The financial year 2021-2022 has been notable for tenancy due to the end of all Covid-19 relief measures for tenants and for an ongoing period of steep increases in rent. This has forced many tenants into financial hardship and homelessness due to either their lease not being renewed, being unable to find another property, being unable to pay the increased rent and either declining renewals or accruing rent arrears. Our focus during this period has been to give clients practical and timely advice regarding rent increases, termination and other matters as required.
The challenges of this year have been somewhat changed from previous years, affected by Covid-19, as the number of clients who could not avoid homelessness increased. We endeavoured to provide wrap-around services in conjunction with financial counsellors and the IDAS team to mitigate the impact of the rent increases and avoid homelessness where possible. During the financial year, it has been a common experience for all those working in the communities sector to be struggling to meet the current demand and the complexity of issues presenting. We assisted 169 clients during 2021-2022 with 194 legal tasks being completed.
Advice and casework trends
During the reporting period, there was a trend towards increased termination applications where the tenant is at risk of homelessness. There was a high incidence of tenants holding over following termination of their tenancy agreement due to lacking a new tenancy to move in to. This trend has continued from the previous financial year with 15% of clients that the service advised, seeking assistance with the termination of their tenancy by the lessor.
The impact of large rent increases and low supply of rental properties has had an increasingly widespread impact, affecting not only low income families and single parents but also employed two-adult households. Many clients commented that they were surprised to find themselves in the position of needing tenancy advice regarding holding over after a tenancy was terminated as they had a steady income. The common denominator seemed to be whether a tenant could meet multiple rent increases over 18 months, each between $50 and $100 per week. The tenants without the flexibility in their budgets were either accruing arrears or at risk of homelessness.
Cases in FY 2021-2022 were primarily divided between public housing matters and termination by lessor, together comprising 38% of all services.
There was a decrease in representation of clients at court due to prioritising of giving legal advice to as many clients as possible in this period, rather than giving ongoing assistance to a few clients and then lacking the capacity to assist the clients facing imminent termination. Matters involving termination of a tenancy were given priority.
It was a particularly difficult period in tenancy due to the public housing waitlists increasing rapidly in length. The Department of Communities, Housing officers are not able to release waitlist lengths and so our tenancy advocate had to innovate the use of the listing dates of clients who are given offers to estimate current wait list times.
In 2020, the priority wait list was approximately two years long. This year (2022), most clients receiving offers on the priority wait list had listing dates in 2018. This is a doubling of the wait time over two years, showing that the public housing system is under severe stress, trying to manage the current rental crisis.
The Residential Rent Relief Grant Scheme was extended to December 2021 with grants being conditional on a lease renewal for a minimum of six months being signed. Any agreements made under this scheme had ended by June 2022 or earlier. These tenants were frequently unable to maintain the tenancy without the support of the rent relief grant. From January 2022, where no further grants were available, tenants have had no recourse to stave off eviction. This has contributed to a notable increase in homelessness.
We assist homeless clients with a variety of issues including:
Priority housing applications
Appeals against vacated debt
Referrals to crisis and emergency accommodation services
Referrals to external agencies for emergency relief from 1 January 2020
Referrals internally within SSCLS to financial, disability and legal services
From an advocacy point of view, the above actions seem increasingly insufficient to address the presenting needs of the clients. Priority applications are of minimal assistance when there is a minimum of four years to wait for an offer and no actions available to an advocate to reduce this waiting time.