public housing
(Image: Pixabay)

One morning earlier this year Sarah Kickett got a surprise phone call from her landlord, the Western Australian Housing Authority. “They came on a Thursday and did the inspection, and then the next day they rang me up and said they had bad news,” Sarah recalls. “[The woman on the phone] said that I’m evicted, and the only thing they can help me with is a bond for a private rental. I was that angry I think I swore at her.”

Sarah and her family are Noongar, the traditional custodians of the country Perth now sits on. She lives on the eastern edge of the city in a brick bungalow where she cares for three grandchildren, including a grandson with severe cerebral palsy who requires around the clock care. The children’s mother comes and goes.

Although Aboriginal people represent just 3% of the state’s population, at least one in three homeless people in WA is Aboriginal. And, for many, finding housing doesn’t mark the end of this trouble. Sarah has lived in public housing since she was 18 without any problems. But when she moved to Perth from the wheatbelt six years ago, the housing authority put her on a series of short fixed-term tenancies.  

Previously Sarah had always held periodic tenancies, which require a court order to terminate. With fixed-term tenancies, however, Section 72 of the WA Residential Tenancies Act allows the landlord to terminate without reason when it expires. There’s no legal recourse, and no appeal. For Sarah, it took one failed inspection from a new housing officer.

“It just came out of nowhere, overnight. She just rang and said we’re out.”

The campaign for change

Kate Davis runs community legal centre Tenancy WA and the “Make Renting Fair” campaign which calls on the state government — currently conducting a full review of the act — to remove “no grounds terminations”. “At the end of a fixed-term tenancy you can just give notice and end it, without having to give any reasons at all. They deliberately use it as a mechanism to ensure that the decision can be made by the housing authority rather than the court.”

Earlier this month, the Tasmanian Supreme Court blocked the eviction of a fixed-term tenant in a landmark ruling. The difference is that the equivalent Tasmanian legislation has a clause requiring the reason for termination be “genuine or just”. The WA act has no such provision for fixed-term tenancies — if the paperwork is in order, that’s that.

The WA Department of Communities, which the housing authority has fallen under since a 2017 amalgamation, says fixed-term tenancies are used for those with an “unsatisfactory tenancy history”. Assistant director general Jackie Tang says they “also allow the department to monitor tenancy performance and compliance in the early stage of the tenancy and identify risk factors”.

The housing authority told me it doesn’t record the number of families made homeless each year via fixed-term tenancies, or the number of Aboriginal households. A report by the WA Auditor General in December 2018 criticised the department’s reporting of housing data and called for it to “collect and centrally store comprehensive tenant information”.

The housing authority has revealed to Crikey that 562 public housing tenancies were ended via legal action in WA last year, down from 680 in 2016/17 In the same period, Victoria had 275 total evictions from public housing, in a state with more than double WA’s population.

Gerry Georgatos, a WA-based social researcher who coordinates the National Trauma Recovery Project, was shocked by the numbers the housing authority gave Crikey — the first figures released for several years. “The eviction rates are abominable; they’re reprehensible. There’s no possibility that there’s less than 1000 kids being evicted to homelessness each year. It’s a disgrace.”

Housing Minister Peter Tinley insists that “the non-renewal of a fixed-term tenancy does not equate to eviction”, and notes that any tenant who experiences eviction or non-renewal of a tenancy can reapply for public housing (there are currently almost 14,000 households on the waitlist). “The last thing that we want as a society is to see people without a roof over their heads,” he says.

Facing the effects

Kate Davis says the consequences for children are especially severe. “It’s basically setting those kids on a fast-track to prison. It’s pretty hard to access education, health, safety, decent food, if you’re sleeping in a car or on the streets or in a really overcrowded house with family.” Aboriginal young people are 50 times more likely to be in detention in WA than non-Indigenous kids.

Jennifer Kaeshagen runs the First Nations Homelessness Project, providing support to Aboriginal families about to lose their public housing. She says she’s been in meetings where WA Housing Authority managers have explicitly use fixed-term tenancies as a bargaining chip. 

“Housing will do this thing if a tenancy gets in trouble where they’ll go ‘Well, OK, if you agree to go on a fixed-term tenancy then we won’t take these particular matters to court.’ A lot of people … sign onto the fixed-term probably not understanding the implications of that. They’re signing up for a short-term stay of execution, but Housing don’t put it that way, and they definitely don’t explain the process in terms of recourse to a court process.”

Davis agrees that tenants aren’t made aware of the statutory distinction between fixed-term and periodic tenancies. “We’ve certainly seen some examples of people who’ve afterwards said they didn’t understand the detail of what they were signing up for.”

Kaeshagen says the housing authority fails to appreciate the hardships her clients face. “My view of Housing is that they think that a punitive approach is effective. It doesn’t work.”

“I do think fixed-term tenancies are fundamentally unethical, because we’re offering them to the most vulnerable people in Perth, with statistically vastly more problems — mental health, employment, historical trauma — and these issues far and away impact Aboriginal tenants the most.”

Sarah Kickett was fortunate. Kaeshagen and other advocates lobbied the housing authority to reconsider while First Nations Homelessness Project volunteers blitzed Sarah’s place before a repeat inspection, and the decision to terminate was overturned.

Not everyone has these resources. Another Noongar tenant, Jenny, whose name has been changed, received a letter from the housing authority in January announcing the termination of her fixed-term tenancy. “I don’t know why they evicted me; they didn’t explain to me why. I didn’t bother going back to court because what’s the point? I didn’t know what to do at the time because there was too much pressure. I still don’t know nothing now.”

A spokesman for Minister Tinley “categorically rejected” Jenny’s statement that she was given no reason for the decision to terminate her tenancy and no opportunity to avoid it. “In at least two of her numerous public housing tenancies — including the most recent — she actually consented to the court orders terminating the tenancies,” they said. “Nobody likes to see people evicted and it is always the option of last resort for the Department of Communities.”

Jenny maintains that the letter announcing she was out was the first she knew of it.

Since her son took his life five years ago, Jenny had been caring for his children while battling depression and anxiety. “We all went our separate ways since the eviction, I haven’t seen my grannies for weeks.” The kids have gone to family in Karratha, two days’ drive north, while she bounces from couch to couch in Perth. “This is the first time we’ve ever been separated like this. I think it is unfair.”

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14, and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636. Headspace and ReachOut have useful mental health resources for young people.