“If a society is to be judged by the treatment of its most vulnerable members, then ours is failing miserably” … NSW State Coroner Mary Jerram.THOUSANDS of poor and vulnerable residents of the state’s boarding houses will be given stronger protection from exploitation under proposed legislation.
Residents will no longer be able to be evicted without notice or right of appeal, owners will face steeper fines for infringements, and employees will be subjected to periodic criminal records checks.
The draft exposure bill, released on Friday, includes many of the provisions community activists have sought for 35 years.
Sister Myree Harris, convenor of the Coalition for Appropriate Supported Accommodation, said the government had gone up in her estimation. ”But they have to carry through,” she said. ”Some owners will scream blue murder and the government must call their bluff.”
Under the proposed law, boarding houses will have to be registered with the Commissioner for Fair Trading. At present the government has no accurate picture of the number of boarding houses though the 2006 census put the number of residents at 6000. The sector now also accommodates international students in often substandard conditions.
The bill’s release comes weeks after a stinging condemnation by the NSW State Coroner, Mary Jerram, of the care of boarding house residents, declaring that ”if a society is judged by the treatment of its most vulnerable members, then ours is failing miserably”. Ms Jerram had held an inquiry into the deaths of six residents of an inner-west boarding house between June 2009 and August 2010.
The Minister for Disability Services, Andrew Constance, said the reform sought to strike a balance between maintaining the viability of boarding houses and the need to protect some of the most vulnerable people in the community.
Under the reform a new Boarding Houses Act will replace other pieces of legislation that have often proven toothless. The act will cover two categories of boarding houses: unlicensed, which serve people on very low incomes – some with drug, alcohol and gambling problems – and licensed ones for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities. Only premises with five or more residents will be covered.
Residents not now protected by tenancy laws that apply to other renters will get occupancy rights. They will not be able to be evicted without reasonable notice, will have the right to live in premises that are reasonably clean and in a reasonable state of repair, and be given written receipts for payments to the proprietor. Both parties will have recourse to the Consumer Trader and Tenancy Tribunal for dispute resolution.
The proposed law also gives greater powers to departmental inspectors and advocacy groups to enter licensed boarding houses, a sticking point in the past. Lillian Patterson, who runs a licensed boarding house in Dulwich Hill, said occupancy rights could be problematic if residents refused to pay their rent or were violent.
Chris Martin, a senior policy officer at the Tenants’ Union of NSW, welcomed the proposed changes but said residents’ bonds should be placed with the Rental Bond Board. ”The law should also cover other marginalised renters,” he said. These included people renting a spare room in someone’s house, and residents in typical share houses who, without a written agreement, had no effective legal protection.
With submissions on the Exposure Draft Boarding Houses Bill 2012 to close on August 10, Matthew Bowden, executive director of People with Disabilities, called on the government to consult with people who live in boarding houses.
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