NSW community housing tenants pay for cuts

Low-income tenants in community housing will face greater hardship following a recent NSW government policy decision that means tenants will lose their rent assistance.

Despite a rental crisis, and food and petrol price-hikes, some households now face losing up to $70 per week, single pensioners up to $20.

In NSW, housing for low-income people is referred to as "social housing", of which public housing — the largest component — is provided by the state government and community housing by the non-government sector. There are currently 36 community housing associations in NSW, broadly organised around geographical areas and for specific target groups, such as women.

Under the policy change, which began for new tenants on July 1 and longer-term tenants on August 1, the community housing provider has to calculate the tenant's maximum possible Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA) and charge the tenant 100% of this, as well as 25% of their income (current policy). Public housing tenants are not eligible for the CRA.

Previously, community housing tenants — who receive the federal government's CRA — had to pay only 25% of their CRA as rent to the community housing provider, along with 25% of their other income. Tenants who had not previously claimed CRA will now be forced to do so, as their rent will be charged as if they had received it.

The government is proceeding with this revenue-raising exercise despite spiralling rents and public housing properties becoming scarcer. The new policy highlights the failures of housing and tourism minister Matt Brown's projections.

In November 2007, his Planning for the Future report promised expanded community housing, including a wider variety of community and public housing tailored to individual needs.

The NSW community housing sector, established some 20 years ago, covers only a small part of the social housing properties provided for low-income households. At the end of the 2006-2007 financial year, there were more than 126,000 properties (units, houses and townhouses) rented to public housing tenants and around 15,000 properties rented to community housing tenants. Housing NSW figures for 2004 reveal that the waiting list was 71,000.

Planning for the Future recognised that the community housing sector had to grow and it committed the government to more than double the amount of community housing over the next 10 years.

According to the NSW government's Office of Community Housing (OCH) website, the growth in community housing will come from investment in affordable housing and the introduction of long-term leases for community housing properties. This is designed to give providers a steady income stream to support borrowing that can be used to build affordable housing.

However, the OCH fails to acknowledge that a substantial part of this funding is to be obtained from the tenants themselves. The OCH has also made it clear that, given the "new" income community housing providers will receive (from the tenants), providers will lose part of their state funding.

The NSW government's attempts to promote this policy as achieving "equity" between public and community housing tenants merely highlights its contempt for those who rely on social housing, who, given the strict income regulations for applicants, are almost all without employment.

The fact that other states have taken this path is no defense for this unjust policy.

Community housing providers find themselves in a catch 22: they do require additional income, but they do not agree with the government policy of forcing impoverished tenants to provide it.