Supporting women and children escaping domestic violence

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Please sign this petition calling upon The Hills Shire Council to support a framework designed to generate much needed transitional housing for women and children escaping Domestic Violence.

This framework, already approved by the NSW Dept of Planning, delivers this urgently needed housing at no cost to ratepayers or the government and provides a critical pathway to safety for at risk women and children.

During my time as Mayor, this framework had been unanimously supported by Council. However, the new Mayor and Council voted against it at its very last hurdle, and have since abandoned it altogether. Yet domestic violence continues to escalate in our community. 

Why, when you have a key pathway for at risk people in your community that has no cost to rate-payers or government, would you 'disappear' the initiative entirely?

I have provided detailed background below. Meanwhile, please sign and share this petition with your friends, colleagues and networks, so that we can all be part of the solution against domestic violence, supporting urgently needed and potentially life-changing supports being breathed-to-life.

Note: For clarity, from advice provided to me, the questions answered below were posed by Councillors from The Hills Shire Council at a meeting on the 14th August 2018. Some of the questions posed may shock you. 

BACKGROUND:

More than a year since I first proposed my Transitional Housing Framework for vulnerable women and children in our community and, sadly, after initially gaining the unanimous support of Council and then successfully clearing the hurdles of being approved by the NSW Dept of Planning, being placed on public exhibition and receiving not one piece of negative feedback, the Councillors at The Hills Shire Council voted against the Transitional Housing initiative at its very last hurdle, on the 14th August 2018.

I’ve been advised that a majority of Councillors - including those who previously supported it - voted against it, and deferred the carefully crafted framework, which was designed after significant consultation, to another briefing session to be reworked. (I will pop a full list of which Councillors supported and which did not, at the end of this post.) The Framework, as anticipated, has since been completely shelved.

This piece of policy would have provided a much needed pathway to secure, affordable housing stock for women escaping DV and Homelessness - and incredibly it would do so at no cost to anyone.

It is important to note that this framework is supported by the Hills Local Area Command - indeed our Local Area Commander, Superintendent Robert Critchlow, attended the recent Meeting of Council and addressed Councillors at length in support of the motion. The proposal is also supported by domestic violence service providers, community housing providers, tier one developers, Hills Community Aid, Western Sydney Women and key local MP’s such as Julian Leeser, the Federal Member for Berowra and The Hon. Pru Goward, Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

So what is Transitional Housing?

When I use the term transitional housing, I am referring to a special stock of housing to be specifically set aside for women who are homeless and/or experiencing domestic violence. Transitional housing is the vital missing “next step” for women coming out of crisis accommodation, such as refuges or shelters like The Sanctuary in the Sydney Hills.

In the sector we know that the lack of affordable and secure housing for a woman to move into after a shelter stay, is one of the main reasons she will return to the cycle of violence, and back into a potentially life-threatening situation.

During my time as Mayor I searched for a solution to this problem and came up with a Transitional Housing Framework that can deliver a stockpile of transitional housing into our community - and almost magically do so at no cost to Council, ratepayers, Government, taxpayers, Community Housing providers or Developers.

Find more information here:https://www.facebook.com/154985958276647/posts/337950856646822/
and here:
https://www.facebook.com/154985958276647/videos/340217439753497/

Why is it so important?

One of the main reasons women will either stay in a violent situation or return to violence after a shelter stay, is that there is simply no secure and affordable housing for them to move into. Finding somewhere appropriate for our clients to live is one of the major challenges that we are faced with every day at The Sanctuary, the Shelter for Women and Children in The Hills for which I am fortunate to serve as Chair of the Board.

The Hills Shire Councillors have before them the opportunity to be pioneers in providing real and life-changing pathways for women and children coming out of shelters and going on to enjoy wonderful, independent lives away from harm. No other Council has done this, but many will surely follow.

Supporting this framework will provide a potentially life-saving pathway for vulnerable women - and at no cost to anyone. There can be nothing more nobler than supporting such a transformative thing.

