the Residential Tenancies Act, a landlord is obliged to maintain a tenanted property in a reasonable state of repair. If there is a disagreement as to what the "reasonable state of repair" should be, a tenant can take their landlord to the Tribunal for an order for repair. If, after all the evidence has been considered, the tenant's view is favoured over that of the landlord, the order will be made.

But when a tenant of the Land & Housing Corporation applies to the Tribunal, it is the tenancy manager - Housing NSW - who turns up to respond. The asset manager - the Land & Housing Corporation, who is also the landlord - might provide some evidence, but that usually just amounts to confirmation of their mistaken priorities. It's not uncommon for tenancy managers, after being told "there's nothing in the budget for that", to express a quiet frustration that the asset managers aren't really letting them to do their job.

... and when the Tribunal orders the repair notwithstanding the landlord's mistaken priorities, the problem created by this separation of roles is further compounded. The tenancy manager has to get the asset manager to accept that their priorities need to change, and this doesn't always go well. In these cases, the tenant is left high and dry. Their only real option is to go back to the Tribunal, where the tenancy manager will turn up to respond again, armed with nothing but the landlord's mistaken priorities and, if the tenant is lucky, the allure of token compensation.

This is a huge problem for tenants, and it's one that has been keeping the Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Services busy. For well over a year, Tenants' Advocates across New South Wales have been advising and assisting public housing tenants to make the most of this botched system. At the same time, we've been telling anyone who will listen that there's a problem here that must be fixed.

Perhaps someone has started listening? It's too early to say. But it seems the Land & Housing Corporation has flagged, in it's recent Annual Report (included in the Department of Finance & Services 2011/12 Annual Report at page 67-149), the development of a new maintenance model. This would form part of a strategy to meet its published objectives. This follows its statement in the 2012/13 budget papers (at page 8.24) that it 'will undertake a strategic review of its maintenance operations over the next two years...'

We look forward to the conversation from here.