June 24, 2019 |
Jack is a client of Inner Melbourne Legal Centre and he moved into his community housing apartment when it opened in 2010 as a 21 year old.
“It’s a small studio apartment, which is nice and all I need…[It] is staffed 24/7 which is fine I guess, it’s nice to have health and support on site but I feel institutionalised in a way,” he describes.
“We don’t have a lot of rights here … each room is like a self-contained unit yet the building [is] classed as a rooming house and that’s so we have less rights and they can make up rules on the spot. I don’t think they should be allowed to do that,” he reflects. This is because for Jack, after almost ten years, his apartment is his home and he’d like to have more freedom.
“My apartment [feels like home], but the rest of the building feels like an institution. Sometimes it feels like a hospital but you’re allowed to leave. It’s an odd feeling. I don’t bring friends back because I find it kind of embarrassing. They’ll be like, ‘Why is there workers here?’ You never know what could happen, there could be someone in the foyer screaming their head off at someone, stuff like that,” he says.
Sometimes he feels very out of place where he is living because of the complex presentations of other residents. Born with Spina Bifida, it’s hard for Jack to maintain a job because of his health and frequent hospital visits and his affordable housing options are limited. Once he accepted the community housing spot, his name was taken off the priority housing list for public housing and he can’t see a way out of his current situation.
Community housing is different to public housing – it is owned or managed by a private non-for-profit landlord. Whilst it is intended to provide affordable housing, IMCL has observed a range of issues with the sector through stories like Jack’s.
Over the years, Jack has found it increasingly difficult to get things fixed and conditions in the building have started to deteriorate.
“When the lights [are] blown or the intercom stops working … it can take quite a few months for someone to come fix it,” he says.
And the building’s currently infested with cockroaches.
“There’s lots of people [with this issue] … you’ll see it in the hallway. It seems like the entire building is crawling with [cockroaches] now. I’ll see [cockroaches] in the corners of the ceiling and stuff … [they] just crawl out from under my computer. I sometimes feel them crawling on me at night … and would find them in my coffee cups.”
Jack recalls that the cockroaches even got into the power sockets and his computer, causing it to short circuit.
“I told the landlord about it, they were just like, ‘it’s your own fault, go sort it out yourself.’ They told me to get cockroach bombs and stuff like that.”
Louisa, IMCL’s tenancy lawyer, stepped in after a number of residents decided to take action.
“[Louisa] came here … and we all spoke to her and told her [about] what was going on. Then she came with someone from Consumer Affairs ... She’s been in touch with me ever since and I get a call from her once every week or so.”
Louisa attempted to negotiate over a number of weeks with Jack’s landlord. When these negotiations went nowhere, she was forced to make an application to VCAT on Jack’s behalf.
IMCL wanted the landlord to rectify the outstanding pest issue on the basis that this falls within their duty to keep individual apartments and common areas in good repair. We sought orders for a systemic preventative approach to pest control be adopted throughout the building to avoid further infestation.
“This is the first time I’ve had anything to do with VCAT. I’m very nervous about it actually [because] I’m not a big complainer … but having cockroaches on your bed when you’re lying on your bed … that’s a bit much, that’s something to complain about.”
The rent and service charges that Jack was paying were also causes of concern for him.
“[It was] something that [had] been bothering me for years … I haven’t known the exact numbers but I’ve always felt I was paying more than 25% [of my income] ... but felt that I somehow couldn’t really fight [it].”
Rent is capped at 25% for individuals living in public housing to prevent rental stress but this doesn’t apply to community housing providers.
Louisa helped Jack to make enquiries about the rent and service amounts that he was paying. When IMCL discovered that that Jack’s rent amounted to 35% of his income, we issued a formal complaint to the landlord.
We requested that Jack’s current rent charge be decreased to reflect 30% of his income as is typically the case for community housing, and that his bills be charged separately. Separate calculations mean he’ll be at less risk of falling into rent arrears that might lead to eviction and he’ll be able to more clearly identify what the service charges are for. After the landlord declined, IMCL appealed to the Housing Register who continue to consider the matter.
Louisa recently appeared before VCAT on behalf of Jack, which ordered his landlord to obtain a professional opinion regarding the pest issue from a pest control expert. Importantly, the court found the landlord to be in breach of their duty and ordered that the issue be considered holistically to take into consideration the state of the entire building and not just Jack’s room. She’s now considering bringing a separate claim to VCAT about his rent.