It is my hope that by the time Transitional Housing is scheduled for its Councillor briefing session, Councillors will have resolved their concerns and feel equipped to resume their support of this transformative initiative. I have done my best to listen to the questions they raised at Council, and I will do my best below to provide them the informed answers that they seek:

Q & A

Q. Where have the women and children who have come to stay at The Sanctuary come from. Are they from The Hills?

A. Now, whilst I am a little unsure as to why this question is relevant to this debate, I will address this as best I can. The Sanctuary prioritises the intake of women in our local community, however there are many complex reasons for why a woman is unsafe in her local community (such as a perpetrator tracking her through their children, should they continue at their local school, as one example), and seeks refuge outside of her community.

The Sanctuary is part of the wider Women’s Community Shelters network and is able to ensure that women in our collective network are placed in locations that they find suitable and safe throughout the Sydney basin and the Hunter. The response to Family and Domestic Violence is not as simple as ensuring that only women from that community are accepted into their local shelter.

This kind of restriction or stipulation could place many women at greater risk. Just as other communities in which our sister shelters exist take on the care for women from our community who cannot safely stay in The Hills, The Sanctuary will take on the care of women from outside The Hills who cannot safely remain in their communities on a case by case basis. However, The Sanctuary as a policy will always prioritise local women for whom it is safe to stay in their local community.

Q. What benefit did QIC receive from Council for providing the premises from which The Sanctuary operates?

A. Again, I am a little unclear as to how this question relates to the debate, but will once again do my best to provide an answer. QIC received no benefit from Council for the provision of a premises for The Sanctuary. QIC offered the use of their property to Women’s Community Shelters (WCS) soon after Annabelle Daniel, CEO of WCS started meeting with key leaders in The Hills about the potential of opening a shelter in our community - and way before The Sanctuary even existed as a concept. No one at Council was involved in the discussion between WCS and QIC.
Further, The Sanctuary is entirely independent of Council, and QIC neither asked nor received anything from Council for their extraordinary, but all-too-rare, philanthropy. In its private capacity, The Sanctuary, in return for their generosity have granted QIC a seat on its Board - as it has done for Women’s Community Shelters, who it is important to note are the largest single supporter of The Sanctuary, providing around $1M worth of guaranteed funding support for The Sanctuary, and therefore The Hills community, over its first 5 years of operation alone. These dedicated Board positions are detailed within our constitution which is publicly available. There has never been anything inappropriate about QIC’s incredible support of The Sanctuary. QIC should be celebrated for their contribution.

Q. Do we have transitional group housing for people with a drug and alcohol problem in The Hills?

A. I have no expertise in this area, so I can only rely on advice from our Local Area Command, who advise that there are group houses in The Hills that cater to this cohort of people. They hide in plain sight, for want of a better description. They are permissible already under our current planning controls.

The Transitional Housing framework I propose is separate from these controls and has been specifically created to deliver an entirely different stock of housing - a stock of housing known colloquially in the homelessness and domestic violence sector as “Transitional Housing” (as distinct from the term used by the NSW Government in their Planning Instrument known as Group Transitional Housing).

Q. Under the State Governments definition of Transitional Group Homes the type of people who can live in Transitional Group Homes is wider than people who are homeless and/or escaping domestic violence. It could include people with drug and alcohol addictions among others. Can it be guaranteed that the transitional housing generated from this framework is only used for women escaping Homelessness or Domestic Violence?

A. Yes. Whilst we can’t change the clunkiness of the part of governments planning instrument that we can use to bring this framework to life, or change the assigned definition of who this planning instrument could pertain to, we can absolutely ensure this framework only applies to women coming out of homelessness and/or domestic violence via the legal agreement between the Community Housing provider, the Developer and Council. The legal agreement should explicitly state that these homes are to be used only for women who have faced homelessness and/or domestic violence.

There was wide consultation prior to finalising this framework. Developers are happy to support this framework specifically for women and their children coming out of homelessness and domestic violence. Community Housing providers are happy to support the potential provision of a stock of housing for a growing cohort of women that they currently can’t satisfy. Women in this category are considered good and reliable tenants, and large developers are keen to support a solution for the crisis level of demand for safe and affordable housing for these women.

