This research set out to establish an evidence base around public and private sector rental evictions in Australia that will assist in the formulation of policies and strategies that reduce the cost burden of evictions on housing providers and managers. Ideally, that evidence base would result in fewer evictions and less disruption within the lives of low-income people vulnerable to eviction.
Residential tenancy disputes and housing evictions exert a direct impact on public sector housing management in three critical ways:
1. Evicted persons may be forced into homelessness. Government or nongovernment agencies carry the cost of meeting their short and medium term housing needs. In some instances persons evicted from State Housing Authority (SHA) dwellings may immediately draw upon further SHA accommodation, or other SHA support such as a bond guarantee. SHAs may find it necessary to over-ride their debt policies so that evicted persons avoid homelessness;
2. There are housing management costs to SHAs in evicting their tenants. Evictions bring direct costs and carry only limited benefit for the management of the public stock. However, failing to evict tenants may generate other problems – such as significant problems with arrears of rent – and this gives rise to a substantial dilemma in housing management: whether to evict or not. Difficult and disruptive tenants within the public rental sector, many of whom have multiple and complex needs, raise other issues regarding eviction and the most appropriate strategies for the management of the public housing stock (Parliament of South Australia 2003);
3. High levels of tenancy disputes and evictions within the private rental market may generate a perception of market failure amongst landlords, who then become reluctant to invest in low cost rental housing. This raises rents within the private rental sector and increases demand for publicly-funded housing. This research set out to generate knowledge about evictions and evictees that can be used to inform policies which reduce the cost burden of evictions on public housing providers and managers. The research also sets out to consider strategies for reducing evictions in the private rental sector in order to generate more positive attitudes amongst private providers to rental housing.
All Australian jurisdictions have procedures for dealing with failed tenancies. In some States and Territories a body such as a Residential Tenancy Tribunal adjudicates on landlord/tenant disputes (SA, Victoria) while elsewhere these matters are dealt with by the Magistrates Court (Tasmania, Queensland). Moreover, all State Housing Authorities and community housing bodies (housing associations and co-operatives) have policies and procedures for dealing with evictions. There are strong commonalities in the way different States and Territories deal with evictions, but the differences can be significant: long term caravan park residents in South Australia, for example, are not covered by residential tenancies legislation and therefore do not have recourse to the Residential Tenancies Tribunal if threatened with eviction. In Queensland they are covered by the equivalent legislation and have greater rights.
Four key research questions were addressed in this research project:
• Who are evictees and what factors – substance abuse, gambling, unemployment or the breakdown of families – resulted in the failure of their tenancy? What is the profile of persons evicted from the public rental sector compared with those displaced from the private rental sector? What are their attitudes to eviction and what, if any, strategies do they engage in to avoid eviction?
• Where are evictees housed after they have been ejected from their dwelling? Who provides shelter to this group, under what terms and at what cost? To what degree are they forced into temporary accommodation for an extended period?
• What is the impact of evictions on private rental housing supply and the demand for government-provided housing support? To what extent do evicted persons rely upon government-provided crisis accommodation, publicly-provided bonds and other supports?
• What policy interventions can reduce the frequency and impact of evictions? What steps can public sector agencies take to enhance the sustainability of tenancies, and the robustness of the private rental sector? In undertaking this research we anticipated that it would be possible to identify a range of factors that predispose tenancies to fail.
It is likely that non-housing factors will be associated with evictions – such as unemployment, drug or other substance abuse, gambling or psychiatric disability or household break up – as well as housing factors such as limited previous experience renting, a record of prior evictions, high housing costs relative to income. The relative importance of these hypothesised factors was not known at the commencement of this research.
Through this research we conducted interviews with approximately 150 evicted persons across South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. We made contact with these people via recruitment through service providing agencies. We found that:
• Many tenants were effectively evicted – or evict themselves – prior to any formal action being taken by landlords. In many instances these tenancies may have been retained if the tenant had engaged with the appropriate processes – a Tribunal or the Magistrates Court;
• Tenants within the private rental sector were more likely to leave early than persons in the public rental sector facing eviction. This may reflect the fact that the public sector is seen as much less likely to see an eviction process through to completion, or it could reflect the higher value attached to public rental housing by low income groups;
• Approximately 70 per cent of the evictees we interviewed were on a government provided statutory income prior to eviction and this rose to 90 per cent after eviction;
• There was a noticeable tendency for evicted persons to move from private rental housing into the public rental sector after eviction. This includes both State Housing Authority Housing, community housing and SAAP funded agencies;
• Most evictees turned to friends and relatives to provide accommodation upon first eviction, but some ended up sleeping rough, sleeping in cars or in emergency shelters. Significantly, a significant percentage of evictees end up in other institutions – gaol, hospital, and psychiatric care facilities – after eviction. A tenant’s presence in these institutions also contributes to their likelihood to be evicted;
• The persons most at risk of eviction appear to be: o Persons living alone; o Young people; o Sole parents; o Older men; o Persons with substance abuse problems; o Women escaping domestic violence. • The interview data shows that most evictions occurred because of rent arrears and this finding is consistent with the established evidence base around this topic. However, we also found that a significant number of our respondents had been evicted because of damage to the property, or as a consequence of the complaints of neighbours;
• Most respondents had been evicted only once but others had experienced multiple evictions;
• Some of the women we interviewed reported they were victims of domestic violence. Often they abandoned their tenancy in order to flee violence in the home. This group experienced multiple disadvantage as they were first victims of violence, secondly they lost their homes and third they suffered the stigma – and potential discrimination within the market – of having been evicted;
• The persons covered in this study were largely evicted from the private sector, but others had been evicted from the public sector and from Supported Accommodation Assistance Program housing. Evictions from the latter largely took place as a consequence of a breach of lease conditions;
• A substantial number of evictees reported problems with abusive behaviour by landlords and or discrimination by landlords;
• Evictions create additional demands on the housing and welfare sector. As noted before, evicted persons tend to find longer term accommodation in the public sector and in the short term they require emergency assistance, assistance with furniture and other goods, and often additional income support;
• Evictees reported that they often experience very severe personal outcomes as a consequence of their eviction. This includes the loss of furniture and other chattels, but also relationship breakdown and in some instances the loss of dependent children into care facilities; o Many evictees have lives of considerable hardship and eviction is a further burden in an already difficult set of circumstances.
• The majority of evictees do not appear to contest their eviction. They report a sense of helplessness/powerlessness. Eviction is seen by the respondents as regrettable but unavoidable. Few evictees stated that have heard of tenant advocacy services such as the Tenant’s Union and even fewer called upon their assistance. It is proposed that more could be done to empower tenants and both the system responsible for administering eviction processes (Magistrates Court or a Residential Tenancy Tribunal) and Centrelink could play a more effective role. Both are key points of contact for evictees;
• With poor living skills being a contributing factor to evictions for young people, programs that develop life skills among young people could substantially reduce the level of eviction amongst this age cohort. Overall the research confirms that eviction is a major problem for the providers of public housing assistance and for the public sector as a whole. Evictions generate a number of challenges for the public sector with:
• A percentage of evictees ending up in high cost hospitals or other institutions;
• Children separated from their parents;
• The education of children disrupted;
• Additional demands placed on the public housing sector, as well as emergency housing; and,
• The majority of evicted persons ending up homeless, with a small proportion experiencing the worst forms of primary homelessness. Programs and strategies are needed that provide better advice and support to tenants facing eviction.