Improving social housing security for Victorians through fairer dispute resolution

3 Aug 2022

On 7 July 2022, the Victorian Ombudsman tabled a report in Parliament on the Investigation into complaint handling in the Victorian social housing sector, following extensive consultation with renters, advocates, and the sector during 2021.

The Victorian Ombudsman found that the current social housing complaints system is not working, and makes 17 recommendations to improve complaint processes and renter experience in both public and community housing.

Drawing on 20 years of experience running Victoria’s specialist legal service for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, we believe that the recommendations in the report, coupled with the outcomes from the Social Housing Regulatory Review, present an important opportunity to protect social housing renter rights and keep more renters safely housed.

In particular, we welcome the Ombudsman’s recommendations that aim to improve complaint processes and renter experiences in both public and community housing, many of which directly reflect our own evidence and recommendations including calls to:

1. Make dispute resolution processes more fair, accountable, and accessible

Currently, the complaint and appeal mechanisms for public and community housing are separate, and largely inaccessible to renters – making it harder for people to enforce their rights and resolve disputes.

The Victorian Ombudsman has proposed the establishment of a single, two-tiered system for all social housing complaints, based on the principle of ‘local resolution, central escalation’. This includes the creation of a new Social Housing Ombudsman function within the Victorian Ombudsman’s office. This would provide a single, external escalation point for all unresolved housing disputes, providing early resolution of complaints and simplifying the complaints process.

2. Better protect renters’ human rights in all social housing

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) is critical when it comes to protecting the human rights of social housing renters, particularly around evictions. We frequently engage in negotiations with public and community housing rental providers to prevent evictions into homelessness based on the Charter.

We welcome the Ombudsman’s recommendation that community housing providers are bound by the Charter, as well as consideration of a right to housing in the Charter which would give effect to the Government’s acceptance of that recommendation from the 2015 Access to Justice Review.

3. Focus on prevention and early intervention through access to supports

Through our work, we know that most renter issues in social housing are resolvable with the right supports. By focusing on prevention, we can ensure people stay in housing and stop homelessness before it starts.

We welcome the Victorian Ombudsman recognition of the role of consumer bodies, community legal centres, and other advocacy services to support social housing renters, as well as better support of the social housing workforce. Access to integrated legal services for social housing renters will ensure that complaints can be resolved earlier, resulting in greater tenancy sustainment and renter wellbeing.

In addition to the recommendations in the Victorian Ombudsman’s report, we note that the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) plays a significant role in resolving renter disputes. In order to ensure a fair complaints system for social housing renters, there need to be clear pathways to VCAT where appropriate, including advocacy and legal support to navigate VCAT, as well as jurisdiction for VCAT to consider Charter rights.

For more information on our recommendations, read our submission to the Social Housing Regulatory Review.

Read our submission