It would be explicitly stated in the legal agreement entered into between the Developer, the Community Housing provider and Council that this “home” is only to be used for women escaping homelessness and/or domestic violence. This legal agreement should be finalised and provided to Council before any approval is granted. It should be clear and provided upfront. This is important in mapping out the process. The additional incentivised apartments will only be granted through the clear agreement on the use and purpose of the transitional home within the legal agreement.

Any developer who wants to build housing for other cohorts outside of women and children escaping homelessness and domestic violence can do so using other planning instruments currently available to them. This is not a framework for them.
I have been advised that there is a concern that “undesirables” will benefit from this framework. Without a full understanding of what “undesirables” defines, I believe that this is an ambit claim, as the legal agreement will be explicit about the use of the premises and who it can be tenanted to - that is women escaping homelessness and/or domestic violence.

Q. Is there a guarantee that only women from The Hills will live in these facilities?

A. The Legal Agreement between the Developer, the Community Housing provider and Council should stipulate that local women escaping homelessness and domestic violence be prioritised, similar to the intake policy we have in place at The Sanctuary.
However, it is important to remember, as outlined in a previous question above, that there are important safety reasons as to why a woman would sometimes choose not to be located in her local community and we should not turn a woman away, if a transitional home is available, simply because she hasn’t had the advantage of living in The Hills community previously.

In addition, it may add some level of comfort for Councillors to learn that these type of legal agreements, or MOU’s, are standard for Community Housing Providers, who manage properties from an array of ownership such as privately owned properties, properties that they build themselves, properties they have purchased and government owned properties etc. The legal agreements that Community Housing providers enter into, as standard practice, cover off all concerns about rent, security, who is allowed to tenant the property, care of the premises and so on.

Indeed, Women’s Community Shelters have been successfully operating under long standing Agreements with Community Housing providers such as Link, Bridge, Wentworth and Evolve. This is part of WCS core business and they have significant experience operating in this space, should you require any further assurance. The (until now unsolvable) problem is the chronic shortage of supply, which is why the proposed Transitional Housing model to generate stock - at no cost - is so important to the sector - and vital to the outcomes for vulnerable women.

Q. How many of these “homes” do we even need in The Hills?

A. This question was asked by Council, during my term as Mayor, to Annabelle Daniel, CEO of Women’s Community Shelters, who advised that up to 40 Transitional Homes would meet the current need in our area.

Q. What if developers don’t even take this incentive up and it produces no transitional homes?

A. Isn’t it better to have a framework in place and no one take it up than not have the framework in place with organisations wanting to take it up, as is currently the case? In this instance, the framework is geared towards larger developers who are very keen to provide transitional housing, under this framework, to deliver on their shareholder-set corporate social responsibility targets.

Indeed the Urban Taskforce, which is a peak body with members including Multiplex, Meriton, Mirvac, Payce, Stockland, Lendlease, Aqualand and Woolworths, are supportive of this framework, as they advise are their members. It is highly unlikely that we will see no take up of this special incentive, but better to try than not.

Q. Shouldn’t this be a State Government responsibility?

A. Isn’t it the role of local government to meet the needs of its community? And, if it can do so at no cost to the ratepayers, no cost to the developer and no cost to taxpayers then we, should absolutely do all we can to facilitate delivering such a framework into our community.

The reality is that social housing (provided by the State Government) has a waiting list of up to 10 years - so this pathway is not a viable option for women transitioning out of homelessness or domestic violence. Indeed social housing creates a burden on the economy and taxpayers. My solution not only provides a vital hand-up (not a hand out) for vulnerable women, but it helps create a stable pathway for them to become economically independent citizens, rather than dependent upon welfare, at a significant cost to taxpayers.

If this framework is successful, it is likely to be picked up by State Government in the future with the Hills once again leading the way in the sector, and being lauded as a shining example of why local government is a truly relevant, innovative and valuable tier of government.

Q. Is the accommodation guaranteed to be free for tenants?

A. Whilst the property is provided free of charge to a community housing provider by a developer for a fixed period of time, the proposal has always been that rent would be charged that is proportionate to the income of the woman who is the tenant. This is an industry standard.

Importantly, transitional housing, under this framework, will be delivered into the sector at no cost to Council or its ratepayers, Government or taxpayers, Community Housing providers or the sector of domestic violence responders.

