Community legal centres around Western Australia have issued a joint statement calling for a moratorium on all evictions from public housing "without grounds", saying vulnerable people are being left on the street with no opportunity to make a case to keep their homes.
Despite a Federal Court injunction preventing one family's eviction and a pending investigation by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), tenant advocates are speaking out after an Aboriginal man was recently evicted from his Perth public housing unit "without grounds" and is now living in a local park.
Richard Ugle was recently evicted by the Department of Communities following the end of his fixed-term lease. Because the tenancy was a fixed term, the department did not have to give grounds for the eviction.
"He's living in a park now, which obviously is a terrible outcome," Alice Pennycott, principal tenancy lawyer at Circle Green Community Legal, said.
Circle Green, along with other legal services, has written to Housing Minister John Carey to express concern at the use of fixed-term leases and without-grounds evictions, and are calling for a moratorium on their use.
Ms Pennycott said there should be no reason for public housing authorities to evict people without outlining the grounds for the action and getting the agreement of a magistrate.
She said there might be good reasons to move tenants out.
"They say to us that it's in cases where they do have strong and compelling evidence, potential safety concerns, that sort of thing," she said.
"To that we say, if it's strong and compelling then you shouldn't have much trouble convincing a magistrate that they should terminate [the tenancy] anyway."
Human rights complaint alleges racism
The moratorium call comes after public housing tenant John Abraham was granted an injunction by the Federal Court preventing the termination of his fixed-term lease, on September 16, because he currently has a complaint lodged with the AHRC.
The complaint alleges that the Department of Communities is using fixed-term leases and without grounds evictions disproportionately with Indigenous tenants.
Kate Davis, the solicitor at SCALES Community Legal Centre who acted for Mr Abraham in the Federal Court, told ABC Radio Perth that because he was placed on a fixed-term lease, the department was able to evict him without grounds, despite the fact he and two nephews had nowhere to go.
Ms Davis said Mr Abraham had also taken in numerous other relatives since he moved into his home in 2020, including his elderly parents, who had themselves been subject to a no-grounds eviction.
"At the moment he's got about 20 people staying and 10 of those are young people and children," she said.
"That's a key reason that he's taking the family members in, because he doesn't want to send those kids out onto the streets."
Mr Abraham was aware of the overcrowding concerns and had received multiple warnings from the department but was unwilling to turn his family out.
"John had been asking the housing authority for help to try and find housing for his family members," Ms Davis said.
"But instead, he faced without grounds termination at the end of a fixed-term tenancy."
Mr Abraham's mother Barbara said if the eviction had gone ahead, she would have been living in a tent in the bush.
The use of fixed-term tenancies means that the department can simply refuse to renew a lease without providing a reason, or any opportunity for a tenant to put their case.
"The housing authority has the option to bring a 'termination for cause', to take an application to the magistrate's court and say, there have been problems in this tenancy, set out what those are, and give Mr Abraham the opportunity to respond to them," Ms Davis said.
"And then they can have the magistrate make a decision about whether or not that termination is justified in the circumstances.
"We say that's the appropriate process the housing authority should use because it's fair to tenants, it's accountable."
Data on fixed-term leases sought
At the centre of Mr Abraham's complaint to the human rights commission is the allegation that the department is disproportionately using fixed-term tenancies with Indigenous tenants.
Since the federal court injunction, the department of communities has released figures showing that 26 per cent of public housing tenants identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
Of the 1,119 public housing tenancies on fixed-term agreements, 58 per cent include people who are Indigenous.
While Mr Abraham and his family have been granted a reprieve by the Federal Court, lawyers are dismayed that Mr Ugle has since been evicted using the same process.
'No reason' for fixed terms in public housing: lawyers
While it's accepted in the private rental market that a landlord may end a tenancy without grounds, possibly to move back into the property or sell it, Alice Pennycott said those reasons don't exist in public housing.
"For the government to do it, when we know that they're providing housing to often the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our community, without having to justify or provide a reason and have any judicial oversight is quite startling," Ms Pennycott said.
While Housing Minister John Carey has undertaken to respond to the concerns raised by the sector, it comes too late for Mr Ugle.
"Unfortunately, the eviction that was carried out last week of Mr Ugle was in spite of a lot of attempts to hold off until we got a decision from the minister," Ms Pennycott said.
Unable to afford the private rental market, she said most evictees found themselves on the street or went and stayed with relatives.
"We know that Aboriginal people in particular will have cultural responsibilities to family to house them if they've been evicted from their own housing," she said.
"There are situations where it's a rolling set of evictions, where people are moving from house to house, because then they're getting evicted, because it's overcrowded, and so on."
Evictions a last resort: minister
"I have been on the public record that the state government, through the department of communities, ensures evictions from public housing are a last resort," housing minister John Carey said in a statement.
"Broadly, it's important to note, Without Grounds Evictions are rarely issued and are often the result of significant community concerns and where the tenant has failed to address or remedy these issues," he said.
"Termination action is often taken to ensure the safety of the community, especially adjoining neighbours."
Mr Carey said his department engaged with tenants to try and resolve issues with their tenancy before proceeding to an eviction.
"In most cases, where engagement occurs, clients can remedy their Termination Notice," he said.
"Termination proceedings are only initiated when tenants repeatedly or egregiously fail to utilise all the opportunities provided to them to resolve tenancy concerns."