Whichever way you look at it, something has gone wrong with Housing ACT’s new push to relocate tenants as part of its public housing renewal program.
Its strategy to sell older properties to reinvest the proceeds or redevelop the sites to provide more homes is not news. It has been approaching tenants for years and asking them if they want to relocate to a new and more befitting home. The trouble is, too many of them have wanted to stay put for a variety of reasons.
Many have been in the one property for decades, they like where they live and are embedded in the community. Many are elderly, vulnerable and have complex needs (in the parlance of the community sector). Staying with what they know means they can feel safe.
But Housing ACT has got to the point where it needs to ramp up the program to meet all its targets by its end date in 2025.
Hence the letters to more than 300 households advising that time was up and they would have to move. They gave no timeframe or removal date but said a dedicated Relocation Officer would be visiting to discuss the matter.
An attached fact sheet provided a list of community organisations that they could contact for support, including legal aid.
But staying where they are was not an option.
That was enough to throw many into a panic, inundating those community organisations who were unaware of Housing ACT’s letter.
That apparent blindsiding of the sector which had long been providing input into the public housing program was a mistake, sparking a furious response from ACT Council of Social Services CEO Emma Campbell. She labelled it heartless and is now calling for a pause so ACTCOSS and the government can sit down and sort the mess out.
Housing ACT insists that eviction will be a last resort, that the process will involve multiple steps and tenants can be supported along the way.
But it has got off on the wrong foot, distressing tenants like 55-year-old Ann from Charnwood who has cerebral palsy and medical conditions and has been in the same house for 33 years, as well as an 80-year-old tenant with dementia.
The government is also getting offside with a sector that has a key stake in the process.
The premise of the program is sound and its goals admirable. Some homes are now sitting on land that has soared in value thanks to the property boom, and the considerable sale proceeds will allow more public housing to be built.
Some homes are old, dilapidated and need to make way for new ones.
Some are large properties now occupied by just one or two people, not the families they were intended for.
Housing ACT promises new, modern energy-efficient homes to tenants that better match their needs.
But a change like this needs to be managed sensitively and selectively, and a mass mailout was probably not the way to go.
ACTCOSS says Housing ACT has been opaque about how it is identifying properties and tenants to target, and simply saying there will be a supportive, tailored process doesn’t make it so.
Housing Services Minister Rebecca Vassarotti fielded media questions on behalf of Housing Minister Yvette Berry with a list of talking points, but by the end, even she was having her doubts, answering “my advice is …”
Things need to cool off and Housing ACT should go back to the starting point and properly engage with ACTCOSS and the other organisations involved, and the tenants.
There will probably be good reasons why some tenants should stay where they are, but others, with a bit more than a frightening letter giving them notice, will probably see that, in the end, change will not be so bad.