Rabu, 17 April 2013

Housing Payment Deduction Scheme - public housing to be judge of its own cause

Details as to the 'Housing Payments Deduction Scheme' proposed by the Commonwealth and State Housing Ministers have been released – along with draft legislation. It's rather different to what we discussed previously.

It's not just about compulsory deductions from social security payments for rent going forward – though it does provide for this, where a public housing landlord thinks a tenant is 'at risk' of not paying (more on that in a second). Rather, a big part of the scheme is about compulsory deductions for what a public housing landlord says a tenant owes them – without having to go to the Tribunal or court.

The scheme would make Housing NSW, and the public housing authority in each of the other States and Territories, the judge of its own cause. In effect, Housing NSW would be able to write its own garnishee orders.

As public housing tenants know, Housing NSW has the power to make decisions that affect them enormously, including in relation to their financial liability to Housing NSW. It can vary and cancel rental rebates, including retrospectively, which can plunge tenants into debts of many thousands of dollars. It makes these decisions in the absence of a really rigorous system of review and appeal (there's the Housing Appeals Committee, which does what it can, but it has no statutory basis, and cannot force Housing NSW to change a bad decision). A modicum of oversight is provided by the Tribunal: only a modicum, because the Tribunal won't review a decision to vary or cancel a rent rebate, so you're stuck with the debt, but at least the Tribunal will make up its own mind about the terms on which the debt is to be repaid.

The proposed scheme would remove even that modicum of oversight. No need to go to Tribunal – the draft legislation merely provides that Housing NSW would have to have taken reasonable action (sent a letter, perhaps?) to recover the alleged debt. Instead Housing NSW would be able to go straight to Centrelink to get the money.

And it's not just rent rebate cases that could be dealt with this way – any alleged liability could be, provided it's more than four weeks outstanding and more than $100. Instead of dealing with a problem with a bit of tact and negotiation, Housing NSW could just go to Centrelink.

That's where Housing NSW says you owe money. As we indicated, the proposed scheme would also allow Housing NSW to go to Centrelink where you don't presently owe them, but where you're 'at risk' of not paying. Under the draft legislation, an 'at risk' tenant could be someone whose has paid late, or paid short, three times in a year.

This is an outrageous proposal. It is not about preventing homelessness, or even about improving the state of arrears; it's about public housing authorities avoiding oversight. And with no need to negotiate with tenants, and no need to make a case to the Tribunal, Housing NSW's decision-making will only get worse.