Jenny Leong slams Minister Goward over bonds scheme for public housing

Greens NSW Housing spokesperson and Member for Newtown, Jenny Leong MP has condemned the Minister for Family and Community Services and Social Housing, Pru Goward for pushing through legislation which will force unfair bonds and conditions on public housing tenants while allowing for mandatory evictions.


Ms JENNY LEONG (Newtown) (10:27:14): On behalf of The Greens, I speak on the Residential Tenancies Amendment (Social Housing) Bill 2018, which seeks to implement a bond scheme for public housing tenants that includes termination of tenancy for non-payment and introduces mandatory termination of tenancy where someone living in public housing or community housing is found guilty of certain fraud offences. Minister Goward stated in her second reading speech that this bill aims to send a clear message to tenants that they have a responsibility to look after their properties and be honest in their representations. I have a clear message to Minister Goward, the Liberals and The Nationals: you are the ones shirking your responsibilities when it comes to looking after public housing properties and the people who live in them and you are the ones who are not being honest in your representations when it comes to the potential outcomes of this bill.

This week is National Homelessness Week. This year the Minister for Family and Community Services, and Minister for Social Housing has chosen National Homelessness Week to introduce a bill to this place that places further financial hardship and pressure on public housing tenants and makes it easier for people living in public and social housing to be evicted if they are not able to pay. I have a pop quiz for those playing along at home: What happens to a person when they are evicted from public housing? You do not have to be an expert to get that one right. They become homeless. Perhaps Minister Goward thinks that National Homelessness Week is about doing what you can to contribute to homelessness. The bill before the House today has two key functions: to implement a bond scheme for social housing tenants that includes termination of tenancy for non-payment and to allow the termination of tenancy where the tenant is found guilty of certain criminal offences. This bill will enable public housing providers—

Ms Pru Goward: It's okay for fraudsters to continue.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: When the member for Newtown addresses her comments through the Chair I will intervene.

Ms JENNY LEONG: Apparently the rental bond will be required only if a tenant has caused significant damage to the property. Details of how that will work are set out in ministerial guidelines which we have not yet seen. In addition, under these yet to be seen guidelines, existing tenants will be required to pay a bond if they cause significant damage to a property. Again, apparently no rental bond will be required of a victim of domestic or family violence if the damage is caused by the perpetrator. However, it is unclear how this will be determined and, if the incident happened as a result of a domestic violence incident, how it will be applied. We have been assured that the ministerial guidelines state that these requirements will not be imposed on people with ill health or those who are unable to maintain the premises.

Homelessness Week is usually an important time for people with compassion and a heart to highlight the challenges that homeless people face. However, the Liberal Minister for Family and Community Services, and Minister for Social Housing has a different approach. Let us cast our minds back to this time last year when she observed Homelessness Week by rushing through legislation that increased police powers and forcibly removed homeless people from Martin Place. Rather than acting with compassion and using the stark reality of the tent city set-up in Martin Place to address homelessness, the Minister simply tried to remove the problem from her sight. Happy Homelessness Week from the Liberal Party and The Nationals. If I had been asked last year whether this heartless act which is so lacking in compassion could have become worse, I would have said, "No", but it has become worse.

Tenants who are slapped with a bond of $1,400 presumably will receive a letter telling them that they have to pay it within 14 days. If they are on a basic Newstart payment they are getting $545.80 a fortnight which is $272.90 per week. Imagine how stressful it would be for tenants to receive a letter advising them that in 14 days they would have to pay five times their weekly income. Let us put this into perspective. On my calculation the Minister for Family and Community Services would receive a letter advising her that she would have to pay $30,630, which is five times her weekly salary, within 14 days. I have read the bill and I know it is possible for tenants to pay that back over a number of years. Imagine the stress to which those vulnerable people would be subjected when they have a large debt hanging over their heads for three years and when they are earning only a miserly amount on a Newstart allowance and are trying to get their lives back on track. It is cruel.

Aside from the extreme financial hardships that this legislation would impose, The Greens are concerned about the punitive nature of the bill. This is the second attempt by the Minister for Family and Community Services, outside the criminal justice system, to impose an additional punishment on people living in social housing. We have seen that in relation to the local allocation strategy and we are seeing it again in this bill. This bill imposes a mandatory requirement for the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal to terminate tenancies as a result of tenants committing certain criminal offences.

Ms Pru Goward: Fraud.

Ms JENNY LEONG: Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask you to direct the Minister not to interject. The Minister was heard in silence. Perhaps the Minister is defensive because we will see—

Ms Pru Goward: You debase this Parliament.

Ms Tamara Smith: Point of order: According to standing orders the Minister should direct her comments through the Chair.

Ms JENNY LEONG: I seek an extension of time.

Leave not granted.

