Domestic violence survivors more likely to be evicted from social housing

High-density housing commission flats in Sydney's inner south-west. Source: AAP

Women who suffer violence at home are being categorised as a 'nuisance' and some get evicted because of the abuse they suffer, according to new research.

Vulnerable families and domestic abuse sufferers are more likely to get evicted from social housing because of new 'get tough' approaches to crime, according to a report released by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI).

The research, conducted by the University of New South Wales and the University of Tasmania, focused on four groups of vulnerable people

  • women affected by domestic violence,
  • children,
  • indigenous families and
  • people who misuse alcohol and other drugs.

Even though the research reveals that social housing landlords are 'generally strongly committed to assisting women affected by domestic violence into safe housing,' this commitment sometimes failed during social housing tenancy. 

One of the main problems raised in the report is that women are held responsible and punished for their partner's behaviour, whether they were present at the time or not. 

'Tenancy obligations and extended liability impose hard expectations that women will control the misconduct of male partners and children. In tenancy legal proceedings violence against women becomes framed as a ‘nuisance’ and some women are evicted because of violence against them’ said lead researcher Dr Chris Martin from UNSW Sydney.

In one instance, the report found a woman who suffered from mental illness and disabilities including a brain injury was evicted even though it was known she was a victim of domestic violence.

Her landlords knew her partner had attacked her only two weeks before the eviction proceedings. Instances of 'screaming, yelling, making loud noises, fighting and using threatening and abusive language,' were all taken in evidence against her.

Another case found an Aboriginal single mother of four lost her home because of her partner's behaviour.

The domestic abuse survivor was evicted after her then-boyfriend was charged for dealing marijuana to friends from her backyard.

The boyfriend didn't live with her and the woman ended her relationship with the boyfriend following his arrest.

She cooperated fully with the police investigation, but the tribunal held that illegal use of the premises was established and evicted her along with her children.

Gender bias in tribunal hearings

Women are the most likely to suffer, with the research finding a significant gender dimension to social housing landlords' responses to misconduct.

silhouette of a woman in doorway (shot in b/w)
silhouette of a woman in doorway (shot in b/w)

The report's authors records, "Of our 95 cases, 59 involve a woman as the tenant. Of these, 20 cases involve a woman who has experienced or is experiencing domestic violence. In 10 cases, the domestic violence is part of the misconduct at issue in the proceedings. A larger number of cases—34 of the 59—involve misconduct (not specifically domestic violence) arising wholly or partly from the actions of a male occupier.

To a significant extent, the misconduct and domestic violence cases overlap: 16 of the 34 cases involving male misconduct are also cases where the woman has experienced domestic violence."

'Extremely worrying'

"It's extremely worrying, but not that surprising, unfortunately," says Moo Baulch, CEO of advocacy group Domestic Violence New South Wales, "We and other groups warned this was likely to occur." 

She says that even though steps have been taken recently to help domestic abuse victims, that more needs to be done. A new Residential Tenancy Act came into force in NSW in February 2019 aimed at helping women experiencing domestic violence by allowing them to terminate the tenancy early without penalty. But she says, "It's a fragile time for tenants impacted by violence whether they own their property or live in social housing."

Ms Baulch points out that eviction from social housing usually results in homelessness with an inability to prove suitability to rent in the private market. She says Aboriginal women and children are disproportionately affected and that racism and discrimination are rife, "We're setting up a market which makes it really hard for vulnerable people to find safe, affordable housing. The options are very few. It's terrifying."

Children evicted with insufficient regard to their interests

The report's researchers also found cases of children being evicted with insufficient safeguards as to their interests, insufficient support for indigenous tenants, and alcohol and drug treatment disrupted by punitive termination proceedings.

According to the report, the most striking thing about the number of cases involving dependent children is how often they culminate in termination of the tenancy: 22 of the 45 cases—15 of the 25 tribunal cases—end in termination orders.

Social housing landlords are considered crucial to help families and children who require additional assistance. But even though the report found most social housing landlords are generally committed to helping, some impose hard expectations as to what tenants can do to control children or to adequately provide for them when evicted as a consequence of their own misconduct.

In one case, a family of five was evicted because of the father's involvement in manufacturing methamphetamine at home, a crime which he denied. The tribunal heard his children, a 19-year-old, a 10 and eight-year-old attended school close by to where they live and could suffer hardship if forced to move. But the tribunal deemed it 'a marginal consideration.'

Advocates preventing violence against women say that domestic and family violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women and their children. "We should be investing more into a variety of housing options that keep women safe. Keep a roof over their heads and ensure more women and children don’t ever end up homeless as a result of violence," says White Ribbon’s CEO, Delia Donovan

Solving the problems

The researchers put forward a number of suggestions to encourage social landlords in supporting vulnerable people and families when responding to crime and anti-social behaviour. Taking a tenant's gender into account and adopting 'the best interests of the child' as the paramount factor in decisions about terminations affecting children were two of them. Establishing specific Indigenous housing organisations, officers and advocates, and adopting harm minimisation as the guiding principle for responses to alcohol and other drug use were two of the others.

‘Responding to anti-social behaviour and misconduct in social housing is plainly a very challenging area of practice, " Said lead researcher, Dr Martin, "Many of the cases we reviewed involved highly conflictual, destructive and distressing behaviour.

‘It appears that in most cases a single substantial contact between the social housing landlord and the tenant was sufficient to address any problems. However, where problematic behaviour continues, the usual course of escalating threats to the tenancy and pushing the tenant to ‘engage’ with the landlord and support services does not work for many. In those cases, people who are vulnerable may be evicted from their social housing, often into homelessness. By the time a case gets to a tribunal, relations are fraught. If a termination order is made, that's usually it - the tenant and their family is evicted into homelessness. We need to bring support out of the shadow of termination.’

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