Friday, 7 June 2013

Farewell TAAS?

Sorry everybody, I'm going to break the rule again and talk about something related to my work.  It's because I'm feeling frustrated.  To put it mildly.

In Queensland we have a service called the Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Service (TAAS).  It's a network of little services that provide advice to, and advocate on behalf of, tenants who are in dispute with their landlords.  The service is funded from the interest on tenants bonds held in trust by the Residential Tenancies Authority.
In the midst of their cost-cutting frenzy last year, the then Housing Minister Bruce Flegg announced that the program would be discontinued and the funds reallocated to build new public housing.  Flegg and his successor Tim Mander have been unmoved by the outcry that has followed this decision.  Not so the Commonwealth Government, who stepped in with interim funding to keep the services open until the end of June this year.  They even offered another $2.5m to take it up to the end of the year on condition the State guarantee funding after that, but Mr Mander refused.

I find the decision disappointing and stupid, but then I'm used to being disappointed by stupid political decisions.  What's new about that?  What's really got me frustrated is the way both ministers, Mander in particular, have brushed off objectors with nonsensical explanations and refused to engage with the issues involved.

Here are three reasons why TAAS is important, and why the funds should not be redirected into providing public housing.
  1. Tenants are at a natural disadvantage in any dispute with their landlord.  90% of private rental properties are managed by real estate agents - trained professionals who manage property for a living and know how the system works.  Tenants on the other hand usually have very limited knowledge and experience of these issues.  Hence if they have no source of help, the contest in any dispute will always be uneven.
  2. A large proportion of lower income households live in the private rental market, and more than half of these have no choice but to pay more rent than they can afford.  This means they are at constant risk of homelessness.  Given the shortage of public housing, the Housing Department itself is increasingly reliant on the private market to house those in need.  It is essential to do everything possible to help these people stay in housing and TAAS plays a key role in this.
  3. The service is funded from tenants' own money.  The bonds they pay on entering their tenancies are held by the Residential Tenancies Authority (RTA) and earn interest.  About 10% of this interest goes to fund TAAS services.  The other 90% funds the operations of the RTA, an independent regulator which provides services and information impartially to tenants, landlords and real estate agents.  Landlords and agents do not pay a cent for this service - it is all paid for by tenants.  The redirection of these funds into public housing, while legal, represents a breach of trust.
Since announcing this decision the two successive Housing Ministers have provided three main justifications, all of which are nonsense.  Here they are.
  1. The government can't afford it because of its budget crisis.  Even if you accept that there is a budget crisis (and I don't) it is irrelevant, since TAAS is not funded by the government.  It is funded by tenants.
  2. The service duplicates other services.  Bruce Flegg's initial line, repeated many times by Tim Mander, is that the same service is provided by the RTA.  It isn't.  The RTA provides information but as the regulator it is unable to advise or advocate.  It has to stay impartial, unlike TAAS which is on the tenants' side.  Mander has lengthened the list, citing the Salavation Army and Community Legal Centres as alternative service providers.  Both have denied that they are able to fill the gap, since they have neither the resources nor the expertise.  All three alternative providers cited by the Ministers have repeatedly confirmed that they refer such cases to TAAS.
  3. The money is better spent on more public housing to solve homelessness. This is a false choice.  They are not alternatives and there's no reason the government can't do both.  The $5m taken from the TAAS service will provide no more than 20-30 new social housing dwellings each year.  The social housing system loses over $100m per year and losses are rising.  There are 30,000 households in the social housing waiting list.  There are over 25,000 people homeless in Queensland on any one night.  $5m worth of new housing will have minimal impact.   In the meantime, more and more low income households rely on the private rental market, and services to help them sustain their tenancies are vital to help them avoid homelessness.
A lot of people, including yours truly, have pointed out these flaws to Minister Mander as well as to the Premier and anyone else who will listen.  I'm pretty sure staff of the Housing Department and the RTA will have said the same in confidential briefings.  Yet these same arguments continue to be trotted out.  It beggars belief that these are their real reasons.  So to round out my sets of three, here are three reasons why they might continue to trot them out.
  1. They know little, and care less, about the service they are defunding.  They made the decision ages ago, they don't want to think about it any more because they are busy with their own priorities.  Those protesting the decision and trying to get them to change their minds are just so many annoying flies to be swatted away with letters written from a template by junior staffers.
  2. They are ashamed to admit the real reason.  Perhaps the real reason is some grubby pre-election deal cut with the real estate industry to wind back protections for tenants.  Perhaps one of the TAAS services got up the nose of an influential LNP member and so they are seen collectively as political enemies.  I don't know, I'm just speculating here.
  3. They know they have made a big mistake but don't want to lose face. They would rather persist in a wrong-headed decision than be seen to make a back-flip, U-turn, back-down or whatever perjorative term you prefer.
It's possible none of these is correct and there's some other reason.  However what's not in doubt is that this decision is a huge mistake which will harm tenants and deliver no substantial benefits to anyone, except perhaps to the minority of unscrupulous landlords who will find it easier to roll over their tenants.  June 30 is approaching fast.  Time for a change of heart before it's too late.

*If you want to add your voice to the cause before it's too late, find out how at the Save Tenant Services website.  The diagram in this post comes from there.  Since I wrote this the Commonwealth Government has stepped in with a further 6-months funding for the services, although they did it so late that some have already closed.  The future after that is still up in the air, so keep up the pressure on the State Government!


CEO, Tenants Queensland said...

Great article Jon. It is a massive task to build the new QSTARS services from the ground up, many years of advice-giving experience were lost in the de-funding of TAASQ. Thanks for posting this, iIt's good to reflect on the past so that we can shape a future which does not repeat mistakes made.

Jon Eastgate said...

Thanks. It's great that we have tenants' advice back on the map so quickly when three years ago our chances seemed so slim.