The Guardian 4 May, 2005

NSW public housing tenants under attack

More than 100,000 low-income public housing tenants in New South Wales are facing rent increases of up to $30 a week and new tenants fixed term leases under changes announced by the Carr Labor government last week. All public housing tenants will incur an additional weekly payout of $5 or more for water use. The proposed changes to eligibility criteria include assessing applicants for social needs.

"The change will compound problems associated with con­centrating people with complex needs in one form of housing. Already, 53% of new allocations are to people with special needs and 27% of new allocations are on the basis of greater need (e.g. homelessness)", NSW Council of Social Service director Gary Moore said.

"More than 90% of the current tenant population have a social security payment as their primary source of income", said Shelter NSW executive officer Mary Perkins. "Even finding $5 a week to pay for water bills or losing more of their family payment in higher rental charges, will be a big ask for many households", Ms Perkins said.

No security

As from July 1 this year, new tenants will sign one of three fixed term leases, the maximum term being 10 years. A 10-year lease will be restricted to those who are elderly or severally disabled. After the lease period their tenancy will be reviewed and if their circumstances or rules have changed may be forced into the private rental market.

In announcing the changes, Housing Minister Joe Tripodi said, "Under the new arrangements we’ll make an assessment and ask you, for example, please explain where you got your BMW from."

"If you can’t explain, you’ll be asked to leave."

Mr Tripodi obviously has not been near public housing during his ministry.

Premier Bob Carr blames present difficulties squarely at the feet of the federal government. The Commonwealth has cut funding by $850 million since 1996. The combined neglect of the state and federal government has resulted in 71,000 applicants languishing on public housing waiting lists in NSW.

Thrown into poverty

"It shouldn’t be assumed that anyone has public housing for life", Carr said. "We want to be able to remove from public housing those people whose financial circumstances have changed since they first got in." For the Carr and other state governments, "public housing" now means "welfare housing".

From November this year, rental payments for households with an annual income of $29,000 or above will rise by 20 per cent, forcing many in this category into the substandard end of the private housing market.

Other tenants who are not eligible for a subsidy (those on Centrelink benefit get subsidised rent) will also be required to pay market value rent which heavily depends on the suburb and the vagaries of the rental market.

The change to the duration of leases for new applicants will end the security of tenure that makes this form of housing more suitable than private rental.

Welfare and housing groups have warned that the changes would increase the numbers of people below the poverty line. At best they will create a churning of tenants between private rental, public housing, and homelessness, without increasing the overall supply of public housing and entrench the "poverty trap" aspect of public housing.

At the same time they will create more and new demands on diminishing welfare services to assist tenants being evicted from public housing at their end of their fixed-term leases.

Nothing will be done to expand the provision of affordable housing.

Department of Housing staff will be given the power to determine which tenants have met prescribed obligations whether they continue to need assistance.

The government also an­­noun­ced at the beginning of this year a plan to demolish a number of housing estates particularly in Minto, Macquarie Fields and Redfern. With the implementation of private-public housing estates — emphasis on private — the government has shown it has a wider agenda that is moving away from public ownership.

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