Saturday, August 30, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - reflections on eighteen months with Housing NSW

Yesterday I finished an eighteen month period working within Housing NSW's Office of Community Housing (OCH). The period began with an initial three month's assignment to provide some policy support, then rolled over into project work.

While I had had a fair bit of contact with the NSW system and indeed had been writing on it, this was my first experience working within it. My role meant that I had to be very careful in the material I wrote that drew in any way from that experience. Inevitably, my experiences did influence my writing, but I have tried to avoid any form of direct reference that might in any way compromise either the Department or my official position. Now that I have finished, I have a little more freedom.

In my farewell speech at the afternoon tea yesterday I spoke of the two things I most valued from my time at Housing NSW and OCH.

The first was the people. Quite simply, these are good people who have put up with my sometime foibles and provided friendship and support.

We had a branch lunch on Wednesday, then yesterday Lauvena (my immediate boss) and Christine, my diminutive Chinese friend and colleague who sat just across the aisle from me, took me to a Korean restaurant for lunch. Christine had a present from me, two small Chinese lions that can sit upon my desk.

This is a very multicultural group in the true sense of the word.

Just taking a few examples, Dzenita who has been working very closely with me on my latest project, is a Bosnian Muslim; Lauvena and Christine are Chinese, Esther Filipino, Manju Indian, while Rennie and I are more your traditional Anglo-Celtic stock.

I saw part of my role as providing the traditional Australian element, while everyone else has educated me in turn. At lunch on Wednesday we talked about the way we were able to share our different experiences freely across many different aspects of life and history.

From my perspective, this has been fascinating in the extreme. Dzenita's experiences in a Muslim religious school under communism where the school was not allowed to teach maths and her later experiences during the Bosnian war are two examples. Some of our most interesting discussions have revolved around common things like family structures, food and children.

All this has had a considerable influence on some of the things that I have written about from burqinis to the Olympics.

The second thing that I most valued from my time at Housing NSW and OCH was my increased understanding of the social housing system itself. This was an area that I knew little about, one that is rarely discussed outside the fairly narrow silo of those directly involved. There is more discussion about housing policy, but this is largely driven at the moment by the affordable housing issue. Further, the discussion that does take place, homelessness is an example, is often issues fragmented.

In talking about this I made the point, and I think that it's true, that people in Housing NSW display a continued commitment to their work despite the sometimes difficulties involved.

This is one of the things that has struck me most about the Department. Here I am not talking about ministerial statements, nor about official lines that appear on the Department's web site. Rather, I am talking about the internal stuff from the official internal messages through to the daily conversations. I have been critical of some aspects of Department administration, but this is a place that still cares.

My blogging activities are no secret to my colleagues. I know that some of them have even read them from time to time, although blogging or even reading blogs is not what I would call a mainstream activity!

In talking about the personal and professional things that I intended to do next, I spoke about my plans to continue writing and commentating as one key stream. I also said that one thing that I wanted to do now that I was free of the constraints of my previous position was to add to debate on social housing issues.

I do think that this is important because the NSW social housing system faces very considerable problems.

Social housing in NSW has been cash starved for an extended period.

The immediate response to this was to focus available funds on new supply, creating a maintenance backlog that was hard to meet since new funding continued to be limited. This is not a problem unique to housing. We saw the same in public education at all levels.

The second response was to set access criteria so that available housing went to those most in need. Whatever the social and equity arguments may have been, this had the effect of increasing the proportion of tenants on very low incomes, as well as those with more complex problems.

Social housing rents are income based. The new approach meant that average rents fell, while support costs increased. It also increased the concentration on housing estates of disadvantaged and problem tenants, changing the character of the estates.

The Department also faced a major problem in that demographic and social change meant that its $28 billion housing portfolio - a huge asset - was increasingly located in the wrong places and composed of the wrong type of housing.

In business terms, we have an organisation with falling income, rising costs and an asset structure that no longer meets business needs. The Department has hardly been blind to these problems. Now that I am free, I will explore the nature of its responses in later posts.

Maintenance Reform Program Announced

I did not know as I wrote this post that the Sydney papers were in fact carrying stories of the announcement by NSW Housing Minister Matt Brown of a five year $1.6 billion dollar program to improve maintenance of the 127,000 houses in the NSW public housing system.

Among other things, the money will allow 24,000 properties to be painted externally, 22,500 properties to be painted internally, with 18,000 kitchens to be replaced.

The Minister also announced that the maintenance system would be centralised. Responsibility for fixing and upgrading properties across the state is to be divided into 22 new contracts with the aim of gaining economies of scale. In future, all requests for maintenance are to go through the Housing Contact Centre, the Department's call centre.

The numbers indicate the scale of the problems I spoke of in the post.

Postscript 2

In Neil's post The South Sydney Herald September 2008 the reproduction of the paper's front page carried a story on public housing that I really wanted to check. Each time I tried to do so, the computer crashed - a memory problem I think. Maybe you will have better luck.


Anonymous said...

I'm interested to read your account of the Dept of Housing from withing, J, because that certainly how it looks from the outside.
Aside from its shortage of cash, which of course is important, and the difficult people it has to deal with, it also appears lumbering, and also prone and certainly vulnerable to corruptionfrom within and fraud from its clients.
But a lot of this comes down to the similar problems which also afflict the Cth Department of Immigration - in this case the shortage of public housing and the terrible and in many ways arbitrary gulf at the cut-off point between the publicly housed on the one side and private tenants,the homeless financially vulnerable mortgagors of their own homes on the other.

Anonymous said...

Should be:

that certainly is not


the homeless and financially vulnerable etc

And sorry about the gulf at the cut-off point, what a terrible mixed metaphor!

Jim Belshaw said...

The fraud one is interesting, M.

As part of code of conduct training,this is compulsory for all staff, they went through previous cases that had ended up with ICAC. The number of cases is small, and there is no evidence that I know of of the type of systemic problems you find in State Rail.

There have also been recent moves to tighten up on the tenant side.

The problem I have with both sets of responses is a concern that in some ways the cure may be worse than the disease. This is too broad an issue to cover in a comment, but it links to your point about lumbering. The more overlays you create in responding to specific issues,the slower the response times.

Your final point drives to the heart of a very real problem, the way in which articulation along the housing chain from homelessness through crisis accommodation to low income social housing through affordable housing into full private rental or ownership has become broken.

Anonymous said...

Your computer problem: maybe it is memory, but I will revisit the post and make the file open in a separate window just in case that helps. It is a rather large PDF, being a full newspaper.

Alternatively, click on the name South Sydney Herald and try from their site.