Q. Why is the period that the property is supplied for use as a transitional house 10 years?

A. A period of between 10 and 15 years was determined to be appropriate after consultation with community housing providers. After this period of time a property can become a financial burden on the community housing provider due to wear and tear, deterioration and increased insurance costs. The framework is designed to be a long term solution, with new homes being added to the pool perpetually, allowing for replenishment of cost effective (to the community housing provider), low maintenance stock.

Q. Shouldn’t people be told where these homes are because they might affect their safety and drive their property values down?

A. Firstly, households where domestic abuse is taking place are already sprinkled right throughout our community. There are several highly publicised and tragic cases from our own community in the past year alone. Our Local Area Command is highly supportive of this proposed framework, and have expressed that they feel any concern for safety of residents is entirely mitigated by the Police awareness of the locations of these homes and their ability to patrol and respond to any threat. They have advised that the threat risk in their expert opinion is low and very manageable.
Secondly, the women living in these homes are victims, not criminals, and should be afforded the courtesy of being treated as such. I have never heard of a case where a woman who has left domestic violence, has driven down the property price next door to her rental property - or indeed her purchased property, if she was in the position to buy.

I note that this concern is absent from the question further down suggesting that Council doorknock the community and ask home owners to donate their own properties to be used as Transitional Homes.

Q. Has the Hills Shire Council asked the State Government for funding to build transitional housing?

A. No. There is no requirement for ratepayer or taxpayer funding when this model can deliver transitional housing at no cost to our community or the State Government.

Q. Will transitional houses add to the burden of infrastructure in our community?

A. In a precinct such as Norwest, where this framework is deliberately targeted, there will be 30,000 new homes in coming years. An increase in yield of up to 40 transitional homes across this entire precinct will have an infinitesimal effect on the burden upon our infrastructure.

The framework was deliberately geared towards larger developments to ensure that the tiny increase in density that they would create remains concentrated in one area in our Shire, and would largely be unnoticeable. In addition, each of these dwellings would have Section 94 contributions levied against them to “pay their way”, therefore contributing to the upgrade of local parks, road infrastructure, community facilities and so on.

Q. Why can’t we get private philanthropy to solve the problem, like it did for the refuge property in Hawkesbury that was once a hotel?

A. Firstly this framework is not for supply of refuges or shelters, which are crisis accommodation and usually staffed around the clock. This framework provides for the vital missing “next-step” for women coming out of crisis accommodation.

The Hawkesbury service referenced is a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre that required government funding to establish. It is not Transitional Housing.

Secondly, philanthropy driven projects such as the example in the Hawkesbury are usually one-off acts of kindness. They are like lightning strikes. Very rare. (Although, I’m sure there might be more projects of this kind, if the right incentives existed.) The Hawkesbury model is unusual and requires the owner of the property to take on an extraordinary financial burden. There are very few people, no matter how generous, who would shoulder this financial responsibility, which is why it so seldom happens. The beauty of the Transitional Housing Framework is that it can generate a stock of housing fairly swiftly into the marketplace at no cost to anyone.

Also, women moving on from domestic violence want to live normal lives away from stigma. The idea of housing women altogether in one block, if that is what is being suggested, can be as much of a barrier to transitioning out of the cycle of violence as having no home to transition to in the first place. The Transitional Housing framework allows women to establish themselves with dignity and privacy, and live just as any other ordinary citizens in our community.

Finally the need in The Hills is for up to 40 transitional homes, and private philanthropy is highly unlikely to cover this need.

Q. Isn’t it irresponsible to put these homes next door to ordinary members of our community?

A. Again, the women who would reside in these homes are victims not criminals. They too are ordinary members of our community. As residents, we currently cannot choose who lives next door to us, in any case - whether they rent or buy. What might be irresponsible is not providing life-changing and potentially life-saving pathways for vulnerable women when it is in your power to do so, and do so responsibly and at no cost to ratepayers or taxpayers.

Q. Won’t this framework be as controversial in the community as the proposal for a Mosque at Glenhaven?

A. During their respective exhibition periods, the Transitional Housing proposal received 0 community objections, whilst in stark contrast the proposed place of worship at 1 Larapinta Place, Glenhaven received 1027 objections.

