Falling through the cracks
A large amount of tenant complaints to the housing ombudsman are related to repairs. So what is going wrong? Jess McCabe investigates
If a social landlord has an unhappy tenant, the odds are that its repairs service is to blame.
Forget neighbourhood disputes and problems with the dustbins, grievances about physical faults with their homes are by far and away tenants’ biggest bugbear.
A detailed analysis of complaints to 117 social housing providers, conducted last year by benchmarking organisation HouseMark, is a powerful reminder of just how serious the issue is for landlords. It found that repairs and maintenance problems represented a staggering 76.7 per cent of all new complaints received by landlords between January and March 2011, the most recent data available.
The housing ombudsman bears this out - it finds that between 30 and 40 per cent of all the complaints it deals with are about repairs services.
Bizarrely, for such a serious issue there is very little research on why repairs are so consistently highly represented in the list of complaints.
But deputy housing ombudsman Rafael Runco thinks the reason is simple. ‘We are talking about people’s homes,’ he says. ‘One of the things that most affect us as human beings is the condition of our homes.’
David Connolly, assistant local government ombudsman, tells a similar story: ‘We get some [council tenants] who really feel that they’ve got nowhere else to go. There’s some underlying repair that’s seriously interfering with their life - they are not able to use a bedroom or there’s problems with the toilet. These sorts of things do impact quite heavily on family life.’
Driven to despair
By the time tenants have reached the stage of complaining to the ombudsman, they are often desperate or extremely annoyed. But, Mr Runco notes individuals’ reactions often depend upon their culture and personality. ‘Sometimes people who come to us presenting extraordinarily grave, serious cases and they’re incredibly calm and humble. If I was in the shoes of the complainer I would be all over the place. Part of this job is to deal with the whole range of human behaviour.’
Repairs and maintenance made up 39 per cent of complaints received in April to December last year by 66,000-home London & Quadrant - which publishes a detailed breakdown of grievances every year.
Lynn Humm, customer relations manager at L&Q, says at least there is something practical landlords can do to solve repairs problems. ‘If it’s to do with a contractor or a repair, we can rectify it,’ she states.
Boilers will always break down, and fixing them first time can probably never be guaranteed. Despite this, there is a question mark about whether some landlords are continuing to make the same mistakes too often. Otherwise, why would those complaints statistics remain so stubbornly high?
In an attempt to solve this conundrum we asked Mr Runco to trawl through the housing ombudsman’s files to identify the most common ‘fault lines’ that lead tenants with repairs and maintenance complaints to the watchdog’s doors. We also asked him to provide some advice to help nip the most common problems in the bud.
‘If there is a single underlying issue, it is poor communication between landlords and tenants,’ deputy housing ombudsman Rafael Runco states.
‘That is, errors in information provided, mismanaged expectations, failed appointments, unclear instructions or advice, lack of an audit trail and so on. Almost all cases we see present these recurrent communication problems.’
Mr Runco refers to one recent textbook case. Joyce’s* boiler broke down in the middle of the winter - a bad time to be without hot water. Understandably she wanted her landlord to fix it immediately - but that’s not what happened.
The landlord, a housing association, took months to complete the repair and stopped responding to her inquiries, during which time the boiler leaked, soaking the carpet and soft furnishings, lifting the laminate flooring, dampening walls, and damaging photos and documents. And, to add insult to injury, the flat began to smell.
For 42 days, if she wanted a hot shower, Joyce had to go to a friend’s house. She says she was left for 142 days living in a water-damaged flat.
She made an official complaint to the housing association, which reached the final stage, assessment by a semi-independent complaints panel. The panel agreed things had gone wrong, and offered £420 in compensation - or £10 for each day without hot water.
But Joyce was still unhappy and asked the ombudsman to investigate. While Joyce’s case is clearly the result of appalling service, the ombudsman was particularly unhappy with the way the landlord had communicated - or failed to communicate - with her.
It made this crystal clear when it found the landlord guilty of maladministration. It came to this conclusion partly because ‘the landlord rarely contacted Joyce to update her about action taken and did little to reassure her that the situation was being resolved,’ according to the ombudsman service’s notes on the case. It ordered the association to re-offer the £420, plus another £300 to compensate her for the distress and inconvenience she had experienced.
2. Poor co-ordination between the landlord and its agents
When it comes to repairs services, landlords and their contractors should ideally operate as one seamless body in the eyes of their customers. But, the ombudsman’s files reveal that on too many occasions the system is breaking down.
