Olivia Ridley

How to use public housing policy to keep people housed

At a rough guess, our lawyer Olivia thinks she’s provided tenancy advice to at least 6,000 people. But, it’s likely many more.

For two-and-a-half years whilst a full-time tenancy lawyer at the Tenants Union of Victoria, she spent a lot of her time giving advice over the phone. During a phone shift, she’d take a new call every ten minutes. The phone line would ring non-stop from 9.00am until the end of the day. It was unrelenting but satisfying because she knew many of the callers had nowhere else to turn for legal help. When she wasn’t on the phones, she was working on her case files in the office, giving advice in person, appearing at VCAT on behalf of her clients or writing policy submissions.

This immersion gave Olivia an acute sense of how vulnerable many tenants in public housing are in Victoria. She was shocked to learn how few rights many tenants have. Olivia explains that social housing can be inadequate and precarious. She’s come across families of up to eight cramped in two bedroom flats, with children who will reach adulthood before a more appropriate house becomes available because of overblown waiting lists; unsanitary conditions and unmet repairs; couples subsisting on toast and vegemite in order to meet the rent; utterly unreasonable compensation claims and unfair notices to vacate, amongst many other injustices. From their stories, she gained an understanding of the profound impact that insecure housing has on a person’s overall wellbeing.

Determined not to allow weak protective provisions in existing legislation prevail, Olivia now focuses a large part of her practice here at IMCL on encouraging housing providers to follow and apply their own policies fairly. She explains that litigation based approaches are not always possible for CLCs, and not often in the client’s best interests due to the stress and time. On the over hand, public housing policies – which uniformly apply to all public housing properties - are often not unreasonable and there are a number of effective ways to encourage compliance. In the midst of a housing affordability crisis and the ever increasing numbers of people seeking social housing, Olivia stresses that it’s important for community lawyers to understand the available options and strategies so that we can help keep people housed.

She recently shared these insights at the National Association of Community Legal Centres’ Conference. Here are her ideas on how to use public housing policy to keep clients housed – in a nutshell:

1. Build relationships with local housing staff, managers and residents to facilitate conversations about disputes. Strong and trusting relationships have regularly allowed IMCL to challenge decisions internally, leading to favourable outcomes for IMCL clients without the need to apply to VCAT. Read our story about Jasmine & Lucy: https://imcl.org.au/our-impact/case-studies/jasmine-and-lucys-stories

2. Appeal decisions through internal appeal processes so that the issue is looked at with fresh eyes. Whilst the local offices are not bound by these review decisions, they are usually followed.

3. Involve Consumer Affairs Victoria who can engage with local councils around rooming house standards and where necessary, prosecute for breaches of legislation.

4. Contact the Victorian Ombudsman who can handle complaints about the Office of Housing and investigate where appropriate, particularly in relation to systemic issues.

5. Engage your local MP and other relevant MPs who can put questions to Ministers during Parliamentary Question Time and advocate for legislative change.

6. Advocate for policy and law reform by contributing submissions to inquiries, with the use of client stories. You can find out more about our work and the stories of those we've helped here