Published on Monday 15, November 2021
THE VOICES OF OUR CLIENTS - JACK'S STORY
Jack 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 described to us in 2019.
“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 reflected. This is because for Jack, after more than ten years, his apartment had become his home and he wanted 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 said.
Sometimes he feels very out of place at home 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 couldn't see a way out of his situation.
Community housing is different to public housing – it is owned or managed by a private not-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 found it increasingly difficult to get things fixed and conditions in the building 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 said.
And then the building became 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 recalled 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, one of IMCL’s tenancy lawyers, 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. In 2020, 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" Jack said at the time.
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 Jack’s rent amounted to 35% of his income and included a service fee, we issued a formal complaint to the landlord.
We requested that Jack’s rent be set to reflect 30% of his income as is the entitlement for community housing residents, and that his bills be calculated transparently and separately charged. Separate calculations mean that Jack would be able to more clearly identify the service charges and know his bills reflect no more than the costs of the services provided. He would also be at less risk of falling into rent arrears that might lead to eviction.
After the landlord declined, IMCL appealed to the Housing Registrar. While the Housing Registrar acknowledged the bundling practice was not appropriate and contrary to the provider's rent calculation policy, it declined to compel the community housing provider to alter its rent invoices.
Without action taken by the Housing Registrar, and with negotiations about the cockroach infestation stalled, Louisa appeared before VCAT on behalf of Jack in relation to both issues. VCAT ordered Jack's 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 the issue be considered holistically to take into consideration the state of the entire building and not just Jack's room.
When Louisa appeared before VCAT again, she secured another win for Jack - his housing provider was ordered to charge him a fair rent. While these orders only applied to Jack, negotiations headed by IMCL led to his provider agreeing to apply the charges to all other residents in the building.
An update on Jack's story
In 2021, we got in touch with Jack to see how he was going with his community housing provider. He told us that he was having trouble with yet another pest issue - bed bugs. Despite the bed bugs being a building-wide issue and the previous VCAT order finding that the provider has a duty to address pest issues holistically, the CHP made Jack pay for one of the pest treatments himself. The bed bugs have not gone away and continue to affect Jack's quality of life.
We're taking on Jack's case again to ensure that his home is safe and hygienic, and so he isn't charged unfair payments for accommodation issues that are out of his control.
Whilst we are closer to ensuring that Jack and his co-residents live in a safe and sanitary environment, we’ve still got a way to go. Help us to continue to appear at future VCAT hearings so that we can ensure that these residents get the outcome they deserve: quality housing and fair and transparent rental and service charge arrangements. Donate here.