Legislation Amendment (Public Housing—Antisocial Behaviour) Bill 2015
September 15, 2015
Ms JODI McKAY (Strathfield) [5.42 p.m.]: I contribute to debate on the Residential Tenancies and Housing Legislation Amendment (Public Housing—Antisocial Behaviour) Bill 2015. While it has been indicated that the Opposition will support this bill, I have serious concerns about the bill and the powers within it, and know I am not alone. I am pleased that the shadow Minister has foreshadowed amendments to the bill, which I believe will go some way to easing those concerns. We are elected by the people of New South Wales to serve them and to provide infrastructure and support services for the community. This includes those who are disadvantaged, marginalised and isolated in our community. It is a grave responsibility, and one that must be taken seriously.
We also have a responsibility to ensure that people who live in social housing can do so without the serious disruption of neighbours, who can impact on their quality of life and, more worryingly, their safety. I firmly believe that all the decisions we make in this place should be respectful of human rights. I believe this bill in part impinges on those rights in some cases, and I note my view is shared by the Law Society and Women's Legal Services. In particular, I believe we enter uncertain areas of law when we take away the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal's [NCAT] right of discretion. While I understand that antisocial behaviour and criminal activity in social housing must be dealt with appropriately, there must always be discretion.
I bring to the attention of the House the circumstances of a young woman in my electorate. I do not wish to identify her. She is an ice addict and lives in social housing. I visited her unit recently. There was graffiti on the walls and there was evidence of a fire in the unit; she readily admits to being in the unit when the fire was lit. There was no lock on the door and there was not a scrap of furniture. She carried a milk crate, which she sat on. She slept under a bundle of clothes. She had no mattress or blanket. I would guess that she would be an awful neighbour. She also has very serious charges against her. It was clear she had damaged her unit and had no regard for the publically owned property given to her. When I walked into that unit, I thought about the more than 60,000 people on the Housing NSW waiting list who would value the unit and understand how lucky they were to be given a property. This young woman did not value what she had been given.
But, she is an ice addict and without this unit she has nowhere to go. While we worked to have a lock installed on her door so men could not come uninvited to her house at night, I searched for somewhere for her to go. I could not send her to a women's refuge, even though in the previous two weeks she had been seriously assaulted by her boyfriend. She has a severe and unrelenting addiction that has a terrible hold on her life. I cannot see a life for her. That unit, with no furniture, is all she has. So my question to the Government is: Where does she go? Once this legislation is enacted she will be evicted and there is nowhere for her to go. I managed to get her temporary accommodation, but she is not suitable for a women's refuge—it is hard to get temporary accommodation if you have a drug addiction.
Like others in this House, I represent a community with areas of public housing. The waiting list for housing is long, there are the typical issues with maintenance that are common across the State, and my constituents often raise issues of antisocial behaviour. It is a complicated area of government service delivery, and I have empathy for both the people struggling to find housing and dealing with others issues such as drug dependency and joblessness, and for people who may be disrupted by antisocial behaviour. It is also an area where people on both sides of the debate can talk in generalisations about people who need public housing and those making complaints about it.
For me, a strong public and community housing program is part of the social safety net that is, or should be, at the heart of government. One of the reasons I am in the Labor Party is that it is a political party built on protecting the vulnerable in our community. Public housing tenants, and in particular the unemployed, elderly, children and those suffering mental illness, are especially vulnerable and need greater support than others. Nonetheless, I acknowledge that the Government should send a strong message that antisocial behaviour cannot be tolerated, and the Government must protect other members of the community when it occurs.
When speaking on public and community housing the discussion always comes back to values. What type of society do we want to be, and how do we want to treat our most vulnerable? I have outlined some of the values I hold dear, and whenever these issues are raised I always remind myself how homelessness is something that can happen to anyone. The mark of our society is how we treat our most vulnerable, and the compassion we show with full acceptance that there are things we cannot control. With that in mind, I will share some of my concerns about this bill, some of which will be alleviated by amendments proposed by the Opposition, which I urge members opposite to support.
My primary concern relates to the removal of NCAT's discretion in cases of eviction. Under this bill the tribunal will be directed to make a decision on a tenancy without considering all the circumstances. It is one strike and you are out. The bill outlines the offences that would generate an automatic eviction. I do not intend to recount those offences, but I note that they are serious. The three strikes policy is certainly a fairer way of approaching the issues the bill seeks to solve. However, as the shadow Minister has outlined, the Opposition believes the bill requires amendment to ensure that the tribunal retains a certain degree of discretion when determining matters, specifically matters where the antisocial behaviour is that of an occupant of a social housing residence rather than a tenant. As the shadow Minister said, "If tenants have no knowledge of antisocial behaviour occurring at or near their property they should not have their tenancy terminated".
This leads to my fourth fundamental objection to this bill—the fact that it is all about stick. This bill may create a good headline for the Government, but what is it going to do to support people who may be evicted? What additional resources will it provide to key community groups, like the Salvos or Vinnies, who will no doubt be further stretched as a result of these evictions? I think I know the answer. After their first term in government, and slashing support for vital community groups, I think it is unlikely the Government will do any better this time around.
Many States operate a strike policy for antisocial behaviour in public housing properties. Properly managed and with sufficient safeguards, such a scheme could work effectively in balancing the care we should provide to the vulnerable in our community, with the community's frustration with antisocial behaviour. Safeguards would need to include natural justice and appeal rights for tenants, sufficient notice of eviction, discretion for a tribunal or court in evicting tenants, and access to support services for those affected. Most importantly, we must realise that every person deserves a home. I commend the bill to the House.