Q. Wouldn’t it be better if Council door knocked in the community and asked residents to donate the use of their empty properties as transitional homes?

A. This course of action would result in a cost to Council, for perhaps a very low level of success. Community Housing providers advise that the optimal stock to keep maintenance and insurance costs, and therefore rent, low is newer stock, and that continuity of supply for a minimum of 10 years is required. This cannot be guaranteed with the suggested course of action outlined in the question. It is highly unlikely an owner would be happy to provide their own home or investment property for free to a Community Housing provider for 10 years or more. Even if Council were to find an owner who is willing to provide their home under these circumstances, it is likely that the ongoing associated maintenance and insurance costs would render this property not viable. The necessary rental that may be required to be charged may not be affordable to women coming out of homelessness and/or domestic violence, entirely defeating the purpose.

Q. Should Council build a transitional home or a shelter instead of supporting this framework?

A. I could not support Council spending rate payers money to generate one transitional house or one shelter over supporting a framework that costs ratepayers nothing and can generate enough transitional housing stock to meet current demand.

The beauty of the proposed Transitional Housing framework is that doesn’t cost Council or Government anything at all, whilst being cost neutral to developers. It also delivers to Community Housing providers much needed stock, for a growing cohort, that it can not afford to finance itself.

Women’s Community Shelters, with some help from the Sanctuary, have worked to recently open new shelters in Sydney such as The Haven in the Nepean, and Bayside in Sydney. A new sister shelter will open soon in Parramatta and they are working with communities in Blacktown and the Hawkesbury amongst many other communities.

Most, if not all, of these new shelters will operate from a leased premises as it is far more cost effective than buying and/or building a premises. For example, for the price of one home in The Hills we could fully fund 5 shelters for a year. To be clear we are not supporting or advocating for Council spending of any ratepayers money in this fashion.

What the sector desperately needs is the missing “next step” for women moving on from their shelter stay - Transitional Housing. The framework I propose can deliver this vital missing stock of housing - and do so at no cost to Council, ratepayers, Government, taxpayers, community housing providers or developers.

As outlined above, Council can support the proposed Transitional Housing framework with the assurance that the stock is used only for women escaping homelessness and domestic violence, and that women from our community are prioritised for tenancy.

What is next?

I hope that I have provided all that Councillors require to revisit the proposed framework as a priority. For those who feel strongly supportive of this initiative please to sign, share and comment on this petition- or contact Councillors directly (see below).

Here is a list, taken from the Minutes of Council, of who supported the motion and who voted against it. Please note that whilst Councillor Tony Hay OAM was absent from this Council meeting, I have been advised that Clr Hay remains supportive of this framework.

Voting for the Motion:
Clr Dr Peter Gangemi (M: 0419 429 095 E: clr.gangemi@thehills.nsw.gov.au)
Clr Frank De masi (M: 0439 013 343 E: clr.demasi@thehills.nsw.gov.au)
Clr Ryan Tracey (M: 0419 429 217 E: clr.tracey@thehills.nsw.gov.au)
Clr Alan Haseldon (M: 0419 495 089 E: clr.haselden@thehills.nsw.gov.au)

Voting against the Motion:
Mayor Dr Michelle Byrne (M: 0448 268 140 E: mayor@thehills.nsw.gov.au)
Clr Robyn Preston (Ph: 9843 0555 E: clr.preston@bigpond.com)
Clr Brooke Collins (M: 0438 373 994 E: clr.collins@thehills.nsw.gov.au)
Clr Reena Jethi (M: 0439 008 173 E: clr.jethi@thehills.nsw.gov.au)
Clr Jacob Jackson (M: 0439 118 575 E: clr.jackson@thehills.nsw.gov.au)
Clr Mike Thomas (M: 0423 798 891 E: clr.thomas@thehills.nsw.gov.au)
Clr Elizabeth Russo (M: 0438 608 173 E: clr.russo@thehills.nsw.gov.au)
Clr Samuel Uno (M: 0438 248 085 E: clr.uno@thehills.nsw.gov.au)

Absent:
Clr Tony Hay OAM (M: 0414 482 000 E: clr.tonyhay@thehills.nsw.gov.au)

Thank you for your support.