The objective of this audit was to assess how effectively the Department of Communities manages tenants that are disruptive or conduct illegal activities in public housing.
We specifically focused on the Department’s Disruptive Behaviour Management Strategy, policies and procedures, and its management of complaints about tenants.
The Department of Communities – Housing (the Department), through the Housing Authority, oversees the State’s public housing system. It is the largest property manager in Western Australia, managing over 36,500 owned or leased properties for more than 64,000 Western Australians on low incomes. Eighty percent of the properties are located in the Perth metropolitan area.
As for private landlords, the Department has the same responsibilities under the Residential Tenancies Act 1987 (the Act). It needs to ensure that tenants meet their obligations outlined in tenancy agreements, to pay rent and look after the home, and can evict when necessary.
The Department has to balance its role as landlord with its responsibility to support tenants to sustain their tenancies and avoid homelessness. To achieve this, the Department works with tenants, government and community organisations through its offices in 11 regions across the State (Appendix 1). Stable accommodation provides tenants with a number of social and economic benefits including better access to support networks and improved employment opportunities.
A number of health and social issues contribute to disruptive tenant behaviours and adverse tenancy outcomes. These include poor mental health, family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and long term inter-generational dysfunction.
Between July 2016 and April 2018, the Department received 21,917 complaints about its tenants. The complaints covered matters including yelling, loud music, property damage, threatening behaviour, and physical violence. Complaints can be made by neighbours, visitors or people working in the area.
All jurisdictions in Australia have some form of legislation or policy to encourage public housing tenants to be good tenants and to minimise disruptive behaviours. The Department’s Disruptive Behaviour Management Strategy (Strategy) was prepared in 2009. It outlined a multi-faceted approach to manage disruptive behaviour in response to community concerns about ongoing disruptive behaviour by a small proportion of public housing tenants. It proposed both sanctions for poor behaviour on one hand, and early intervention and support to help tenants and meet community expectations on the other. The Strategy consisted of 3 main components, which included:
- legal responses and sanctions – changes to the Act to allow the Department to impose broader and stronger tenancy sanctions in response to disruptive behaviour complaints
- tenancy management and compliance – revised operational policies and procedures and improved training, data collection and reporting
- education, support and awareness – education campaign, tenant mentoring and support services, and mediation (Table 1).
In response to the Strategy, the Department developed 2 key policy documents to improve how it manages disruptive behaviour and illegal activity:
- Disruptive Behaviour Management Policy (DBM Policy) 2011 – also known as the 3 Strikes Policy, which outlines the Department’s response to disruptive behaviour. The DBM Policy allows the Department to manage complaints about public housing tenants that are disruptive. It uses strike notices as sanctions and can pursue legal action.
- Illegal Use of Premises Policy 2014 – common illegal activities include possession of prohibited drugs, drug paraphernalia and stolen property. The Western Australia Police Force (Police) investigate illegal activities and the Department decides whether to take action in relation to the tenancy. For lesser illegal incidents tenants receive a formal warning instead of a strike.
It also pays around $6.5 million each year to contractors who deliver support and education services to tenants throughout the State. The Support and Tenant Education Program (STEP) services include community mental health, legal, Aboriginal medical, disability, and family violence support. The Department can also refer tenants to relevant government agencies for assistance, particularly where there are mental health and child protection concerns.
The Department becomes aware of disruptive behaviour and illegal activities through the complaints it receives and categorises these incidents by severity (Figure 1).
Complaints are received by the Department’s Disruptive Behaviour Reporting Line and entered into the ‘Habitat’ system. The system stores tenancy and complaint information, including details from property inspections. Staff in the Disruptive Behaviour Management Unit triage all complaints and investigate those that relate to disruptive behaviour.
When complaints are ‘corroborated’ by evidence, strikes are issued based on the outcome of investigations and the severity of disruptive behaviour. If 3 strikes are issued within a 12-month period, the Department can initiate an eviction. However, the Department can issue a final strike and commence eviction proceedings immediately if the complaint is about a serious illegal activity or dangerous behaviour. Strikes cannot be appealed.
To terminate a tenancy and evict a tenant, the Department must first apply to the Magistrates Court of Western Australia (Court) for an order to terminate the tenancy. Under the Act, the Court can terminate a tenancy for:
- disruptive behaviour (Section 75A)
- illegal activity (Section 73)
- without a specific reason (Section 64). Such as, where witnesses are too scared to attend Court or the risk is too great to wait for the outcome of criminal matters.
Machinery of government changes in July 2017 saw the creation of the Department of Communities by the amalgamation of the Department of Housing, Child Protection and Family Support, the Disability Services Commission, and part of the Department of Local Government and Communities.
 Western Australia Equal Opportunity Commission (June 2013). A Better Way. A Report into the Department of Housing’s Disruptive Behaviour Strategy and More Effective Methods for Dealing with Tenants.