Renters ripped off in community housing

August 16, 2013
Community housing under construction in Canberra.

There are approximately 60,000 public and community housing tenants in NSW and about 85% of them are receiving welfare benefits.

Several non-government organisations (NGOs) such as Mission Australia are now providing clothing, food, job training and housing to welfare recipients.

As more and more public housing gets transferred into the hands of NGOs as part of a push for privatisation, many of the organisations who were traditionally advocating for the poor have now become their landlords. These organisations receive a large part of their clients’ income through their rent assistance.

For many years, welfare recipients have received rent assistance. Public housing tenants are the only people who are not eligible for this payment.

The NSW government has legislated that people who live in community housing should have all of their rent assistance paid to their NGO landlords as part of their rent.

The reasoning was that community housing tenants were not entitled to that money because public housing tenants did not receive it.

Community housing providers have a rent-setting policy in place that ensures affordable outcomes for residents and tenants. That is, the rent is priced so that resident and tenant households are able to meet other essential basic living costs.

No more than 30% of income should be paid in rent. Also, their policy says that payments given for a certain purpose cannot be classed as income.

They seem not to be following their own policies.

According to my housing provider, I should be paying 25% of my income in rent but I end up paying closer to 50%. My rent assistance of $82 a fortnight goes directly into the bank accounts of my housing provider.

The tax office includes rent assistance as income, so on paper I receive more than in reality. Rent assistance makes up a large part of my income but I have no control over it.

Housing providers are receiving millions of dollars from the federal government in this way.

The NSW Minister for Finance and Services, Greg Pearce, said in the annual community housing conference in March that he intends to hand over all public housing stock to NGOs as soon as it is practical. He believes NGOs are much better at providing the service and it means the government does not have to spend money on buying and maintaining housing stock.

NGOs are happy to be part of this privatisation process because with every welfare recipient, they get part of their fortnightly welfare payment.

People who live in community housing are among the poorest people in the state and they are expected to pay a large amount of their income to NGOs for the purpose of building and maintaining housing for the poor.

This should be a state government responsibility paid by taxes and not the responsibility of the poorest to shoulder this burden.

Many of the poor now find themselves being taken advantage of — by the government legislating their income to their landlords, their landlords who happily take the money, who are also their “job providers” who punish them for not trying hard enough to find work and the job market which provides only one vacancy per every five unemployed people, not to mention society in general who blame them for all the problems of the world.

At a time when the cost of living is rising and not matched by welfare payments and even the most conservative economists are calling for an increase in Newstart by $50 a week, the poorest are really feeling the pinch.

In my case, if I received all my rent assistance I would have an extra $40 a week to survive on, which would make a huge difference for me.

The Commonwealth government has started to pay welfare recipients a “clean energy supplement” to subsidise rising utility costs. This money is not taxable and cannot be classed as income.

The state minister for housing, Pru Goward, has said that these supplements will be counted as income from community housing tenants and therefore 25% of the payments will be given to landlords.

How long before 100% of the clean energy supplements will be taken, just as occurred with rent assistance?

This is another in a long line of rip offs and must not be allowed to continue. It is time to stop.

This is just another example of the government robbing the poor to pay the rich. This is clearly part of the implementation of a neoliberal user pays strategy which essentially funds in large part housing for the poor by the poor, using Centrelink payments originally meant to sustain its recipients.

The NSW Community Housing Tenants Network which is a group of representatives of community housing tenants in NSW sent a letter to Goward in May voicing their strong disagreement and sense of outrage over the move. So far, Goward has not responded to the letter.

If you would like to find out more please email Josie Evans on


I work in the community housing sector and I believe that the relationship between rent assistance and basic cost of living is a complex one. Community housing providers can deliver housing that is substantially discounted to market rent without government funding. This level though is often still higher than a person on Centrelink can afford. This is where rent assistance comes in, to bridge this gap. If "rent assistance" is not used to pay for "rent" many people on centrelink payments simply couldn't access community housing. The problem is community housing is not a substitute for public housing rather its the bridge between social (or public) housing and the private housing market.

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