The biggest rort since WA Inc has allegedly been happening under our noses for the past decade, and it’s at the expense of the most vulnerable people in our state, who live with the threat of eviction hanging over their heads.
Paul Whyte, sacked Assistant-Director General of the Department of Communities, is alleged to have embezzled tens of millions from the Housing Authority he used to be a senior figure within. It would be one of the largest cases of public corruption in Australian history.
Last week, the Department of Communities announced a new 10-Year Strategy of Homelessness. It’s good timing for a significant change of approach.
A few days after Mr Whyte’s arrest last month I was in court representing a young woman living with her children in a public housing tenancy the Housing Authority wanted to terminate. She has rental arrears of just over $1000 because of confusion about her Centrelink reporting requirements and changing payments.
Family violence and a history of personal trauma has left her with serious mental health issues as she struggles to care for her young kids.
In spite of this, she has set up a regular repayment plan with the Housing Authority that will see the debt paid off within a couple of months – yet there we were in court, arguing that she shouldn’t be made homeless with her children.
“In my head I thought I was going to lose everything,” she told me. “It felt like the only stable thing I had for my kids, because it’s not just a house, it’s a home. It felt like the only thing we had, and we were going to lose it.”
I work in the city as an advocate for Aboriginal people and have seen an increasing number of these cases recently. Perhaps once a week we will see a client who has been issued with a breach of their public housing tenancy and subsequent termination notice for debts of around $1000.
Magistrates are usually reluctant to evict vulnerable people for relatively small sums. Often, as in the case above, the matter will be adjourned to allow a repayment arrangement to be set up and monitored.
But these are only the cases that we see. The threat of eviction is a severe stress on vulnerable people – another client told me yesterday: “I’ve been hospitalised twice in the past four weeks for my mental health. It’s been such a stressful and hard time. I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we’ve had to go through the last six months.”
The legal process and court protocol is intimidating and impenetrable for those unused to it. Many don’t have access to advice, advocacy or representation – and lose their homes.
There were 616 evictions from public housing in WA last year, 562 in 2017/18 and 680 the year before – the figures under Labor are significantly higher than they were under the Barnett government. Victoria, a state with twice WA’s population, has half our number of evictions.
The state government announced last week they will spend $125 million building 300 new public housing units as part of their 10-Year Homelessness Strategy. It’s a welcome intervention, but with the Housing Authority making twice as many households homeless every year, we need a system-wide culture change in how we deal with people living in public housing.
The WA public housing waitlist has 14,000 applicants on it – in some regions they’re still housing people who applied a decade ago. Three hundred new homes will provide relief for those in greatest need but cannot hope to address our chronic public housing shortage.
The alleged corruption at the very top betrays a culture within housing, which has long seen itself, in the words of a 2018 Auditor General’s Report, as “the landlord of last resort”. But it’s not just another landlord – since 2017, it has been part of the Department of Communities, which also includes the Child Protection portfolio.
Gerry Georgatos, WA-based social researcher and director of the Trauma Recovery Project, estimates up to 1000 children a year are made homeless by Housing. It’s impossible to be sure since Housing have so far refused to release the figures, although they record and monitor details about every person listed on an application.
Homelessness makes children stressed, sick and highly vulnerable. Evicting a family for $1000 debt will often simply shift their file from Housing to Child Protection. The costs are kept in-house, and the public pays. It’s a false economy, and a cruel one.
Peak renters’ body Tenancy WA are calling for a moratorium on all public housing evictions involving children. Chief solicitor Kate Davis says the practice is appalling.
The announcements last week suggest some good is already coming in response to last month’s shocking revelations.
But the strategy paper makes only brief mention of supporting at-risk tenancies. A more comprehensive, considered understanding of the reasons people get into difficulties with social housing, and a commitment to help them rather than penalising minor infractions, would keep a lot of families off the streets this summer.
Some housing officers have told me they are furious at revelations about their former boss’ alleged behaviour.
My clients are adamant that redressing the power imbalance and listening to their needs is a good place to start rebuilding that trust.
“The system should be changed,” I was told this week. “Not the way that people deal with it, but the system, because it’s not working.”