It’s been a good week for tenants in NSW – at least in terms of legislation. First, a raft of new measures came into effect under the Residential Tenancies Amendment (Review) Act 2018 and Residential Tenancies Regulation 2019, including limits to the number of rent increases which can be made per annum and the amount which can be charged for a break-lease fee.
Then, we saw urgent protection afforded to tenants under the COVID-19 Legislative Amendment (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020. In particular, to prevent forced evictions during the pandemic.
This is a substantial achievement of tenant’s rights advocacy groups, especially the Tenant’s Union of NSW, and NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong and MLC David Shoebridge who obtained the necessary political support for its inclusion in the Bill. The protections will provide very real comfort to households right across the state who are worried for the security of their shelter and will prevent unnecessary homelessness and hardship. We commend these advocates and members and the NSW Parliament for seeing them through.
But as an advocacy body for women’s safety in the context of escalating domestic violence associated with COVID-19, we must pose the question: what about domestic violence victims who are occupants?
A very common scenario is for a woman, often alongside her children, to be listed as occupants on the lease whilst her partner is listed as a tenant. When there is domestic violence, police have powers to exclude the violent offender from the home, but because the woman is listed as an occupant rather than a tenant, they are unlikely to regard this as a viable option. Her only options are to remain living with the abuser (where police and then court conditions allow) or to flee into homelessness.
There is a technical option available to her in making an application to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) to be recognised as a tenant – if she knows to do this, and if she can access a tribunal location.
However, it takes weeks for matters to be heard and during COVID-19 access to the Tribunal has been severely restricted. The reality for these women and children then is that they have no ability to escape the violence without becoming homeless. This situation is only compounded for women with a disability or chronic health condition or women with substantial caring roles and responsibilities.
So why then haven’t we made this change? Why do we continue with a status quo which traps women and children in violent and abusive homes?
All we need to do is to make provision under Part 4 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 for domestic violence victims who are occupants to be recognised as a tenant after the exclusion of the offender under that same Part of the Act, a change which has been supported by one hundred percent of the surveyed frontline specialist domestic violence workers assisting over 50,000 women escaping domestic violence in NSW last year.
One argument that commonly comes back is that women, and particularly women with children or women with disabilities would not be able to sustain their tenancies. However, there are measures in place to support women who are victims of domestic violence to do just that.
These include the Rent Choice Start Safely subsidy, which can support a victim of domestic violence with her bond and in supplementing her rent for up to three years, and the Immediate Needs Support Package, which can provide a grant of financial assistance to a victim of domestic violence to meet their immediate needs following an act of violence.
Where these supports, in addition to her own self-generated income, is not enough, there is still an ability to support her and her children for a period of time whilst alternative affordable accommodation is sought so that they are not forced to flee into the night.
What we really need is a paradigm shift when it comes to housing and homelessness policy and domestic violence.
Presently domestic and family violence is the single biggest driver of homelessness for women and their children in this country and in NSW. Women and children are trying to access safety. And they are becoming homeless because they have no other choice. We need to move away from placing all the responsibility and hardship on the victims of domestic violence and towards the person choosing to use violence and abuse. This means making the person using violence responsible for finding alternative accommodation.
Our civil and criminal justice system has already embarked on this shift, with an emphasis on holding perpetrators of domestic violence to account for their behaviour whilst supporting victims in their safety. However, some of our other policy areas are still catching up.
Women’s Safety NSW calls on all those involved in reforming our tenancy laws and our housing and homelessness policy to similarly embark on this change in policy emphasis. In particular, we call on the NSW Parliament to progress this essential reform to the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 so that countless women and children in NSW are no longer forced to make the choice between enduring violence and abuse or becoming homeless.
Please make this essential change for women and children’s safety, especially now for mercy’s sake.