Drawing on the past, taking on the future

By Ned Cutcher, Senior Policy Officer of the Tenants' Union

Ned Cutcher
Ned Cutcher, Tenants' Union Senior Policy Officer

Drawing on the experience and expertise we’ve gathered over the last four decades, the Tenants’ Union of NSW celebrates its 40th anniversary with a bold new plan. We’re working towards a society where low-income households can access secure, liveable and affordable rental housing, and in the meantime we’ll make a positive difference to the lives of people who rent in New South Wales. We’ll ensure that high quality legal information, advice and advocacy is freely available to all tenants, and we’ll influence public opinion about tenants’ rights and interests through research, advocacy and public comment. We’ll push for fairer renting laws, and a rental market that provides tenants and other renters with the housing options they need. Most importantly, we’ll strengthen our capacity, and build new support for our goals, so we can continue to work with tenants and do these things for another 40 years or more.

Many of our priorities have remained with us since we were established in 1976. Starting out as a volunteer and activist Tenancy Working Group of the recently formed Shelter NSW, our original aims were to become a representative organisation and act as a voice for the interests of tenants. We sought to improve the status and rights of tenants through law and policy reform, and to disseminate information on tenants’ rights and obligations. We hoped to build a network of autonomous local groups, affiliated with our organisation, to provide advice and resources to tenants and encourage them to take action in support of their rights. We collected information and undertook research about conditions in the rental market, and the problems tenants faced. We worked to have tenants directly represented in all forms of government and the administrative decision making that affects them. We argued for the availability of good quality rental housing for all.

These priorities have seen us through 40 years as an organisation. They have driven us in all we have set out to do, and all we have achieved. The landscape has shifted from time to time – sometimes dramatically – but we have never seen a change that would render our work complete. Nor do we expect to. No matter how big or small the victories we might yet claim, there will always be more to do. Tenants need strong, enforceable rights, and to achieve this they need an organisation that speaks with them, hears them, and engages with them as they voice their needs and concerns. As we look back over the many years of the Tenants’ Union of NSW, we can see that sometimes the more you succeed, the harder you have to try.

Information, advice and advocacy

The establishment of information, advice and advocacy networks was a founding objective for the TU. As early as 1975, before we had formally established a discrete organisation, the Tenancy Working Group produced and distributed a booklet called Your Rights As a Tenant in NSW­. In 1977 we began training volunteers to set up tenants’ advice services around the state, inviting people from a range of organisations to take our information about tenants’ rights back to their local communities. They, in turn, gave us stories and insights from their work that helped shape our understanding of tenants’ rights, and further develop our expertise.

That same year the Rental Bond Board was established and we lobbied, unsuccessfully at the time, for the interest on bonds to fund tenants’ advice services. The Tenants Hotline began in 1979, with administrative funding from the Legal Aid Commission but staffed by volunteers. It was not until 1985 that the first services began to operate under ‘HITS’, or the Housing Information and Tenancy Service program, funded by the interest on tenants’ bonds. The TU was instrumental in establishing these services, and provided resources and training for HITS workers across NSW.

But HITS was relatively short-lived. In 1989 the program was defunded, and we spent the next five years working with a small number of organisations who could spare some of their funding for a tenancy worker. We maintained our networks as best we could, relying again on volunteers and activists to provide information and organise around tenants’ rights, and to keep our hotline running. We reworked and published our booklet as the Tenants’ Rights Manual in 1991, and continued to develop a model for community-based tenants’ advice services across NSW.

Then, in 1994, following a period of economic and political turmoil for NSW, the Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Program was established. The TU negotiated a trade-off against the HomeFund scheme, which meant that independent Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Services would be funded across the state. The TAAS program continues to this day.

In December 2015 the TAASs celebrated their 21st birthday. Their history and longevity is testament to their value – there has always been a need for tenants’ services, and there always will be. The establishment of the TAAS network will always be one of the TU’s greatest achievements. In spite of this, the TAASs are under pressure. They have not had a proper increase in funding since 2002, and we estimate they are unable to assist one in every three tenants who comes to them for help. In 2015 we called for the NSW Government to unlock some of the surplus of tenants’ money that still sits with the Rental Bond Board and bring their funding up to scratch. These calls have gone unanswered.

