Social housing renters failed by poor complaint handling systems, Ombudsman says

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Social housing plays a vital role for Victorians unable to afford private rents. About 150,000 people live in either public housing provided by the government or community housing run by registered community housing organisations.

Complaints about public and community housing had increased over the past five years, and of these, poor complaint handling is the most common issue raised, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass said.

The Ombudsman, who tabled her report in Parliament today, said that regularly and repeatedly renters in public housing reported a broken complaint system. They spoke of experiencing delays and an apparent unwillingness to fix the problem. Sometimes, they reached the point where they felt their health and safety were at risk. The report confirmed this has been a longstanding problem that requires urgent reform.

“We were told of properties in dire need of repairs and woefully under-staffed local housing offices. People worried about the lack of maintenance making properties unsafe, and unruly neighbours who were themselves not properly supported but most commonly, that nothing happened when they tried to complain,” Ms Glass said.

“Many renters and advocates have also told us that the complaint mechanisms available to community housing renters are inferior to those in public housing.

“Acknowledging that the Victorian Government is investing in social housing, much of it intended to go to community housing, I launched an investigation into whether the complaint processes for public and community housing renters are effective, fair and sufficiently renter-focused,” Ms Glass said.

“We found the different systems to be complex, confusing, under-resourced, and in many places, ineffective and inconsistent. While there is dissatisfaction in public housing, renters appear to be more confident that their complaint will eventually be dealt with. Whereas the landscape for community housing renters is a ‘patchwork’ where experiences vary greatly depending on individual housing providers.

“Inevitably with social housing, the most vulnerable in our communities are the most affected, and some of them are also among those least likely to complain, fearing reprisal or being unaware of their right to dispute official action or inaction.

“I propose a single two-tiered system for all social housing complaints, based on the principle of ‘local resolution, central escalation’, said Ms Glass.

In Tier 1, the focus on frontline housing staff resolving complaints locally would continue. But these staff would be better resourced, supported and trained. Internal appeal processes for unresolved complaints would be available for all social housing tenants and would be streamlined.

Tier 2 would be a single external escalation point for all unresolved housing grievances to a new Social Housing Ombudsman. Whether such a body should exist as a standalone entity is a matter for the Government; but in the absence of policy and financial commitments to create one, a specialist Social Housing Ombudsman function could be established quickly and efficiently within the Victorian Ombudsman’s office.

“The Victorian Government is making a substantial capital investment in social housing, but the impact of this will be years in the making. A tiny percentage of that investment, if spent now to better support frontline staff and upgrade complaint systems, would vastly improve renter experiences far sooner, and lead to real, long-overdue improvements in tenancy management services and renter satisfaction,” Ms Glass said.