A state of disrepair – is Public Housing being left to rot?

A HAAG member and Public Housing Tenant reports from the front line of the Public Housing situation

Since the foundation of Homes Victoria in 2020, the quality of service-delivery to tenants has rapidly deteriorated. Housing offices have been whittled down to a shell of their former selves, while building maintenance has gotten so far behind as to turn houses into danger zones. COVID lockdowns were used as an excuse to dramatically downsize staffing levels at the local housing offices. Retirement packages offered across the Public Service also contributed to the exit of long-serving housing officers. Forget about popping in to your housing office to have a quick word with the officer responsible for your estate.

One central Melbourne housing office is apparently taking months to even review applications for the housing waiting list (Victorian Housing Register) as they only have three staff, hence those in desperate need of public housing can’t even get on the waiting list.

Coupled with short-staffing is a communication breakdown. If you’re fortunate enough to receive a response to your voicemail, email, letter or online complaint, you should probably buy a lottery ticket because it is your lucky day. Personally, I’ve had to resort to the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing’s (DFFH) complaint office but they are also understaffed so it can still take months for any resolution.

This failure to communicate is a serious breach of their service agreement and can be very stressful for tenants, particularly around rental payments. A member of my  tenant group was prevented from checking with her local office whether they’d received her paperwork as the call was diverted to a different location. Another tenant reported getting an eviction letter as she’d tried unsuccessfully to contact her housing officer for several weeks.

Last August households with fluctuating incomes received a letter from DFFH requesting an update of their income details. As income determines rent, it’s vital that when earnings decrease, the rents are adjusted to avoid hardship.

However, there were no subsequent rental adjustments. Our group reported that a ‘rebate embargo’ had occurred and staff were unable to update the information tenants had supplied via the rebate review forms, payslips and bank statements. I endeavoured to find out what on earth was going on; DFFH’s half-formed explanation was that the systems couldn’t cope with the information-overload (maybe they need to update their technology?).  I subsequently had to complete another rebate form due to this massive stuff-up. I’ve done my best to edit out all the blood, sweat and tears this episode entailed.

That’s just the administrative issues. On the ground Public housing maintenance is in a mess. All over Victoria tenants are forced to endure unsafe, unhealthy conditions due to long-standing negligence.
It’s hard to know where DFFH ends and Homes Victoria starts as we receive letters from both entities. Homes Victoria was created to oversee the estate redevelopments and seems to escape accountability for the shambles that public housing has become under its watch.

Tenants report pervasive mould and leaky buildings which take months to rectify, if at all, despite the impact on kids with asthma and other health conditions. Some are dealing with structural issues – wonky doors, houses that need restumping, gaping holes, major cracks, blocked plumbing, the list of unresolved complaints is endless.

A frequent, very frustrating pattern of behaviour from certain contractors is to falsely claim the tenants weren’t at home when they called – this practice enables them to avoid penalties for not doing jobs.

It used to be the practice for estates to receive major upgrades about every 12 years but my estate hasn’t received an overhaul of carpentry, flooring, painting and other major capital works for over 20 years. I’ve twice enquired via the Ombudsman – the response from DFFH/HV is a vague commitment that never materialises. When the lino or carpets are worn out or the kitchen cabinets are falling to bits, tenants can self-advocate but this is a tiring, often fruitless task.

Since moving in two years ago, one family has been dealing with a termite infestation that hasn’t been fully treated and continues to spread throughout the house destroying skirting boards and other wooden structures. A mutual friend tried to assist by referring the lack of action to the DFFH housing complaints office where the wheels dragged. Eventually the house was sprayed leaving gaping holes in a wall whilst other houses in the street were treated externally. A month ago, pest exterminators inspected the ongoing damage and told the tenants urgent action was required but then failed to return! The mother is exhausted and exasperated by the need to continually inform the Department that the problem persists persists and that their piecemeal solutions aren’t working. The family are also dealing with mould outbreaks which they treat but which reportedly caused the previous tenants to relocate.

In July 2022 the Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass released her report ‘Investigation into complaint handling in the Victorian social housing sector’. It was a damning critique of both the public and community housing operations. “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 is concerned that whilst the Big Housing Build is welcome, much of the $5.3 billion will go to community housing providers yet their complaints mechanisms are inferior to those in public housing. She described people’s experiences of the community housing complaints systems as a ‘patchwork’ subject to the individual providers, rather than there being a consistent framework or set of policies and practices across the sector.

The then Housing Minister, Danny Pearson, failed to publicly respond to the Ombudsman’s report. The new Minister, Colin Brooks, has launched a pilot program which involves tenants applying to become Rental Liaison Officers at pilot sites. This appears to be a distracting sideshow to the main event. Affected tenants have reported their serious maintenance issues to the Call Centre multiple times. We don’t need roving bands of tenants identifying minor repairs, we need a commitment to make public housing structurally sound, free of mould, termites and other hazards.

It's become clear to tenants that this entrenched neglect is intentional. Governments no longer wish to manage public housing. By reducing it to a basket case they can justify handing over tenancy management, and potentially the assets, to the community housing sector. Tenants deserve to have a voice in the future of their housing and we request that Minister Brooks engage directly with us in an open and democratic manner.