Better laws, stronger rights

The maintenance of advice networks and services across the state has given us continued access to tenants’ experiences. It has allowed us to observe the emergence of trends and changes in the conduct of landlords, and understand the often-urgent need for improved tenants’ rights. For 40 years we have used these insights to press the case for law reform. From the establishment of the Rental Bond Board in 1977, to the implementation of the first Residential Tenancies Act in 1989 and its redraft in 2010, and the introduction of basic occupancy rights for boarding house residents in 2012, much of the TU’s public policy work has centred around engagement and intervention in the law reform process.

Our connection to frontline services and their everyday encounters with tenants provides clear evidence of their experience and expectations of the law, and this has bought us a seat at the law reform table. But our influence has always been measured against the powerful forces of the property lobby – despite our expertise and our clear vision for fairer renting laws, our influence remains difficult to exert.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that our renting laws would be worse for tenants if not for the work of the TU. We’ve managed to steer the Residential Tenancies Act in some sensible directions, notwithstanding its flaws. Particularly during the transition from the 1987 version to the 2010 Act, we lobbied for the regulation of tenancy databases; as well as provisions that recognised co-tenancy agreements for the first time, making it easier for a co-tenant to leave a violent partner by allowing them to end their interest in a tenancy.

On the flipside, we were unable to convince the government of the day to refrain from excluding sub-tenants from the Act’s coverage unless they had a written tenancy agreement, or prevent landlords from ending tenancies without specifying their reason. The Act is now five years old and it is currently under review. The TU has raised these and many other concerns with the NSW Government and we anticipate further discussion about law reform in the coming months. Our work continues.

Our policy work has also included tracking the NSW Government’s approach to our social housing system, which has been in steady decline for decades. Rather than seek to bolster its stocks with new housing, various state administrations have set to the task of rationing and rationalising social housing so that it is now seen as a form of social welfare, or “housing of last resort”. We’ve always struggled to accept this and have worked hard to ensure the rights and interests of tenants in social housing are kept front-of-mind when new policy initiatives are being considered or implemented. With the recently announced “Future Directions for Social Housing” outlining a ten-year plan for the growth and management of social housing in NSW, there’s still much to be done on this front as well.

What’s next for the TU?

As we celebrate our 40 years of history, we find ourselves in an unexpected position. We have much to celebrate, and we can run off a list of achievements that may have seemed unattainable in 1976. But the more we accomplish, the harder it becomes to effect change … and greater change is still needed. Our renting laws include some useful provisions, and we’re better off with them than without, but they still leave tenants without the basic protection of reasonable grounds for termination. This reflects a housing market that is driven by outcomes for property investors rather than the needs or desires of those who live in rented homes.

To get to where we are we’ve adapted, made allowances, and accepted that sometimes we need to wait for another day. In doing so, we’ve managed to wedge ourselves deep within the system that we once set out to challenge. That’s not to say we should abandon our position – it is useful to occupy a space from which we know we will be heard. But as we argue against the worst excesses of a housing system that has failed, we also know that simply being heard is not enough.  Changing the law is one thing, but what’s really important is to change people’s minds about the way housing should work.

Over the last 40 years the nature of renting has changed. Our laws have improved, and tenants have obtained greater access to information and advice about their rights. But the rapidly increasing cost of housing means that more people are now renting for longer, as they struggle to break into home ownership. Working families with children now make up nearly half the private rental market in Australia today, and the fastest growing group in the market is tenants who share their house with flatmates. For many, the private rental market will always be the only genuine option for housing. Rates of home ownership are in decline and even those who have achieved home ownership are finding it difficult to pay off their mortgages before retirement. In the current conditions, the idea that renting is just a stepping stone to a better life simply cannot be sustained.

The Tenants’ Union knows this. We understand that many others know this, too. Our challenge is to convert this knowledge into action, to bring about an understanding amongst all who engage with the Australian housing system. A house is a home, and a secure home should not depend upon whether you’re a tenant or a mortgagor.