By JOHN MOYLE
Last month, a rumoured 30 residents of the Surry Hills public housing complex, Northcott Estate, were delivered a bombshell letter informing them that their tenancies were being terminated.
The letter reads:
“Notice of Termination
In accordance with the authority delegated to me by the NSW Land and Housing Corporation, your landlord, I hereby give Notice of Termination of your Residential Tenancy Agreement in respect of the premises at XX/XX Devonshire St Surry Hills.”
For long term resident Peter ‘Pierre’ Gawronski, his notice related to an overdue amount of $262.22 and being in excess of 14 days in arrears.
“There’s no doubt that tenants might’ve missed a payment during this pandemic, but it seems that going down to the office to organise to pay it off seems a sensible way to deal with it,” Gawronski said.
He now intends to go to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT), undefended, to resolve the dispute.
Gawronski is one of the few voices to be heard on Northcott, having spoken to the Sentinel last November about boarded-up apartments within the estate. He will also soon be seen in a SBS doco-series about living on the breadline.
Northcott Estate falls within the boundary of local Greens Member for Newtown Jenny Leong, who has brought issues affecting the estate to the Lower House on numerous occasions.
“This is not providing people with safe and secure housing. This is, in some cases, worse than some banks behave,” Leong said.
“We are talking about people who are on low income and we know that it is not enough to live on, and now we have the state government creaming money off already vulnerable tenants who are struggling.”
Tenancies at Northcott are managed by the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) for the Land and Housing Corporation.
“When a tenant falls into rent arrears, DCJ works closely with them to support them and help prevent their arrears from building to a level which threatens their tenancy,” a spokesperson for the NSW Land and Housing Corporation said.
This approach to what are minor arrears seems like using a sledgehammer to swat a gnat, and is in direct conflict with the Complaint Management Framework for Community Housing Providers which states: “A good complaint management approach is focussed on people. An organisation’s policy, procedures and practice should drive a genuine attempt to resolve the issue where possible, rather than simply providing a response.”
Leong said: “It seems unclear if this is just happening in the Surry Hills area or whether this is part of a broader strategy across NSW.”
With the Surry Hills Family and Community Services (FACS) office currently closed, there is no point of contact for tenants except via telephone.
“We know that people are told to call to negotiate a plan and in many cases they can wait for hours to get through,” Leong said.
Legal assistance or explanation can be just as difficult, as it can take up to three weeks to be appointed a legal aid solicitor.
“There is no way that you can get any legal assistance in the time that they give you before your hearing,” Gawronski said.
As to the heavy handed wording of the termination notices, Gawronski said he has been told that the letters are outsourced to a legal firm and this gives Land and Housing an out for the damaging impact on recipients.
The fallout of the termination notices across the estate is further exacerbated by a general feeling of isolation, and even despair, across the estate.
Some of this can be put down to the pandemic and the corresponding suspension of services from the community centre and FACS, but it is also clear that there is a general feeling of frustration by a large number of residents who feel that they are not being listened to, by anyone.
“I think that it is more manipulation than lack of communication,” Marc Clarke, resident, said.
“A lot of people who live here might have drug problems, mental problems and be ex-homeless people but they are trying to improve their lives and they are treated with distain and disrespect. and it just causes tension, and there is a lot of tension in this place.”
Clarke currently has an AVO against him, issued by a FACS worker.
While the Sentinel has no intention of disclosing issues concerning the AVO, there does appear to be widespread dissatisfaction against one Community Services worker in particular.
“I haven’t heard a good word about her,” said a resident who did not want to be identified.
“If you have problems with your neighbour, instead of de-escalating it, she lets it fester and she seems to thrive on creating her own soap dramas here at Northcott.
“I think that the relationship between the [estate] office and the residents is toxic.”
Complaints on the estate range from the use of petrol powered leaf blowers to major issues concerning maintenance.
Maintenance on the estate is outsourced to contractors Broadspectrum, who also manage numerous other estates across Australia, and have also operated asylum seeker detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island on behalf of the federal government.
One of the major maintenance complaints concerns the management of the 30-odd waste bins on the estate.
Residents say that the timing of putting out the bins attracts ibis during the day and rats at night.
“Housing are putting the bins out at lunchtime the day before collection, and these are full or overflowing, so by the time that Council pick them up the next morning the bin turkeys have spent the afternoon spreading the rubbish, and overnight the rats have got in there, so Housing is feeding all the pests in the area,” Gawronski said.
Other issues raised concern the time it takes for repairs and the quality of the repairs.
The lack of secure doors at the end of some corridors was another concern, as was the lighting and lack of security cameras in a large area between two main buildings.
All of these complaints are made in isolation, as currently there is no means of disseminating information across the estate.
Most public housing communities have a vibrant social media network, but this is missing from Northcott.
The feelings of isolation have been further compounded with the closure of the estate’s community centre due to Covid restrictions.
At the moment, the only point of common contact on the entire estate is the weekly food delivery by OzHarvest.
Mission Australia has been concerned over the amount time that the community centre has remained closed and is currently working with local stakeholders to get it operating again.
“We are working to facilitate regular meetings and outreach in person as quickly as possible, while adhering to Covid-safe precautions and protecting the Northcott Estate community,” a Mission Australia spokesperson said.
The level of despair and disconnect will require a massive input from all services, major and minor, to even begin the repair. However, Gawronski and others are worried the eviction notices, lack of maintenance – and boarded up flats, sitting empty at Northcott – indicate the state government could be preparing to redevelop or sell off the estate.
The Department of Communities and Justice has denied there are any plans to do so.