‘There must be a clear understanding of the respective obligations of landlords and the maintenance contractors they employ,’ says Mr Runco. ‘Many repair complaints seem to be caused by the originating problems falling in the grey areas between landlord and agent responsibilities.’
There are ways to avoid this. 36,800-home housing association Orbit last year redesigned its repairs contract to avoid confusion. David Collick, director of property services at Orbit East and South, explains the contractor’s pay is now linked to how well it does on a series of key performance indicators, such as how many repairs are done right first time, and customer satisfaction levels. Orbit East, rolled out the system last April and customer satisfaction has risen from 75 per cent to 88 per cent.
Phil Adams, chief executive of Greenfields Community Housing, which has its own direct labour organisation, argues that outside contractors would be working at a disadvantage if they were to take on the jobs currently done by the 8,550-home association’s in-house team. Gesturing to his arm, he says: ‘They don’t have a Greenfields tattoo like I do, and like 250-odd people who work for us do.’
Moreover, contractors may use sub-contractors themselves, adding extra steps where something could go wrong, notes Shaun Aldis, director of property management at 23,200-home arm’s-length management organisation Wolverhampton Homes, arguing there should be ‘a single point of responsibility for a job’.
3. A lack of co-ordination between technical and management staff
‘This is often a problem with voids, particularly when units are re-let on the understanding that they had been inspected and that any outstanding disrepair has been addressed before a new tenant moves in,’ notes Mr Runco.
‘But it subsequently transpires that the new resident finds problems soon into their occupation.’
Starting off on the wrong foot is a major cause of complaint, whether tenants are moving into a void or a newly built home, or, as in the recent case of Jane and Randolf*, swapping homes with another tenant under a mutual exchange programme.
When this couple, who contacted the ombudsman service, arrived at their new house, they quickly realised it was certainly no place like home. It had been wrecked: the kitchen was flooded and the cupboard doors removed. It was so bad they opted to stay in a hotel for two nights while the property was fixed.
Mr Runco says that cases like this often end up destroying tenants’ faith in their landlord for good.
‘It is likely to colour how the tenant perceives the professionalism and care they are likely to receive in the future from the people who manage their homes,’ he adds.
4. Referring claims to insurers
Calling in the insurers to assess claims for damages, for example when repair work has caused damage, presents another potential for breakdown.
‘Landlords ought to be aware and understand that the liability under insurance terms, a matter between them and their insurers, may be different from their liability under statute and contract towards the tenants,’ says Mr Runco says.
Landlords should assess whether they need to pay compensation based on their own responsibilities, and then make a claim themselves if they think the cost might be covered by their insurance.
Practice is getting better on this score, says Mr Runco, but on occasion tenants are still wrongly being asked to make a third party claim on the landlord’s insurance.
In Orbit’s case, Mr Collick says the association’s first move is to ensure tenants are not left out of pocket. In a recent case, for example, a burglary just before Christmas meant tenants had to spend a few nights in a hotel while police investigated. So Orbit paid the hotel bills first, without waiting to hear if it was covered by insurance.
5. Tenant cashback
In the future, tenants carrying out repairs and maintenance themselves is likely to be a bigger issue, suggests Mr Runco, because of the government’s new tenant cashback scheme, which allows tenants to receive payment for work they’ve carried out on their home.
He asks: ‘What happens when it goes wrong? Who is responsible what?’
Disputes might arise, he warns, when the quality of the work may result in the need for further, and perhaps more extensive than otherwise, action by landlords to make things good.
‘Landlords will need to set out simple and unambiguous rules for the implementation of these provisions,’ Mr Runco adds.
*Names have been changed or withheld because cases dealt with by the ombudsman are confidential
How to complain
When a housing association tenant has a repairs and maintenance complaint, they must first exhaust their landlord’s complaints process.
Housing associations usually have a three-step complaints process, ending with the case being heard by a semi-independent panel made up of people who are not directly involved in the issue at hand - often including non-executive board members.
At the moment, tenants can then directly approach the ombudsman to start off the process. But this is all changing from April 2013, when the Localism Act comes into force, and tenants will have two options: wait eight weeks after complaining and approach the ombudsman directly, or they can be referred by a local councillor, the landlord’s tenants’ panels, or an MP.
At this point, the housing ombudsman will also take over complaints from council tenants, currently dealt with by the local government ombudsman.
There are some exceptions: for example, the ombudsman can take the case immediately if they’re satisfied that a councillor refused to refer the tenant on.
Once a complaint is received, the ombudsman will decide whether or not to open a case. In the 2010/11 financial year, the housing ombudsman received 5,662 complaints, but opened just 599 investigations.