Shining a light on tenants rights

By Sharon Callaghan – Former Tenant Advocate in the Illawarra

Sharon Callaghan
Sharon Callaghan, former Tenant Advocate

In the early 1980s I was a community worker at the Community Youth Support Scheme (CYSS), where housing and tenancy were significant problems for those living on low fixed incomes, trying to rent or living in boarding houses. The downturn in the steel industry and economic crisis of that time worsened the poverty for young people and families without paid employment. We asked the Tenants’ Union for training on tenants’ rights and for information on squatting.

Prior to the establishment of formal mechanisms for resolving breaches of tenancy laws and when faced with extreme landlord abuse of tenants’ rights, we relied on the media, assistance from trade unions and local social justice activists.

For example, in the early 1980s a developer landlord of a Wollongong CBD block of flats allowed demolition workers to illegally take the roof literally from over the tenant’s head rather than challenge rent-controlled tenancies through the courts. We had to act quickly. It meant the local Uniting Church minister (who could frock up at speed when the need required) joining the union leader of the day to talk with the developers and landlords about how to best support the tenants to relocate, as they wanted to move on despite their legal and moral entitlements.

Union workers, shocked by the treatment of the tenants, would go on strike leaving half-demolished flats exposed to the weather. The raging reverend in his Sunday best had no problem chaining himself to the developer’s construction fence. I suggested the Illawarra Mercury would be interested in this story.

The developer assisted the tenants by paying their costs to relocate to alternate accommodation.

In 1986 I started work as an adviser with the Tenancy Advice and Housing Referral Service (TAHRS). The issues were many and varied, making community education essential as the
demand for individual casework was relentless. We needed to assist community workers who could in turn assist tenants.

Caravan park residents raised many issues and one case became the project of creative arts students at the University of Wollongong. The very successful The Home Show was produced with theatre, music, song, photography and much humour, depicting the challenges for a group of park residents.

In 1995 I joined the Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services (TAAS) network as a tenancy advocate at the Illawarra Legal Centre and took cases to the Tribunal. Our TAAS team continued  educational work,  especially in regional or rural areas where residents had limited access to support services. We put tenant’s rights and homelessness in the media spotlight every chance we could and lobbied for law reform, particularly around security of tenure. We used theatre and art projects to show those recently arrived to Australia how best to handle tenancy problems and where to get assistance.

Rent increases, illegal lockouts, lack of privacy, bond disputes and the landlord’s failure to maintain the property were constant issues. I saw terrible examples of landlords exploiting the power imbalance with tenants and TICA, the so called “bad tenant’s database”, was often the worst example of this.

The TU was crucial to supporting me as a tenant advocate facing the complexity of the law. I always valued the TU training, support, advice and solidarity provided through the hardest, longest and most bizarre cases that would really test a tenancy worker’s faith in a sane world.