Mouldy, unsafe homes are a product of the breakdown in trust of landlords
Michael Gove launched a campaign to make it easier for social tenants to complain to the housing ombudsman. But without further funding, the ombudsman risks being overwhelmed, writes Elena Siniscalco
Reports black mould and it hasn’t been fixed? UNACCEPTABLE” reads the new government’s campaign about social housing complaints. It’s all about giving tenants the ability to quickly and easily make complaints about repairs, maintenance, or health and safety works.
“It’s now easier to make things right”, it says.
But is it really?
In October last year, the government removed a step from the process – the so-called democratic filter. Tenants no longer have to first go to their local MP or councillor before contacting the housing ombudsman. Now, tenants can complain first to their landlord – the housing association or the council – and if they’re unhappy with the response they can go directly to the ombudsman.
Instead of making it faster to find a resolution, it has overloaded the ombudsman. An email from the ombudsman to a tenant seen by City A.M. acknowledges they’ve been left waiting for more than 12 months. “I can assure you that these delays are not singular to your case but are being experienced across the board as a result of the increased demand for our Service”, says the email.
The difficulty in getting problems fixed – be they mould or electricity cuts – if you live in social housing has roots more than a decade old. With the “bonfire of the quangos” in 2010, the government replaced the social housing regulator – back then called Tenant Services Authority – with a new one. Its new role was “much more about making social landlords well governed and funded rather than a focus on consumer standards”, says James Prestwich, director of policy and external affairs at the Chartered Institute of Housing. Fast forward thirteen years, and social housing is in a dire state – with many stuck in unsuitable homes. Housing associations might have deeper pockets, but the shift in priorities was definitely not worth it.
Tenants have different complaints, but say they face the same problems: they feel ignored as staff from housing associations arrive late to meetings or are unresponsive, they wait years to get things fixed, or even have to pay to fix them themselves. Is it now easier to “make things right” for them? “It’s simply untrue”, says one tenant. “I have to laugh”, says another.
Several tenants up and down the country have been through multiple complaints processes. They claim they are paying for maintenance services themselves, but can’t afford to take legal action to force their landlord to reimburse them. And legal action doesn’t always change the timeline. “Some of the social landlords would not respond, or drag it out, or defend their case and that takes another few months”, says Giles Peaker, partner at Anthony Gold Solicitors. “The impact it has on you mentally…It starts to break you”, says a woman who describes her social rented flat in Ealing as “hell since the moment I got there”.
The debate on tenants’ Facebook groups is often borderline toxic. The relationship between tenants and social landlords has been almost fatally undermined – with some tenants claiming their housing association spies on them through social media, and housing associations’ staff lamenting abuse online. A tenant-landlord relationship based on trust is what made social housing a great public asset during the last century. That relationship has broken.
The government knows it, and is trying to act. The Social Housing Bill, making its way through Parliament, will provide the regulator with additional powers to issue unlimited fines on rogue landlords and make emergency repairs with landlords footing the bill. A spokesperson for the Department of Levelling Up also notes that the ombudsman can now charge increased subscription fees paid by providers to be part of the complaints process. Ultimately, the government’s strategy could be based on a risky bet: they hope that when new regulation comes through, an empowered regulator will be able to force landlords to act before things escalate to the ombudsman. “Tenants don’t want to go through complaints procedures, they want their landlords to act”, says Blase Lambert, chief executive of the Confederation of co-operative housing. Not every landlord is a bad landlord, but recent history taught us many haven’t been taking their duty of care seriously.
The “make things right” campaign is part of a broader effort from Michael Gove to look tough on bad agents in housing. On a political level, it makes sense for a Secretary of State facing down developers over Grenfell cladding. But it makes less sense to people who have been living with mould creeping through their homes, pest invasions that won’t go away and leaks turning their flats into swamps. For them, advertising won’t make their home safe or restore trust with their landlord.