Mr Chris Minns: That is outrageous. They have had to listen to 10 minutes of a contradictory point of view and they have fallen in a heap. It is ridiculous. We listened to them for the past hour.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Is the member for Kogarah raising a point of order?

Mr Ron Hoenig: Point of order: In accordance with standing orders I move:

That the member for Newtown be further heard for a period of five minutes.

Question put.

Division called for.

Division called off.

Ms JENNY LEONG (Newtown) (10:39:35): For members who might not have been watching what was happening in the Chamber, I began to call out the Minister for Family and Community Services for introducing a bill so lacking in heart and compassion during Homelessness Week. The Minister began to interject, causing my time to be lost and I requested an extension of time.

Mr Kevin Conolly: Point of order: The member has been given additional time to address the bill, not to criticise the Minister or talk about other matters.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The member for Newtown has the call.

Ms JENNY LEONG: The Residential Tenancies Amendment (Social Housing) Bill 2018 will create more homelessness in New South Wales by evicting vulnerable public housing tenants. The bill will make it mandatory that the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal [NCAT] evict people who are convicted of certain criminal offences. Claims that this punitive bill will promote behavioural change by tenants are clearly misguided. When it is often underlying mental health, drugs or alcohol, or domestic violence issues that cause the problems, the real behavioural change must come from the Minister and her departmental staff who are clearly failing in their obligations to provide support, essential maintenance and assistance to those on the public housing waiting list. The bill will place further unnecessary pressure on vulnerable people who are living in social housing. Those people may be struggling to maintain their tenancies as a result of a lack of mental health support, which is also a responsibility of the Liberal-Nationals. They may be survivors of domestic violence, people with a disability, people who are elderly or people who are at risk of negative social and health outcomes or circumstances.

A broad range of stakeholder groups including the Tenants' Union of NSW, Homelessness NSW, Shelter NSW, People with Disability Australia, the NSW Council of Social Service and the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association of NSW have raised serious concerns about this bill and issued a joint statement calling for "the plan to be dropped amid concerns it will make life harder for people living in public housing, increase administrative costs of the Family and Community Services department, and be unlikely to have any benefits for the department in costs or tenant behaviour." In their statement those key organisations referred to the announcement to introduce this bill as a "surprise change from the NSW Government". That begs the question as to what the Minister was referring to when she stated in her second reading speech:

This bill is the culmination of an extensive consultation process, including consultation with non-government service providers and peak bodies and government agencies.

I ask the Minister to clarify in her reply which non-government service providers and peak bodies she consulted and what they actually said. It would be quite misleading to say that peak bodies were widely consulted if, when they were engaged in that consultation, they opposed the introduction of these measures. Many other questions also need to be answered because ministerial guidelines are being referred to that are as yet unseen and potentially not drafted. It is all unknown. Will people living in public housing be required to pay a rental bond irrespective of whether they have taken full responsibility for the damage and paid for its cost? What if they did not cause the damage? How is damage defined? When was it caused and what are the exemptions? Who determines whether it was a perpetrator or a survivor of a domestic violence incident who caused the damage? Given the department's track record on inspections and maintenance, could this mean that tenants will be forced to pay bonds for damage caused years ago by former residents or that are the result of the failure of Housing NSW to maintain its properties?

We know that the current maintenance backlog for public housing is out of control. Tenants living in public housing are already responsible for damage and cleaning costs. There is no need for this bill. It is a punitive measure, and another way for the Minister to evict people from public housing to address the disgraceful waiting list as a result of failures of successive governments in New South Wales to invest in adequate public housing to address its outrageous backlog and the ever-growing numbers of homelessness. The Minister is creating a cruel game of musical chairs that will increase housing insecurity and financial stress for those most in need. It will disproportionately affect people with mental illness and who are most vulnerable, and be used as an excuse to target specific groups. People in need of a place to call home will be stuck in a loop of housing insecurity: They will be kicked out of public housing and become homeless, approached by a homelessness housing specialist team when they are sleeping rough, placed back on the waiting list with priority status, and then enter the cycle again.

The Greens oppose this bill and condemn the Minister, and the Liberal Party and The Nationals for this heartless and cruel legislation introduced in Homelessness Week. This bill will seek to further increase the financial hardship on those who are most in need and do not have a safe and secure place to call home. It should also be noted that the New South Wales Labor Party is not opposing this bill, which is disappointing to me, housing advocates, public housing tenants and vulnerable communities. The contribution of the member for Sydney makes it clear that it is The Greens and the Independents in this place who are standing up for social justice and are the real Opposition. I know that the Liberals and the Minister would prefer me to not be in this place and raise these concerns, but I also know that the hundreds of thousands of people who face housing insecurity and the reality of being evicted because of these cruel and heartless policies and pieces of legislation are pleased that we are here. The Greens oppose this bill. It is an absolute disgrace.

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