No Housing ACT tenant will be forced to leave their home under the now-discredited relocation program designed to free up sites and capital to build more public housing.
Housing and Suburban Development Yvette Berry revealed in Annual Reports hearings on Wednesday (15 November) that the government had decided to make tenant relocations for the Growing and Renewing Public Housing Program voluntary.
This completes a total back down from the botched relocation program since three tenants took the government on in the ACT Supreme Court, arguing that the decision to move them out of their long-time homes was unfair and a breach of their human rights, and the release of a damning ACT Ombudsman’s report.
In August, the government said it would restart the mandatory removal program with a revised decision-making process that would first consider tenants’ individual circumstances and take on board all the other recommendations from the Ombudsman.
But Ms Berry told the hearing that Housing ACT had dumped the program and contacted impacted tenants to let them know they were no longer required to move.
“Ensuring Canberrans experiencing vulnerability or disadvantage have a safe and comfortable place to call home will always be a priority of the ACT Government,” she said.
“That’s why the government has decided to make tenant relocations for the Growing and Renewing Public Housing Program voluntary.”
But tenants would be required to move in other circumstances, such as when a property is no longer safe to live in.
Ms Berry said the redesigned process focused on sharing information and considering individual tenant circumstances, which addressed the concerns set out in the Ombudsman’s report.
“I have apologised and I apologise again on behalf of the government and on behalf of Housing ACT,” when questioned by Liberal housing spokesperson Mark Parton, who asked whether this backdown was embarrassing.
“No, not all. I’ve taken responsibility for the work that we did, taken responsibility for the actions of the government and myself as minister and those the directorate took, acknowledging that didn’t work for everybody and that people were distressed as a result of that.
“I’ve apologised, and it’s appropriate.”
Ms Berry said the Ombudsman found that the goal of the relocation program was legitimate, but its implementation and decision-making were flawed.
“Housing ACT had been reviewing this program from the get-go, and work had been continuing to occur as far as how the program could be implemented better. Adjustments were being made to make sure the tenants were supported as much as we possibly could,” she said.
“The Ombudsman’s report really gave us the chance to look even harder, to regroup with our community stakeholders to ensure that we were getting it right.”
Ms Berry said 493 tenants were forced out under the program.
In August, Housing ACT wrote to 154 tenants to tell them that the removal program was being revised and restarted.
Ms Berry told the hearing that instead of selling properties and redeveloping sites to enable the highest number of new public housing homes to be built, Housing ACT would now only sell properties that become vacant.
However, the decision to make tenant relocations voluntary would not stop the government from meeting its public housing targets.
Ms Berry said more than 580 homes have already been built or bought and another 600 were in the construction pipeline.
“The government is now well-placed to deliver the program’s target of 1400 new or redeveloped homes by 2027,” she said.
A sceptical Mr Parton asked if the government would have to back down on this target, given that the total number of public housing properties had still not grown.
“I don’t think we will need to,” Ms Berry said. “All the data that we have suggests that we will meet those timeframes.
“There is going to be a lot of work in construction over the next five years.”
Ms Berry said the impact of the pandemic and recent wet seasons had caused frustrating delays to the renewal program.
The ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) welcomed the government’s decision.
“We commend the ACT Government for responding to the recommendations made by the ACT Ombudsman and for listening to the concerns raised by public housing tenants and the community sector organisations that support them,” said CEO Dr Devin Bowles.
“While we strongly support the objective of increasing public housing stock and improving the condition of public housing dwellings, this cannot be achieved at the expense of the rights and dignity of current public housing residents.”