Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this article contains the names of deceased persons.
As a representative on the Tenants’ Advice Service (TAS) Board from 1989 to 1992 through a connection she made while working in her first role as an Education and Welfare Officer at Murdoch University, Pauline Logan was already aware of how fundamental housing was to people’s lives.
Her next paid job was at the Sussex Street Community Law Centre as an Advocate, where the issues she managed were complicated for people who had no place to call home.
“I remember this family who were parenting from their car,” says Pauline. “There were concerns about the welfare of the kids. Princess Margaret Hospital was involved, and both the Department of Child Protection and the Department of Housing were involved.”
The case was made to all concerned to put their efforts into supporting the family to be provided with priority housing and other supports to help the parents provide better care for their children rather than taking the children away. Seeing these issues firsthand made Pauline take the jump from TAS Board to TAS CEO in 1992 to working more closely on housing and tenants’ rights.
While Pauline worked at TAS, Shelter WA had positioned itself as the housing system focussed organisation based “across the corridor” from both TAS and the Federation of Housing Collectives offices in Parry Street East Perth. Funding for Shelter was provided tenuously on a six-month interim basis by Homeswest. The organisation was juggling several issues. There was increased funding in social housing courtesy of the then Federal Minister for Housing Brian Howe plus a review of State residential tenancy law and research on how those from culturally linguistic diverse communities interact with the housing system. When Pauline joined the Shelter WA Board in 1995 as a TAS representative one of the biggest issues of the late 1990s was just getting underway.
Section 64 was a section of residential tenancy law allowing landlords the right to evict a tenant with 60 days’ notice without stating a reason. Some agencies noticed an increased number of Homeswest eviction orders’ being served with concern this section was being misused as intentional Homeswest policy, rather than following a breach process and allowing tenants the opportunity to respond to the breach.
Shelter WA was brought in to look at the issue as part of a three-month project to look at the evictions of Homeswest tenants in the State. Named the Evictions Project Shelter WA met with individuals and representatives in metropolitan and regional areas to collate information with the objective of identifying the eviction issues.
An Anti-Section 64 Coalition also emerged claiming tenants had been evicted without an opportunity to respond for being as little as $70 behind in rent, or because neighbours complained. In one case a woman was evicted for rent arrears just two weeks after having open heart surgery and had to move to an area away from appropriate medical care. The issue reached its zenith during intense media coverage of the eviction of an Aboriginal family from their government-leased house in Paris Way in Karrinyup. Mrs Joan Martin fought the eviction all the way to the Western Australian Supreme Court, who found in her favour, ruling that she had been the victim of indirect racial discrimination. This was the first time that the WA Supreme Court had found in favour of an Aboriginal person on the grounds of indirect racial discrimination. Homeswest appealed with Housing Minister Dr Kim Hames noting: “There is an important principle at stake here and the agency will appeal the decision on the grounds that it acted reasonably in its application of the Residential Tenancies Act.”
The decision was later overturned by the Full Court of the Supreme Court. Paul Lampathakis in The West Australian wrote “Justice Kerry White said that even if the cultural obligation of Aborigines to house relatives in need made it lawful for Mrs Martin to allow some overcrowding in the house, ‘it could not … extend to permitting acts of nuisance causing harm to her neighbours.’”
“Mrs Martin allowed her case to be used as a test case around the use of Section 64 and to generate widespread awareness, including taking her case to the United Nations,” Pauline said. “It was an amazing time, there was a coalition across a number of organisations including Shelter WA, TAS, community legal centres and tenant advocates across Western Australia, Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service, Western Australian Council of Social Service, Legal Aid and the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee.
“Shelter WA was quick to highlight the systemic and structural issues that underpinned why Mrs Martin was forced to live in overcrowded conditions housing her grandchildren and other family members due to the housing shortage and that the approach to blame and remove the individual rather than improve the housing system was unjust.”
In the end it became politically more difficult to use Section 64. Government policy changed to incorporate a three-tier approach to addressing “disruptive behaviour” based on a strike system.
In 1996, somewhat ironically, Shelter WA was faced with a continuing challenge of finding a long-term commercial tenancy. In the end the organisation worked with other organisations to seek a grant for secure, affordable accommodation.
“We worked with Lois Gately at the Lotteries Commission of Western Australia. Lois had previously been on the Shelter WA and the TAS Boards and understood the importance of secure, affordable accommodation, including community organisations. Lois worked with a group of agencies that wanted to share accommodation,” she said. Thanks to the Lotteries Commission grant Shelter and other community sector housing organisations moved to Moore Street in East Perth to Claisebrook Lotteries House. “Situated closer now to McIver Railway Station the location was convenient for those doing direct client service work.”
In 1997 Shelter WA moved to a “contract for service” funding arrangement. Prior to this funding for a not-for-profit organisation was secured through a submission led, grant based approach. The contracting approach honed what it was that government wanted to purchase from agencies and in turn created a different way for an agency to engage government with what was important and trying to get that considered and recognised as part of what was contracted. For Shelter WA this could create tension.
“The Department of Housing was funding the organisation and Shelter’s work included advocating on behalf of people who were experiencing challenges with that Department,” notes Pauline. “A lot of navigating of the landscape was needed to maintain advocacy particularly while sitting on Ministerial Advisory Committees and building constructive working relationships. There were robust exchanges but there was also respect for the roles and support from Ministers.
It was around this time an example occurred of what can happen when tensions go too far when National Shelter was defunded in July 1997. The Howard government defunded the body using the reasoning that it duplicated the role of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS). According to Shelter’s annual report, this was “a blatant attempt to silence a dissenting voice to the Commonwealth reform proposals”. Shelter WA was rocked by this decision and Shelter NSW took on the role of convenor for National Shelter, and in later years other Shelters assisted until it was refunded in 2009.
Looking back on what Shelter WA is today Pauline loves watching the
“strategic focus it has taken across the overall housing system”, and how it has worked with an Alliance of agencies to successfully shift the narrative and response from “managing homelessness to ending homelessness”
“Unfortunately the issues have not gone away, and in some instances are worse, but some of the ways for working together and solutions have changed.”