Social housing tenant forced to cook in living room amid Victoria’s ‘broken’ complaints system, report says

<span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

A social housing tenant was left to cook in her living room while another was forced to shower at public facilities for months, an investigation into Victoria’s “broken” housing complaints system has found.

In a report tabled in parliament on Thursday morning, the state ombudsman, Deborah Glass, said the investigation had found a “broken complaint system”, prompting the need for a social housing ombudsman and changes to the law.

In one disturbing case raised by the ombudsman, a child sustained an electric shock that left her hospitalised after the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing failed to carry out requested maintenance.

“Renters told us they were given the run-around by too many people, all too busy to fix the problem,” Glass said in the report. “They told us about delays or an apparent unwillingness to do anything. Often they reached the point where they felt their health and safety were at risk.

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“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 dangerous neighbours not being dealt with, but most commonly, that nothing happened when they tried to complain.”

The ombudsman launched the investigation in response to the growing number of complaints and the Andrews government’s ambitious pledge to build more than 12,000 social housing units in the next four years. The government had previously been accused of significantly underfunding social housing.

According to the ombudsman’s report, the number of complaints lodged by tenants has risen each year since 2016, from 598 to 889 in 2021. Those complaints include issues raised in both public housing and community housing.

About 150,000 people in Victoria live in social housing, the umbrella term for public housing or community housing owned by non-profits.

Glass said that given the nature of social housing, those affected were the “most vulnerable in our communities” 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”.

In one of the cases highlighted by the report, a mother of three known as Hannah had contacted the ombudsman in 2021 after multiple unresolved maintenance issues, including urgent repairs.

Hannah had no electricity in the laundry or kitchen which left her unable to use her oven, so she cooked in the living room with an electric frying pan.

The ombudsman said child protection became involved because her children were not attending school, “partly because Hannah was unable to wash their clothing or dishes”.

In June last year, Hannah’s daughter “sustained a significant electric shock at home”, and she was concussed and had grazes requiring hospital admission, the report said.

Despite having made a formal complaint to her local housing office, Hannah said she had never been contacted and the department later told the ombudsman “it was unaware of the extent of the maintenance issues until child protection informed it Hannah’s daughter had been electrocuted”.

After intervention from the ombudsman, the family was moved into a safer home and the department apologised to the family, waived unpaid rent and linked Hannah with support services.

In another case study, Charlotte, who lived in community housing with a two-year-old son, was forced to shower at public facilities for three months due to plumbing problems that had flooded her house.

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Despite complaining to her community housing provider, the repairs had not been approved by the department.

After three months, Charlotte paid for a plumber out of her own pocket who unclogged the drain within minutes.

She later sought assistance from a community group which helped her apply to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which ruled the housing provider should pay her costs.

The report made 17 recommendations, such as the establishment of a two-tiered model for complaints.

It called for the department to hire more complaint handlers and boost advocacy services for community housing renters.

Complaints would be handled at the local housing level, but tenants could then escalate their complaint to a dedicated social housing ombudsman, which would act as the single external point for handling unresolved issues.

The report also noted there were inconsistencies between public and community housing complaint processes. It recommended law changes to allow community housing providers to be subject to the ombudsman’s jurisdiction, as well as and the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

Noting some tenants who spoke to the investigators had complained about the difficulty of dealing with antisocial tenants, it also recommended changes to strengthen the Residential Tenancies Act to address serious antisocial renter behaviour.

The department told the ombudsman it was “planning a review of the complaints process to ensure it is client-focused, contemporary and effective”.

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“The department agrees that there is a complexity to current complaints handling across social housing, which should be improved,” it said.

The Victorian Public Tenants Association chief executive, Katelyn Butterss, said the issues raised in the report were “similar to the issues our tenant advocates help residents with daily”.

“In the last year, their workload has increased by around 30%,” she said.

Butterss added that key issues such as poor quality dwellings and difficulties with neighbours will only be “holistically addressed when Victoria has an adequate supply of social housing homes”.

The Community Housing Industry Association chief executive, Sarah Toohey, said the ombudsman’s report “raised many of the same issues” as a regulatory reviewed launched by the government, but “not canvassed a full range of solutions”.

These included “improving mediation and alternative dispute resolution services at VCAT (Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal) while also retaining a clear legal pathway that protects tenants’ rights”.

The Victorian Greens leader, Samantha Ratnam, called on the government to adopt the ombudsman’s recommendations.

“This report highlights that the government must update the legislation that affords public and community housing residents their right to live in adequate housing,” she said.

A government spokesperson said it had commissioned an independent review of social housing regulation, which “includes an investigation into options for effective complaints management”.

“The government will consider both the ombudsman’s proposals and those made in the independent review.”