Lisa lives in a property owned by social housing provider Onward Homes. She noticed that her rent seemed quite high, and wrote to the landlord to challenge it. Onward admitted that her property had been wrongly classified and that she had been overcharged on rent. They are arranging to refund the overpayment, going back to the start of Lisa’s tenancy in 2017.
The error arose because a storage room in Lisa’s property had been wrongly classified as an additional bedroom.
Lisa contacted SHAC in an attempt to alert other Onward tenants and residents about a weakness in Onward’s rent setting mechanism. While Onward has said that they will be “looking into” whether others are affected, they have not promised any review of, or changes to, their rent setting system.
Onward owns and manage over 35,000 homes, primarily concentrated in the North West. In Lisa’s case, the error resulted in overcharging of around £700 per year. Over four years, this will have amounted to nearly £3,000.
For example, if this error has been repeated in only half of Onward’s properties, it will have amounted to nearly £13 million in one year alone – and unlike Lisa, some tenants will have been paying rents considerably longer than four years. To place this in context, Onward’s operating surplus for 2020 was £29.7 million, and the organisation has revenue reserves of £388.5 million (Onward Homes Annual Report and Financial Statement 2020).
Chair of the Board Neil Goodwin should be calling for a full review of rents and a strengthening of internal financial controls.
Setting the right rent right is a fairly basic expectation of any housing association, and especially one as large as Onward. That they made this error in the first place, then failed to pick it up for four years suggests weaknesses in their internal financial controls. A refund is therefore a woefully inadequate response to what is a serious failure of oversight by the Onward board.
SHAC is encouraging all Onward tenants and residents to check their rent statements. Any concerns should be communicated to Rob Davies, Income and Financial Inclusion Manager, (T) 0300 555 0600, (Email) Customerfirstname.lastname@example.org.
*Lisa’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
24 June 2021