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‘We can handle the truth’

In a written response to questions by REDWatch the Communities Plus team emphasised the redevelopment will be staged over a 15- to 20-year period and “a great deal more consultation and planning [is] required”. The master planning process will determine key aspects of the redeveloped site, such as the mix between social housing, affordable housing and private housing.

Family and Community Services (FACS) is currently preparing a “community engagement strategy” as part of the master planning process. Information gathered through community engagement, including on options for density and human services support, will form part of a brief presented to key government agencies (including UrbanGrowth NSW). The brief will consider the merit and feasibility of these options as part of a “whole of government” approach to the master plan.

To date the government has made four informal commitments to the community:
• Existing tenants, who do not relocate until instructed to by FACS and wish to return will be able to.
• There will be no loss of social housing in the redeveloped site.
• Residents will be able to move directly into new tenancies on the redeveloped site (some residents will need to be relocated temporarily).
• The redevelopment will be staged over 15 to 20 years.

In its statement to REDWatch, LAHC has said the redevelopment of the estate provides an “opportunity to better plan and provides (sic) support for the high needs of social housing residents”. Tenants can expect community engagement over the master plan to look specifically at their needs as part of the planning and relocation process.

The master planning process itself is yet to be fully articulated. Some in the community are calling for more openness at an earlier stage about decisions that will affect them in the coming months and years. “We can handle the truth,” says Richard Weeks of the Waterloo Public Housing Action Group (WPAHG). “We might not like it but we can handle it.” The November date for community engagement is yet to be finalised.

Community housing providers in the mix

Community housing providers (CHPs) are a primary feature of Future Directions in Social Housing in NSW, the government’s blueprint for reforming social and affordable housing across the state over the next decade. Roughly a third of the state’s public housing will be transferred to non-government organisations in the next four years. The management of Waterloo’s redeveloped social housing stock will likely be undertaken by CHPs.

Most CHPs are not-for-profit organisations which manage social housing stock owned by LAHC (or other landlords). For-profit CHPs do exist and may have a role to play in Waterloo. The UK-owned global outsourcing giant Serco, which operates Australia’s onshore detention centres, was named in a Sydney Morning Herald article in August as having made a “secret pitch” to the Baird government to manage some of LAHC’s social housing portfolio.

The difference between FACS and CHPs is important. Tom McDonald, Acting Coordinator of the Tenancy Team at the Redfern Legal Centre, points to the wide variation in policies developed by CHPs compared to the government’s own provider, FACS. “FACS policies are more detailed and they’re going to cover a larger range of situations,” he explains. “Policies that are threadbare can leave tenants in the dark about their rights when it comes to critical issues like transfers, rental subsidies, repairs and absences,” McDonald warns.

CHPs are also not subject to the scrutiny of the NSW Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is a helpful counteragent for “systemic issues,” says McDonald, who witnessed one Ombudsman enquiry into the enforcement of old debts by FACS lead to positive results for FACS tenants.

With thousands of tenancies up for grabs by prospective CHPs as part of the socially “mixed” redevelopment, tenants are concerned the new arrangement will mean diminished rights and a stressful relationship between tenants, owners and CHPs. WHPAG’s Richard Weeks points to large rental bonds required by some CHPs as one issue needing to be addressed by government in the relocation process.

Changes to the Residential Tenancies Act that came into force in 2016 increase the discretion CHPs have to take disciplinary action against tenants under the “three strikes” system. FACS policy is to issue a strike notice for alleged anti-social behaviour only, whereas the law permits CHPs to issue a strike notice for any alleged breach of their tenancy.

In the statement to REDWatch LAHC has said, “the government’s expectation is that public housing tenants agreements and obligations are maintained.”

 

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