Calls to legislate Covid-19 eviction moratoriums as ACT accused of pursuing social housing tenants

Luke Henriques-Gomes

The Australian Capital Territory has pledged not to boot out public housing residents who fall behind on rent during the Coronavirus pandemic, after it was caught pursuing eviction orders against tenants despite the national cabinet’s six-month moratorium.

As housing experts call for state and territory governments to enact these moratoriums into law, the Housing ACT was accused of continuing to pursue eviction orders at the ACT’s administrative tribunal over the past few days.

With millions of Australians facing unemployment, the national cabinet agreed last week to the six-month moratorium on evictions to keep people in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic, but the measure has only been legislated in Tasmania.

While most states such as New South Wales and Victoria have essentially suspended evictions for unpaid rent, the Guardian was told last week of at least two live public housing evictions cases at the ACT tribunal.

In a letter to the housing minister on Monday, Canberra Community Law said that Housing ACT as well as community housing providers have continued to pursue evictions.

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The letter, which demands Yvette Berry enact a six-month moratorium, is signed by 20 local organisations and public advocates, including the ACT’s human rights commissioner Helen Watchirs and Jodie Griffiths-Cook, the ACT’s public advocate and children and young people commissioner.

It stated that “applications for evictions continue to be issued against public housing tenants by the ACT government and by ACT government funded organisations against community housing tenants in the ACT”.

Asked to respond to the letter, a spokesperson for Berry confirmed to the Guardian on Monday that the government would not evict ACT public housing tenants due to rental arrears.

“All orders for evictions due to rental arrears will be postponed for the duration of the pandemic,” they said.

The Guardian raised with the ACT’s Community Services Directorate that there were at least two current public housing eviction cases that were with the tribunal in recent days.

Berry’s spokesperson confirmed that there were three existing eviction cases, and that the government would now consider “whether these can proceed in line with the national cabinet position”.

In the case of an eviction tenants were relocated to “another public housing property or linked up with an appropriate specialist housing provider”.

“The ACT government does not evict public housing tenants into homelessness,” the spokesperson said.

The national cabinet’s declaration of a six-month eviction moratorium was aimed at ensuring “we won’t have anyone thrown out of their homes,” Morrison said last week.

Asked about reports that some private landlords were continuing with evictions because there was no moratorium currently in law, Morrison said they needed to “do the right thing”.

Chris Martin, a housing expert at the University of New South Wales, said only Tasmania had so far passed laws to enact a moratorium on evictions.

“It hasn’t been affected in legislation anywhere else yet, and it really needs to be,” he told the Guardian.

“In the week before the announcement that there would be a moratorium, NSW did pass urgently some amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act that would give the minister a power to make regulations that would prevent evictions.

“The minister hasn’t exercised that power yet.”

NSW’s Department of Communities and Justice said social housing tenants were not being evicted over arrears provided they agreed to a payment plan.

Speaking before Berry’s office indicated it would postpone evictions, Sophie Trevitt, a social security and tenancy solicitor at Canberra Community Law, said there were “huge public health implications to evicting public housing tenants during a global health crisis”.

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“Public housing tenants by definition cannot afford to rent in the private rental market.

“Therefore, if evicted, they face almost certain homelessness.”

A spokesperson for NSW’s Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) said it was not evicting social housing tenants for rental arrears “if they agree to an affordable repayment plan and automatic rent deduction for future payments”.

They said the department had suspended rent increases and would not include the $550 per fortnight coronavirus supplement in social housing rents.

“For the safety and security of all tenants living in social housing, DCJ will continue to take appropriate action in relation to matters of serious antisocial behaviour,” the spokesperson said.

“In all cases we ensure appropriate support is offered to sustain a tenancy or provide alternative housing options.”

In Victoria, public housing evictions have also been suspended with the exception of antisocial behaviour.

Berry’s spokesperson said the ACT would still pursue evictions as a “last resort” to protect public safety.

The Queensland government has indicated that it will pursue a retrospective six-month moratorium to protect tenants before the laws are passed.

However, the state’s Residential Tenancies Authority said last week that all parties needed to be aware that their rights and responsibilities under the law “have not changed at this time”.