What must be noted about Shelter WA in the 1980s was how it was inextricably linked with the Tenants’ Advice Service (TAS). Shelter WA had been established by Aileen O’Rourke in 1979, the same person who founded TAS.
Leslie explains how the two organisations came to together.
“I began originally with TAS after being accepted through a placement,” he said. “Both TAS and Shelter WA worked towards the same goals. We wanted more housing for low income people and more housing security for all renters.
“TAS did their work by assisting tenants with tenancy issues and finding accommodation for homeless people, while Shelter WA did the lobbying. With input from the Shelter management committee, Shelter WA pursued strategies to raise the profile of homelessness, the need for more government housing and the need for tenancy law reform. These were the issues of the day.”
With TAS work taking up most of the hours in a day, Shelter WA commitments were managed “at other times”. Aileen worked primarily at TAS with out of hours involvement in Shelter, while Leslie juggled different roles at both organisations.
“TAS was like the sponsor organisation of Shelter WA. The housing advocacy sector was very small and TAS was not paid to lobby; its role was to deliver advice on tenancy issues and find accommodation for people,” Leslie said.
“I did my work for Shelter WA outside of my TAS work hence my role as President and as Treasurer for National Shelter. In those days I had limited experience, I quickly learnt to write and analyse contentious issues. My communication skills developed overnight through my dealings with homeless people, tenants, landlords, government, the real estate institute and the media.”
While lobbying was consistent throughout the early 1980’s Shelter WA was about to enter the public consciousness due to the most unlikely of events.
In the American seaside city of Newport on the other side of the world Australia II crossed the finish line in the seventh and final race in the 1983’s America’s Cup.
Fremantle as a locality was about to be turned upside down.
“Fremantle was a backwater,” recalls Leslie. “It was popular amongst students, the homeless and boarders and lodgers for its cheap accommodation.
“The state government wanted to enhance the infrastructure to both beautify and to cope with the estimated number of visitors. Local property owners quickly realised that it was going to be a bonanza for them. People were talking rents priced at up to one thousand dollars a night.”
As rentals began being spruced up current owners were shown the door. Tenants and especially boarders and lodgers were hit hard creating a mass movement of low-income earners out of the area. The state government was largely uninterested in the plight of the many who had to move, but eventually funded a TAS office based in Fremantle run by Leslie.
“The state government was very proud of the America’s Cup and while they did some really good things, they weren’t actually prepared to listen to what was happening to a lot of the long-term residents of Fremantle,” he said.
With two months to go before the big race Shelter WA began to ramp up their efforts.
A large protest organised outside a block of flats where a dozen families were being forced to move gathered media interest. In a stunning reflection of the nature of the debate at the time Leslie remembers a live radio or TV interview with the Minister with responsibility for the 1987 America’s Cup.
“I was referred to as ‘a pom’ and therefore I ‘should not have a say’,” laughs Leslie.
“This was live media, so it was said and then it was gone, but it gives you an idea of the level of the discussion I was involved in around that time. I was actually born in Australia with a Spanish mother and a Dutch father.”
Despite the best efforts of TAS, large displacement occurred with many forced to live in Northbridge and the outer suburbs around Fremantle, areas known for their public housing population. Government funding for the TAS office in Fremantle ceased shortly after the America’s Cup ended.
While the America’s Cup was a challenge there were some big wins. The introduction of the Residential Tenancies Act 1987 (WA) was by far the biggest in Leslie’s mind.
Shelter WA had successfully lobbied with a then state Labor opposition to make tenancy reform a priority in their first term of government. Once in government, though, the commitment dissipated. After Labor achieved government it would take another four years of intense lobbying, including public meetings, to finally get the reforms.
The formation of the Residential Tenancies Act brought Shelter WA and the Real Estate Institute of Western Australia (REIWA) together through the establishment of a committee that also included other community and government representation.
For Leslie it was a “remarkable achievement”. Before this time TAS, Shelter WA and REIWA had been consistently at loggerheads over tenancy issues.
“We all sat down and came up with this agreeable set of legislation.
“Even though we were on different sides of the fence, fundamentally REIWA, TAS and Shelter all wanted to achieve an outcome that would be of value to both tenants and landlords. REIWA knew existing legislation was detrimental to tenants and it should be better. Obviously, the changes did not go as far as we would have liked, but the government was able to bring it in without many additional changes. There was a huge amount of outcry by both landlords, saying it went ‘too far’ and tenants saying it ‘didn’t go far enough’. In my mind this meant we achieved a good balance.”
Another win “to the government’s credit” was Labor’s increase in the housing stock. “They did increase public housing stock and emergency housing but still ignored boarders and lodgers.”
As we know Shelter WA would continue to grow into the effective peak body we see today, thanks to the solid relationship it enjoyed with TAS in the early years. This period for Leslie was enjoyable and a thrill to be with many like-minded people trying to carve out a way of providing better supports for those in need of housing.
“It taught me persistence and it taught me to stick to what I think is right. Unfortunately, it also taught me to be very sceptical of politicians and highlighted the lack of honour amongst many of them.”