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Community housing tenant, Martina Macey (photo by Madeline Gourlay).

People who rely on community housing are being forced into debt and consequent homelessness, writes Madeline Gourlay.

MARTINA MACEY had hoped the Port Phillips Community Housing Association (PPHA) would ensure her safety.

Instead, they forced her into debt, pushing her towards homelessness. They had failed to realise that, unlike many community housing tenants, this 50-year old’s persistence wouldn’t let them off so easily.

In 2016, Ms Macey, who has lived in her community house since January 2000, requested a walk-in shower as arthritis in her knees and back were causing her difficulty when she had to climb into the bath to shower.

Ms Macey says:

“It became dangerous for me to have a shower over the bath as the standard bath sides were too high."  

PPHA had already installed the disability modification for another tenant. Yet, when Ms Macey explained to them that she couldn’t afford to pay for it, PPHA insisted she would need to pay a contribution of $1,000 for the disability modification.

I didn’t have a choice, I only agreed to pay a contribution to a disability modification because of fear of my son and I becoming homeless. [PPHA] could have given me notice [to say] "this house is no longer appropriate for her needs because she needs a walk-in shower". [But] then down the track they used it against me. They knew I couldn’t afford to pay for it.

When Ms Macey's son moved out, PPHA, which is a privately-owned housing organisation for low-income earners, informed her that the property was now underutilised. As there would be only one person living in a two-bedroom townhouse, Ms Macey would be forced to move. She was told that under the PPHA policy they would not rehouse her until Ms Macey paid her debt.

In other words, she would be forced into homelessness.

For over a month, Ms Macey contested the order to move out:

“I challenged their decision due to needing someone to stay with me for a period after spasmodic hospital visits. Luckily, I had that to fall back on. But other people don’t — being forced into debt, then forced into homelessness.”

There are many cases of tenants within social housing being forced into debt and then into homelessness. As the housing crisis continues to ferment in Victoria, evictions cause momentous strain on people, especially those on low incomes.

“No cause eviction” is used by both private and community housing landlords. In the community housing sector, it can be used when a landlord has concerns about behaviour or conduct, without enough evidence to legally evict. “No reason eviction” allows a landlord to give a tenant 120 days to vacate without providing reasons. The rationale behind this is that it will provide flexibility to private landlords in managing their properties.

Homeless Law, a specialist legal service for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, is concerned for low-income tenants. In the current housing environment, a four-month period is not necessarily a sufficient amount of time to locate and secure appropriate housing. A recent client of Homeless Law’s made 60 applications for private rental properties and was rejected for all of them.

Homeless Law manager and principal lawyer Lucy Adams explains evictions have extreme results.

“It’s almost inevitable that you’ll be entering homelessness because [community housing] is the end of the line.”

Once someone has been evicted from community housing, they go back on the public housing waiting list. There are over 30,000 people on the waiting list for public housing and less than 1% of private rental properties in metropolitan Victoria are affordable for low-income people. That is why it is almost inevitable that eviction from community housing causes homelessness.

Most tenants who receive a “Notice to Vacate”, are unaware that this isn’t the final decision. Ms Adams says this is just the first step in the proceedings and one should get legal advice and attend the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) hearing.

She says:

“That’s where [tenants] get a chance to put their case forward. It’s by no means a done deal or a given that the notice is valid."

At VCAT hearings, you may be able to organise a payment plan to get back on track if you are behind on rent or show the notice to vacate is invalid. Ms Adams says the majority of people are unaware of their rights when receiving eviction notices,

“So many people leave before they get an opportunity to have their say at VCAT ... about 80% of VCAT matters are unattended by tenants.”

Ms Macey says community housing tenants are too scared to come forward when their rights have been violated because they fear they will become homeless.

Ms Macey explains:

“I’ve said, ‘Look, I’ll fight for you.’ And they say ‘No no no. I don’t want to cause waves. I don’t want to end up like you, being threatened with eviction.’”

Tenants' satisfaction with community housing conditions is commonly quoted at 74% as indicated in the government report, 'National Social Housing Survey: A summary of national results 2016'. Yet, this survey selected 10,502 households nationwide and received 5,163 responses. There are about 71,000 community housing dwellings in Australia, so this survey only represents 7.27% of community housing tenants.

Policy and Public Affairs Officer Steve Staikos from the Community Housing Federation of Victoria believes community housing is more transparent than public housing. Yet, he does not see any issue with the small sample size of this survey.

“And as you quite rightly point out, it’s not representative, but it is a big sample size and when you look at how other things are reported in the media, [such as] opinion polls — they are very small samples.”

Staikos could not see the detrimental effect skewed statistics have on people’s lives. Because of this misleading information, a person may transfer from public housing into community housing where they may pay higher rent for lower living conditions.

When asked about these issues, Mr Staikos responded:

“I don’t understand your point.”

The main differences between public and community housing are eviction, rent and the living conditions. “No cause eviction” is not used in public housing, yet commonly utilised by community housing landlords. Rent is capped at 25% of one’s income in public housing; community housing starts at 30% of income, with hidden fees. Finally, public housing has higher living standards in comparison to community housing.

Defend and Extend Public Housing member, Joseph Toscano explains that housing is also about stability:

“It's security. If you’re in a public housing estate, you have security. Which you don’t have if you rent, or if you’re in [community housing].”

Martina Macey is just one story.

Founding member of Situationist International, Guy Debord, once said:

Revolution is not "showing" life to people, but making them live. A revolutionary organisation must always remember that its objective is not getting its adherents to listen to convincing talks by expert leaders, but getting them to speak for themselves, in order to achieve, or at least strive toward, an equal degree of participation.

To speak out alone against the community housing associations is to risk the security of one’s home, yet speaking out together can encourage much-needed change. 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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