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‘Broken’ system puts Vic residents at risk

Victorian social housing residents are dealing with a broken complaints handling system that’s putting health and safety at risk, the state ombudsman says.

In a scathing assessment of the complaints process, Deborah Glass reveals a child suffered an electric shock in one residence after a series of complaints were ignored.

Residents are being given the run-around by too many people, all too busy to fix the problem, the ombudsman says of longstanding issues that require urgent reform.

“We were told of properties in dire need of repairs and woefully understaffed local housing offices,” Ms Glass wrote in the report tabled in state parliament on Thursday.

People were worried about unruly neighbours and a lack of maintenance making properties unsafe, but most commonly they were concerned nothing happened when they complained.

One renter named Hannah flagged multiple urgent maintenance issues and only received help after her daughter was concussed by a significant electric shock and hospitalised with grazes.

Without electricity in her kitchen or laundry, Hannah resorted to cooking in her living room with an electric frying pan, the ombudsman says.

Child protection became involved because Hannah’s children were missing school, in part because she couldn’t wash their clothes.

About 150,000 Victorians live in either public housing provided by the government or community housing run by registered organisations.

Qualms about both have increased in the past five years, with the complaints handling process the issue most frequently raised.

While the process for public housing residents was bad, the process for community housing renters was worse, the report found.

But public housing renters appeared more confident their complaints would eventually be dealt with.

Ms Glass recommends a two-tiered system to tackle the complaints handling issue.

The first tier would have frontline housing staff continue to deal with complaints, but with better resourcing and higher levels of support and training.

Under the second tier, a new social housing ombudsman, within the Victorian Ombudsman’s office, would serve as a single external escalation point for grievances.

She also recommended the government fund advocacy services and consider adding a right to housing to the Victorian Charter of Human Rights.

Change cannot come soon enough, Ms Glass says.

The state government is investing $5.3 billion in social and affordable housing, much of which will go to community housing run by non-profit organisations.

The Department of Families, Fairness and Housing has told the ombudsman it plans to review the complaints process, acknowledging it should be simpler to navigate.

The Housing Registrar has also accepted recommendations, including to develop guidelines on complaint handling and to strengthen performance standards.

Victoria’s Community Housing Industry Association said some recommendations overlapped with the government-commissioned independent Social Housing Regulation Review.

The Victorian government will consider both the ombudsman’s proposals and those stemming from the independent review.

“All renters in social housing, whether in public housing or community housing, should expect to be treated consistently and with respect, and have complaints managed effectively,” a state government spokesperson said.

The association is calling on the government to release the review in full.

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